Sep 4, 2013
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Coming off a 2012 season where both of the University of Notre Dame men's and women's cross country squads advanced to the NCAA Championship, big expectations surround both programs as many key veterans return for the 2013 campaign.
The move to the Atlantic Coast Conference brings new challenges and new rivalries, but both teams appear to be up to the test. Guiding them will be seasoned veterans Joe Piane (men) and Tim Connelly (women). These two coaches welcome back 10 runners (six men, four women) that ran at the NCAA Championship meet. A whole host of talented underclassmen will look to fill spots and help the team out as the season goes along.
Last year the women finished 15th at the national meet, their best showing since 2005, while the men placed 28th without standout Jeremy Rae. At the last BIG EAST Championship, the men's squad placed third with the women taking fifth. At the Great Lakes Regional meet the teams flipped results, but both earned at-large spots in the field based on successful regular seasons.
Now a year older the Irish look to make a good first impression on an ACC that is filled with talented programs and runners on their way to improved finishes at both the Great Lakes and NCAA competitions.
MEN'S CROSS COUNTRY
Under the leadership of the 38-year veteran Piane, the men's cross country squad brings back all six runners from last year's NCAA Championships and the track and field All-American in Rae, who missed last year's NCAAs with an injury.
"I think it has the potential to be a very good year," said Piane. "Everyone that returns from last year's core group got better during the track and field season. Jeremy (Rae) finished second in the 1,500m at the World University Games. Martin (Grady), Walter (Schafer), Jake (Kildoo), DJ (Thornton) and J.P. (Malette) all improved during the track season and into summer. This list doesn't even include the sophomores that didn't run last year and the incoming freshmen. We have a deep team with 14 or 15 guys that could eventually help us out throughout the season."
At the top of the lineup are all-BIG EAST standouts Rae (3rd), Grady (9th) and Malette (14th). Grady (9th) and Malette (23rd) went on to earn all-Great Lakes Region accolades along with Schafer (18th). Rae was injured in the region meet and was forced to miss the national championships and the indoor track and field season while recovering.
"Jeremy (Rae) realizes he has only two seasons of eligibility left (cross country and indoor track and field) and I know he has lofty goals for himself," said Piane. "Jeremy could easily be an All-American in cross country and help propel his team to the top three at the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) meet. Martin (Grady) has been to the NCAAs in cross country and track and field and is just a good all-around distance runner. I expect big things out of him this year. With Walter (Schafer), I think this could finally be his year. He is finally healthy and had a terrific summer of training."
Veterans Kildoo and Thornton also return good experience as both ran at all three postseason meets last year, with Kildoo claiming 22nd at the BIG EAST meet and Thornton taking 42nd in the 114-runner field.
Sophomores Timothy Ball, Michael Clevenger and Kevin Durham only ran at the two home meets, but are expected to compete more in their second year in the program. All three turned in top-25 finishes at the National Catholic Championships.
With so much talent returning, the Irish look to make a run for a title in a deep ACC.
"The great thing about distance running is that there are no limits," said Piane. "There is a real relationship between the amount of work that you put in and the results you get. Our guys can be as good as they want to be."
WOMEN'S CROSS COUNTRY
The Irish women's team brings back four runners from their impressive 15th place finish at the NCAA Championship, but loses track and field All-American Rebecca Tracy to graduation.
However, 25-year veteran Connelly feels like the Irish have the ability to be a better team.
"The goal for us is to get better every year," said Connelly. "We lost Rebecca, who was an outstanding runner and leader, but everyone that is returning has gotten better from last year."
Connelly immediately pointed to senior Alexa Aragon, who was injured leading into last year's cross country season but went on to All-America campaigns in both indoor and outdoor track and field, senior Kelly Curran, who made great strides on the track after being one of the team's top cross country runners in 2012 and Molly Seidel, who was healthy for only a couple of months all of last season but has trained well since June.
Curran earned all-BIG EAST and all-region honors last year before finishing 100th out of 253 runners at the NCAA meet. Aragon earned all-region accolades and then placed 98th at the NCAA Championships, while Seidel earned all-region honors after overcoming an injury that kept her from training most of the summer leading into her freshman campaign.
Aragon and Curran also provide good leadership for the team.
"Both Alexa (Aragon) and Kelly (Curran) understand what it takes to compete at a really high level," said Connelly. "The expectations they have for themselves and everyone else are really high.
Other top returnees include Gabby Gonzales and Hannah Eckstein, who both saw action in the postseason. Gonzales ran at BIG EAST and NCAAs, while Eckstein competed at BIG EAST and the region meet. Both turned in top-25 showings at the conference meet before Eckstein placed 22nd at the region meet and Gonzales finished second on the team and 97th overall at NCAAs.
Aragon's sister, Dani, is ready for her sophomore campaign after earning All-America honors with the distance medley relay team during the indoor track and field season. The younger Aragon has had a good summer of training and is expected to be a big addition to the team after competing in a handful of meets last year, finishing 25th at the BIG EAST Championship.
A pair of freshmen in Taylor Driscoll and Gabrielle Thivierge could be set to compete right away. Some of the many accomplishments of this pair include a ninth-place finish by Driscoll at the 2012 Nike Cross Country Nationals and a fifth-place finish at the Michigan DI high school cross country meet by Thivierge.
"Gabrielle (Thivierge) had a really good high school career," said Connelly. "The thing that impressed me about her is that she always ran her best race at the big meets like the state championships. She is a really good competitor and I think once she figures out what we're doing here she'll respond and compete really well.
"Taylor is from a great high school program. She is from the same high school as former Irish All-American Lindsey Ferguson and has competed at a high level for a very long time."
With all this talent on the roster, Connelly's main focus is developing runners that can compete with anyone in the country.
"Last year we didn't have someone that could be near the front of a big meet," said Connelly. "We were great at pack running as evidenced by the group we had that were all within a couple seconds of each other at the NCAA meet. However, this year I think we have the potential to have three to four runners that could all be impact people."
If Connelly and the Irish can develop those impact runners, Notre Dame's first year in the ACC should be one to remember.
Despite the University of Notre Dame joining the ACC this season, the 2013 men's and women's cross country schedule looks very similar to previous years - with one exception. Instead of heading to the Northeast for the BIG EAST Championship meet, the Irish will head to the Southeast for the ACC league meet.
The first ACC meet in program history takes place Friday, Nov. 1 in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Wake Forest playing host.
"It's a spectacular conference," said Piane. "On the men's side you have NCAA Championship teams Florida State, Virginia Tech, Duke, Virginia and N.C. State. Florida State finished fifth at the national meet, while Virginia Tech won the ACC meet. Then you add in Syracuse, who won the BIG EAST last year, and us and you have six teams that competed in the 31-team NCAA field. That's pretty remarkable."
"Our transition to the ACC is easier than most Notre Dame teams," said Connelly. "Our schedule is exactly the same minus one meet. Plus we compete against a lot of these teams at the Notre Dame Invitational, in Wisconsin and at NCAAs. We are going from one really good cross country conference to another and we are looking forward to the challenge."
Following the league meet, the Irish head to Madison, Wis., for the NCAA Great Lakes Regionals Friday, Nov. 15. Last year the women took third and the men placed fifth to earn at-large invitations to the NCAA Championship.
The NCAA meet makes its return to Terre Haute, Ind., and the LaVern Gibson National Championship Cross Country Course after one year away. The course has played host to elite teams and runners in nine of the last 10 seasons. This year's meet is slated for Saturday, Nov. 23.
"What we try to do with our schedule is compete in some big meets that can help us get at-large points in order to qualify for the NCAA Championship meet," said Piane "This year we have three of those sort of meets on the schedule - the Notre Dame and Wisconsin Invitationals and the ACC Championships. We structure the schedule every year with this idea in mind. Last year the men's team wouldn't have gotten in the field without those at-large points."
Notre Dame's regular season looks the same as the last several before it. The Irish open up with the Crusader Invitational in Valparaiso, Ind., Friday, Sept. 6, before playing host to the annual National Catholic Championships (Friday, Sept. 20) and the Notre Dame Invitational (Friday, Oct. 4). Both meets will be at the Notre Dame Golf Course, which is the on-campus nine-hole course that was formerly called the Burke Golf Course.
The National Catholic Championships have been run every year since 1980 on the men's side and 1984 on the women's side.
A staple since 1956 on the men's side and 1987 on the women's side, the Notre Dame Invitational routinely welcomes in many of the nation's elite programs.
The Irish wrap up the regular season at the Wisconsin Invitational (Saturday, Oct. 19). The elite meet welcomes in some of the best teams in the country year in and year out. Last year the Irish women placed 12th, while the men's squad took 26th.
-- Russell Dorn, Assistant Media Relations Director