Sept. 7, 2011
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in an ongoing series on UND.com, spotlighting the 2011 Notre Dame fall sports season with both written and video previews. Today, we take a look at the Fighting Irish men's and women's cross country teams, both of which return a large contingent of young talented runners aiming to help Notre Dame make a big splash on the national stage in 2011.
Both Notre Dame cross country teams battled through early growing pains to turn in solid campaigns in 2010, with the Fighting Irish men finishing third at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional and 25th at the NCAA Championships, while the women just missed an NCAA finals berth after taking sixth-place honors at the Great Lakes Regional.
Now a year older and wiser, the core groups from both teams will look to lead Notre Dame to the next step back up the ladder of national prominence in 2011.
With six of the top seven runners returning from a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional, the Notre Dame women's cross country squad has high hopes for the upcoming 2011 season, as it looks to return to the NCAA Championships for the 10th time since 2001.
Tracy finished 37th at last season's BIG EAST Championship, after placing 45th as a freshman. She also competed at the NCAA East Regionals last season in the 1,500 meters.
The Irish claimed three freshmen in the top five at the NCAA Great Lakes Regionals last season as Meg Ryan, Alexa Aragon and Kelly Curran all return for their sophomore campaigns. Ryan leads the group after finishing 29th at last season's BIG EAST Championship.
"All three runners had strong track seasons, so we are hoping that they'll be at a different level than they were as freshmen," said head Irish women's cross country coach Tim Connelly.
Notre Dame also returns a key member from its 2009 team in junior Jessica Rydberg, who missed all of the 2010 season with an injury. Rydberg claimed All-American status as a freshman in the 10,000 meters and placed 33rd in the 2009 BIG EAST Championships.
Overall, the Irish return 20 runners from last year's team, and welcome eight newcomers. Seven of the returning runners competed at last year's BIG EAST Championship, while four of those runners placed in the top five and scored points for Notre Dame. A balanced roster shows seven seniors, four juniors and nine sophomores to go along with a talented freshman class composed of eight runners.
Among the freshmen expected to compete immediately are Emily Frydrych and Karen Lesiewicz, both who have won the mile race in track and field in their respective states. Frydrych, who arrives from Wilmington, Del., won the mile last season, while Lesiewicz, who comes to South Bend from Schaumburg, Ill., won the mile in 2009.
Among the key losses for the Irish is the graduated Erica Watson, who finished 33rd at the BIG EAST Championship last season.
Welcoming back four of the five individuals that scored at the BIG EAST Championship and six of the nine runners that competed at the meet, the Notre Dame men's cross country squad has lofty expectations for the 2011 season.
"Our goal this year as it is every season is to do exceptionally well in the BIG EAST and NCAA meets," said head coach Joe Piane, who is entering his 37th year at the helm of the Irish program. "We will look for consistency from our runners to help reach our goals."
The Irish, who are looking to make their 21st appearance in the NCAA Championship field in 28 years, will turn to the senior leadership of five runners who have plenty of BIG EAST experience. Seniors Jeremy Rae, Jordan Carlson, Kelly Lynch, Joseph Miller and Johnathan Shawel all are preparing to help the Irish improve upon last season's fifth-place finish at the BIG EAST Championship.
Rae finished 26th last season in his first BIG EAST Championship meet, while Lynch placed 57th in his first appearance. Lynch is returning from injury, but showed great promise during track and field season, running a nine-minute flat time in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Piane also praised J.P. Malette, Martin Grady and Walter Schafer for strong efforts over the summer months. Grady is the team's leading returner from last season, placing 20th at the BIG EAST Championship meet. Malette didn't run for the cross country team last season, but competed in the NCAA East Regionals with the track and field squad in the 1,500-meter run.
Looking to help out the team in their first season of action will be eight freshmen. Piane pointed out Johnny Fuller, a state champion cross country runner from Iowa, as well as Jake Kildoo and Christopher Quinn as three to watch out for during the upcoming season.
The men's team boasts 26 returnees and nine newcomers, including transfer Patrick Lesiewicz. Six of the runners competed at the BIG EAST Championship, with four scoring. The roster shows a young squad with 21 of the 35 members of the team being underclassman.
Among the losses from last year include Dan Jackson, who finished 12th at the BIG EAST meet and fourth at the Great Lakes Regional meet to earn first team all-BIG EAST accolades and all-region honors. Also closing out their Notre Dame careers were Mat Abernethy and Ryan Gamboa, who each ran at the BIG EAST Championship, but did not score for the Irish.
The Irish finished third out of 31 teams at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional last season to advance to the NCAA Championships, where they finished 25th.
The schedule increases in intensity as the season goes along, and starts with familiar meets in the Crusader Invitational (Sept. 2), National Catholic Invitational (Sept. 16) and the Notre Dame Invitational (Sept. 30).
The women's squad has won the Valparaiso University-hosted Crusader Invitational for four consecutive seasons, while the men's team has won it two years in a row.
Meet two marks the 32nd running of the National Catholic Invitational at Notre Dame for the men's team and the 28th running for the women's program. The women's team has won the meet nine straight years, while the men's team is on a two year winning streak.
The highly competitive Notre Dame Invitational has been run every year since 1956 on the men's side and 1987 on the women's side. The men last claimed the title in 2007, while the women last won in 2003.
The Irish head to Madison, Wis., on Oct. 14 for the Wisconsin Invitational. Both the Notre Dame Invitational and the Wisconsin Invitational offer the Irish their first chance at seeing some of the top teams in the Great Lakes Region.
The BIG EAST Championships are slated for Oct. 29, and will be held in Louisville, Ky. Last year the men finished fifth out of 14 teams, while the women placed sixth out of 16 squads.
As always, the championship promises to be highly competitive on the women's side as defending national champion Villanova returns along with fourth place Georgetown, ninth place Providence and 10th place Syracuse. Connelly also expects strong teams from West Virginia and Connecticut, making the BIG EAST as strong as it has ever been.
The men's championship will feature six teams that finished from 14 to 29 at the NCAA National Championship, including Notre Dame, who finished 25th.
The NCAA Great Lakes Regionals will be on Nov. 12, in Toledo, Ohio, while the NCAA Championships will return to Terre Haute, Ind., for the eighth consecutive year on Nov. 21.