Oct. 4, 2014 NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Danielle Aragon cringed at the thought of her time in last season's University of Notre Dame Invitational cross country meet. She ran the five-kilometer course in 19:02.9, which landed her in 154th place.
Molly Seidel never even got to start last season's Notre Dame Invitational, let alone finish, sidelined by an injury.
This season was different, very different.
On a blustery Friday afternoon, Irish teammates Seidel and Aragon steeled themselves against a cold, gusting wind and a soggy course to run a meet to remember.
Seidel ran a 16:19.9 to place fifth in the prestigious Notre Dame Invitational, and Aragon ran a 16:29.9 to finish 11th. Their efforts led Notre Dame to third-place finish in the women's division. New Mexico won the meet with 43 points, followed by North Carolina State (123) and then the Fighting Irish (147).
By placing third in a 20-team field packed with national-caliber competition, the Irish made strides on a national scene. Last season, the Irish were sixth with 205 points.
"I think the National Catholic meet gave them a taste of confidence," Irish associate head coach Matt Sparks said of the meet title that the Irish women's cross country team won two weeks ago.
"Now they can see themselves more on a national scene, as opposed to wondering where we fit in regionally. I think that will give them a bigger picture nationally."
What Notre Dame did Friday put the Irish in better position to earn an invitation to the NCAA championship meet next month--and potentially to make an impact at the national meet.
"That's something we've talked about from Day 1," Sparks said. "We don't just want to make it to nationals. The theme I've talked about is, we don't want to be tourists. We're there to do something. We're not just there to see what it's like. They're buying into that concept as the weeks go by."
Aragon's quantum leap from a 19:02.9 time last season to a 16:19.9 is a major reason the Irish believe they can emerge as a force at Terre Haute.
"We're all pretty happy," said Aragon, a junior from Billings, Mont. "We were being realistic thinking a top-five finish would be good. We're all very pleased with a top-three finish.
"Our main goal is to make it to nationals and place well there," Aragon said. "I think this meets sets us up well."
Aragon said her hard work over the summer enabled her to trim minutes off her time.
"We've all been doing longer workouts and running more miles," Aragon said. "That's made us more fit and helped us mentally. We put in the work, so when we get to the line, we're ready to go."
Seidel, a junior from Hartland, Wis., ran at the front of the pack throughout the race and ran an exceptional 3:16 one-kilometer pace. She also gained a sense the Irish women can springboard from the third-place finish in the Notre Dame Invitational to a higher national presence.
"I'm excited for the rest of the season," Seidel said. "We're really trying to be a top team, not only in the ACC, but also in the country. It's always the expectation to try and qualify for nationals. Last year was definitely a disappointment once we got there. We want to be competitive at the nationals."
"There's definitely still work to do. There always is in this sport, always a little bit further you can push. Right now, I'm happy where I am individually, and where we are as a team. I think we're at a great point in the season to build off of what we have. I think that little extra mental boost from this meet is going to be what takes us from being a good team to being a great team."
Sparks said that confidence boost is critical for the Irish to build on the success of the Notre Dame Invitational.
"Confidence is a big part," Sparks said. "We can run all summer and do every workout and do long runs, but if you don't believe in what you're doing, and you don't believe in yourself, that's all going to go for naught. That confidence all starts at the top. If your front-end kids are running confident, then everyone else is going to feed off of that. You saw that with Molly and Dani leading the way, racing aggressive and racing with confident, trickle back to the three-four-five girls, who also contributed to our success."
When the Irish get Hannah Eckstein, a senior from Middletown, N.J., back from an injury, Notre Dame's pack will be even strong.
"Hannah Eckstein, if we can get her healthy and back again, we'll just be that much more confident in the bigger meets," Sparks said. "That could change things significantly if we get her back."
-- By Curt Rallo, special correspondent