With 32 athletes headed to the NCAA Regional meet in Knoxville, Tenn. May 26-27, Irish head coach Joe Piane is ready to cap off an already successful track season with an appearance at the NCAA Championships.
"Thirty-two is a very good number," Piane said. "Last year we had seventeen. I think we can get several people to the NCAAs."
The men's side won the Big East outdoor championship this spring, while the women took first in the indoor meet.
Piane said the women's squad, which also won the conference cross country title in the fall, was disappointed it couldn't become the first Big East team to win all three championships since 1987.
"I think if we ran [the women's Big East championship] meet again we'd win it," he said. "It would have been nice to have won three championships in a year. Maybe we were being hogs, a little bit greedy."
The men, who also won the cross country championship and took third in the indoor meet, won their outdoor championship with a dramatic, second-day comeback using strong performances in the hammer throw and the 5000 meters.
"[After the first day,] we thought it was going to come down to UConn or Louisville," Piane said. "We were not confident at all. Then we ended up doing better in [the hammer throw and the 5000-meter run] than we thought we would, and they ended up doing a little bit worse.
"In a championship meet, you have to find the kids that come to play."
One of the runners that led the Irish to victory in the 5,000 was junior Kurt Benninger, who has qualified for the regionals in the 800, 1,500 and 5,000 meter events.
Piane said it is rare for one runner to be successful at all three distances.
"[Benninger] has very good leg speed," Piane said. "There isn't another guy in the 5,000 that can run the 800 as fast as he can."
Benninger was also one of Notre Dame's top cross country runners, finishing eighth at the NCAA championships with a 10,000-meter time of 29:50.2.
"You pick an event, he can run well in it - from the 800 to the 10,000," Piane said.
On the women's side, senior Stephanie Madia will look to cap off a stellar career by advancing to the NCAAs.
This season, Madia took third in the 3,000 meters at the Big East indoor championships, and fourth in the 5,000 at the outdoor meet. In cross country, she finished third at the NCAA Championships, crossing the line in 19:48 - the fastest 6,000 meter time at the national meet in Notre Dame history.
"Stephanie is a tribute to hard work," Piane said. "She came in her freshmen year and was in seventy-fifth at the NCAAs and she just decided to work. That's what's great about this sport - what you put in is what you get out."
Madia actually finished No. 78 at the 2002 NCAA cross country championship.
Throughout her career, Madia has run side by side with fellow senior Molly Huddle. Huddle, who Piane called "the most decorated athlete in Notre Dame history" for her numerous victories, awards, and All-American selections, has one more year of track eligibility remaining but will not return to the cross country team in the fall.