Sept. 24, 2004
By Alan Wasielewski
Each fall, the Notre Dame men's and women's cross country teams play host to two meets at the Burke Memorial Golf Course. Run on Friday evenings, both meets have been dominated by the Irish over the last 10 years.
Both squads have also combined for four top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championship over the last four years as well. Notre Dame's cross country program is a hidden gem among the Irish athletic teams and distance runner Molly Huddle might be the crown jewel of the collection.
A 5-4 junior from Elmira, N.Y., Huddle's excellence on the cross country course and track came be summed up in one number - six. That is six All-America honors in two years, making Huddle the most decorated athlete, in terms of All-America honors, in Notre Dame women's athletic history (the most all-American honors is nine by 2001 graduate and distance runner Ryan Shay). It's a good bet that Huddle could eclipse that mark.
You could say that Huddle found the perfect sport for her, but you would be wrong. Distance running, though a tradition in her family, ended up finding her.
"I wanted to be good at a sport that was a little more fun," Huddle says.
"I didn't like distance running very much until I started to do well. Then I fell in love with it."
Huddle's father, Robert, is a '69 graduate of Notre Dame and made sure that his daughter kept her concentration on distance running.
"He kept me involved in the sport because he saw my potential," Huddle says.
Huddle will admit that cross country is her favorite event, playing to her leg strength instead of the quick feet track demands. Her father played an important role in her development in the sport.
The Notre Dame alumnus, along with the current Notre Dame star, developed the cross country program at Notre Dame High School. The high school did not have a cross country team, so Robert created one. It was a one-woman team made up of just his daughter. It also was a one-woman team that won every race of the season, including the conference, state and regional crowns.
Winning a state crown demands the attention of college coaches. Finishing fourth in the prestigious Footlocker National Championships (a measuring stick for prep standouts) gives that attention legitimacy. There was little doubt, however, of Huddle's eventual college choice.
"I have to be honest, I always thought I would go to Notre Dame," Huddle says.
"It was where I imagined myself. I tried to be unbiased when looking at schools, but it was no surprise when I decided to come to Notre Dame."
Huddle's coach, Tim Connelly was glad to see Huddle arrive on campus.
"She has everything she needs to be successful," Connelly says.
"A great work ethic, natural ability and competitiveness. She has it all. "
Huddle quickly lived up to any hype she might have built up during her prep career. She finished fourth in her first collegiate race, the 2001 Notre Dame Invitational. A second-place finish at the BIG EAST Championship soon followed, along with a team-high second-place effort at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional. Only two months after arriving on campus, Huddle found herself at the head of the pack for the 2002 NCAA Cross Country Championship in Terre Haute, Ind.
"I was a little scared because I did not know what I was doing," Huddle says.
"It was a great feeling to finish and see my teammates come across the finish line not too far behind. Then, we turned our attention to the screen announcing the team finishes."
As the team names jumped up on the scoreboard that day, `Notre Dame' appeared at third - the highest finish ever for the women's team and highest for an Irish cross country team since 1990.
Huddle moved on to a dominating freshman track and field season with the Irish, earning All-America honors in the indoor 3,000 meters and outdoor 5,000 meters. She capped her incredible rookie season by winning the U.S. Junior Championship in the 3,000 meters - running a meet record 9:19.52 and finishing 25 seconds ahead of her nearest competitor.
An immediate star for the Notre Dame cross country and track and field teams, Huddle knows that although her first two seasons were outstanding, distance running demands patience both on the course/track and in training.
"There is a definite patience factor," Huddles says.
"You will not see immediate results from your training and you cannot do all your training at once. Once you accumulate the miles, you will begin to see the work pay off."
In her sophomore season on the cross country course, Huddle won the Notre Dame Invitational, finished third at the BIG EAST Championship and won the NCAA Great Lakes Regional title to earn the region athlete of the year award. What followed at the NCAA Championship, however, was a somewhat disappointing (to Huddle's standards) 41st overall finish.
"That is the one race I remember the most and want to put behind me," Huddle says.
"For some reason, I just did not run well. I cannot pinpoint one variable. The whole team did not run well. We are using that performance for motivation this season."
Connelly has an idea of what went wrong for Huddle and her teammates that day.
"I think they put too much pressure on themselves," Connelly says.
"The previous year we were the unknown but in '03, the girls were thinking about beating the top teams in the nation. It is hard to run well when you put that kind of pressure on yourself. There were a couple of girls feeling not feeling well that day, the bus broke down on the way to the meet, everything that could go wrong did go wrong."
The Irish had entered the NCAA cross country championship last year with another top-three finish in their sights, but ended with a respectable 10th-place effort. The Irish return all of their top runners this season and should be among the contenders once again when the NCAA meet rolls around on Nov. 22.
Huddle moved on to the 2004 track and field season and quickly put the disappointment of her NCAA cross country finish behind her. She won the BIG EAST 5,000 meters both indoor and outdoor and finished third in both events at the NCAA Championship.
Huddle continued on to the U.S. Olympic Trials, running the 5,000 meters against the best that the United States had to offer. Connelly and Huddle knew going into the race that it would be a test for future professional endeavors and a possible spot in the 2008 Olympiad. Consider that test aced. Huddle finished seventh overall as the top collegiate/non-professional in the race and established herself as one of the top up-and-coming talents in United States Track and Field.
"She has the potential to become one of the great runners in this country," Connelly says.
"In four years she can make a run for a spot in the Olympics. I don't see a reason why she can't make it."
Irish fans will have a chance to see one of the top runners in the nation at the Notre Dame Invitational run in South Bend on Friday, Oct. 1, just a day before the Notre Dame -Purdue football game. As the defending champion, Huddle is looking at a repeat title - and even bigger goals down the road.
"I want to win an NCAA Championship as either a team (cross country) or an individual," Huddle says.
"Then I hope to run professionally and make the Olympics in four years."