Sept. 6, 2007
NOTRE DAME, Ind. - The 2006 men's cross country season finished third at the BIG EAST conference and second at the Great Lakes regional to catapult them into another NCAA Championship. But it was the disappointing finish at the end of the season that has left the Fighting Irish runners hungry for more.
"We did not run well at the NCAA Championships and I think that those people who have returned from that team have a terribly bitter taste in their mouth," Piane said reflecting on 2006. "I believe they've learned from their mistake. They all went on to have good track seasons, so I think they were really motivated by not performing to the level that they should have."
Three of the five-member 19th-place NCAA Championships team return to the course this season and will be joined with other standout runners, both returning veterans and incoming freshmen. Dealing with the loss of number one runner Kurt Benninger, Piane expects junior Patrick Smyth (Salt Lake City, Utah/Judge Memorial) to lead team throughout the season.
"There's no doubt our lead returnee will be Patrick Smyth," Piane said. "He is the highest returnee we have back from the NCAA championship and he is an All-American in outdoor track. I'd be naïve to think he isn't tabbed the number one guy, but right behind him we have Jake Watson (Stillwater, Minn./Stillwater Area) and Jake Walker (Ellwood City, Pa./Lincoln) to step up as well."
Filling the Benninger hole will be a large one, but with Smyth up for the challenge and veteran teammates Watson and Walker there is a chance for Piane in his 33rd season to watch experienced runners return and lead fresh, young talent. Both Watson and Walker come off strong track and field seasons, with Watson returning with All-America honors after placing 10th in the mile at the indoor NCAA Championships with a time of 4:03.97.
Others Piane would like to see improve on the season include seniors Mike Popejoy (Wheaton, Ill./Warrenville South) and Brett Adams (Davenport, Iowa/Assumption). Each returns as top runners for the team, but with the big loss of Benninger, he knows without a doubt both will have to become significant members of the team to help fill that void.
"We've got the depth of our returnees mixed with the talent of our young incoming freshman," Piane commented. "Together with returnees improving and freshman learning, we should have a good team, just like we have been for decades, ever since Knute Rockne started the program."
On the women's side of the table, the story is similar, except for one detail; there are no holes to fill. The Irish squad returns the top nine runners from the 2006, including senior Sunni Olding (Minster, Ohio/Minster) who was the number one runner throughout the entire season. The beginning of the season has a much different feel for the team as the all return with experience, compared to last season where out of all the returnees, only one had NCAA Regional experience.
Now with the women's team stacked, head coach Tim Connelly will make the transition from reloading a team to returning the team to success.
"This year we have to get back in the mindset of winning the BIG EAST, winning the regional meet and getting back the NCAA meet," Connelly said. "Last year we were learning and this year we should be ready to go."
With Olding returning for her senior year, Connelly will look to her to once again lead the group of women. After redshirting the track season to recuperate from injuries, Olding looks to start the season healthy and ready to go.
Also back for the Irish are seniors Amy Kohlmeier (Sarnia, Ontario/St. Patrick's) and Ann Mazur (Pittsburgh, Pa./Seton-LaSalle). Both came on late in the season, earning all-BIG EAST honors, coming in third and second, respectively, for Notre Dame at the BIG EAST Championship. Connelly is looking for that kind of success once again from the two veterans, but more consistently throughout the entire season.
"We've got a really good blend," Connelly said. "Last year we were in a situation where we really had no experience. Sunni (Olding) was the only one who really had any experience and it took the whole season to really grow, but now they return this season having made those improvements, to now having a lot of experience."
Adding to the blend of experience are incoming freshmen Marissa Treece (Maple City, Mich./Glen Lake) and Theresa Cattuna (Cherry Hill, N.J./Cherry Hill East), both of which Connelly thinks could have immediate success with the Irish. Treece was a four-time cross country state champion in Michigan.
"She (Treece) is a really talented kid who can come in right away and make an impact," Connelly projected. "Theresa Cattuna is another girl who I think can really come in and make an impact as well. They've both got the potential to contribute immediately in their freshmen seasons."
Both the men's and women's cross country teams will open up the 2007 cross country season as they set out for the Valparaiso Crusader Cross Country Invitational on Friday, Sept. 7 in Valparaiso, Ind.
The women will start off the meet at 5 p.m. (CT) with the men's race to follow with a start time of 5:45 p.m. (CT). The Irish men return to the Valparaiso meet as three-time defending champions, while the women look for a championship after taking second in the meet in 2006. Both teams will be sending young talent to the meet, looking to get some competition underway for the 2007 season.