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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

As stakes rise, Notre Dame prepares for strongest finish at NCAA Regionals

Following a dominant showing at the ACC Championships two weekends ago, Notre Dame has begun to shift its focus to the NCAA Great Lakes Regionals competition Friday on the LaVerne Gibson Cross Country Course in Terra Haute, Indiana. The No. 10 men’s team and No. 18 women’s team will need an impressive showing at the Regionals, hosted by Indiana State, to qualify for the NCAA Championships.

The Irish are in uncharted waters as they are poised to make their best finish in recent program history, with the men’s team being ranked for the first time since 2012, in the top-10 for the first time since 2007 and first-time conference champions. Head coach Matt Sparks acknowledged the unfamiliarity for the men’s team and noted that they are eager for more success.

“It’s our first time going in as a more recognized entity,” he said. “[Assistant] coach [Sean] Carlson does a good job of keeping the guys humble and keeping them focused on the task at hand. There’s still a lot of things to prove. We haven’t qualified for the national meet yet, and the men haven’t qualified for several years, so I know the men still feel like they have a lot to prove.”

Sparks said the Irish were happy with their ACC championship, but they won’t be satisfied until they reach the national meet.

“Even though they’ve garnered some attention with the conference title, they still haven’t accomplished all the goals of getting to the national meet and performing there,” he said. “I think they still have a chip on their shoulder, which has enabled them to get to where they are now.”

Furthermore, Sparks emphasized one of the pillar philosophies of the program: to control what can be controlled. Rather than focusing on the rankings — something they can’t control — they've chosen to instead concentrate on improving their running.

Irish freshman Jacqueline Gaughan strides during the National Catholic Invitational on Sept. 14 at the Burke Golf Course.
Irish freshman Jacqueline Gaughan strides during the National Catholic Invitational on Sept. 14 at the Burke Golf Course.

“[Carlson] leads [the men’s team], and I don’t think they even address [the rankings],” Sparks said. “They worry more about what they’re doing that day and what they can control. That’s what the focus is for both programs. If we worry about ourselves then everything else will work out. That’s what’s got ’em to this point now.”

Going forward, the Irish are looking to carry that same laser-sharp momentum against the regional competition, where they are currently seeded second, only trailing Wisconsin. The Badgers are joining the Irish as the only two teams in the meet to earn conference championships, having recently won the Big Ten title.

“In our sport, it’s just us running against ourselves, working together amongst our group. Rankings and those things are things that we can’t control,” Sparks said. “We talk a lot about ‘control the controllable,’ which is you and your team, the way you do things, the way you prepare for things. Don’t worry about the exterior, if you take care of your things then the results at the end will take care of themselves.”

With the Irish already in midseason form, Sparks said the preparation for the team currently involves just trying to stay, “healthy and happy.” In addition, Sparks said the momentum was shifting for the program, as the blueprint for success has been going according to plan.

“[Having the men’s team in the top-10] kind of reinforces all of the things that we’ve done as a staff over the last couple of years,” he said. “We had a lot of talks of a vision, and we feel like we’re a couple of years ahead on where the vision was. We’re not done yet, obviously, that’s just a ranking. There’s still work to be done over the next couple of weeks. But [the ranking] just reinforces, to the entire program, the philosophy of what we’re trying to do.”

On the women’s side, freshman Jacqueline Gaughan has had a standout year for the Irish. The Exeter High School graduate was named ACC Freshman of the Week in September, finished second overall at the National Catholic Invitational, ninth overall at the Joe Piane Invitational, led the Irish at the Pre-Nationals and finished in seventh overall at the ACC Championship. Sparks attributed part of Guaghan’s success to her mentor-mentee relationship with senior Anna Rohrer.

“Anna Rohrer is a two-time cross country All-American for us. She’s done a great job mentoring Jackie [Gaughan],” he said. “Jackie came in a big high school success story, and Anna was a similar success story, so there’s a lot of kinship between those two. They’ve meshed really well, and that’s allowed Jackie to be more confident and see the bigger picture, having someone like Anna to train with every day. Seeing the success Anna’s had has bled over to Jackie being successful as well.”

Unlike the men’s team, the women’s team will head into the Regionals under familiar circumstances. The women’s side has not placed worse than sixth place in the Regionals since 2007, with a second-place finish two seasons ago. In recent history, the women’s team has had more success than the men’s team. With the current accomplishments of the men’s team, however, the friendly rivalry between both squads has gained some parity.

Sparks commented on the rivalry between both squads and the uniqueness of having both teams coached by the same staff.

“There is a bit of a friendly rivalry there. It’s a unique thing about our sport, they’re coached by the same staff, we travel together and support each other,” he said. “But you’re still out there trying to one-up the other as well.”

The women's race is scheduled to begin at 11:15 a.m. on Friday, and the men are set to follow at 12:15 p.m.