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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024
The Observer

Irish ready to make run at national championships

It’s a cool, breezy fall day and the smell of fallen leaves and golf fairways spread through the air. Hundreds of runners toe the line, anxious for the gun to go off and the race to begin.

The Notre Dame men’s and women’s cross country teams express eagerness for their seasons to begin, as both teams primed for successful seasons. There are high expectations for both squads, as indicated in the preseason ACC coaches poll. The men's team is ranked first in the ACC and the women's team is ranked second. The national polls also have the men's and women’s teams ranked No. 9 and No. 11, respectively.

With these high expectations come lofty goals for the season. Matt Sparks, director of cross country, said the women are used to these expectations as they have competed on the national stage in recent years.

“The women have been there and done that as far as top ten finishes go, so there is a bigger expectation because of what we have done in the last three or four years,” Sparks said. “The women will try to repeat their recipe for success heading into this year.”

Captain Anna Rohrer, who was redshirted in her freshman year and is now a graduate student, will be the one of the most vital runners on the team.

“She carries a lot of the load on her as far as the leadership and performance,” Sparks said.

Rohrer, a four-time NCAA All American, has placed in the top ten nationally three times. While she hopes to continue that success this year, she will need help if the women hope to compete on the national stage. The team will likely have to look to young talent ready to toe the start line.

Sophomore Jackie Gaughan was one of the top runners last year. She showed promise on the track in the offseason, posting the fastest freshman regular season time in the country in the 10K.

Freshman Maddy Denner, who enrolled at Notre Dame in December, will also help contribute to the team’s success. Denner was a 10K qualifier on the track and will look to carry the momentum from the track to the cross country course. Denner and Gaughan look to Rohrer as a mentor.

“[Rohrer] does a great job mentoring Maddy and Jackie, who we have a lot of expectations for from a performance standpoint,” Sparks said.

While the women’s side is used to the national attention, it will be a new experience for the men’s squad. The men’s team surprised many by winning the ACC last year and qualifying for the national meet. There will be a different type of pressure on them this season, though.

“The exciting thing I’m looking for is watching the men grow and take that next step to be a top 10 team,” Sparks said. “They didn’t have any expectations on them a year ago, and now the whole conference and much of the country is curious how they are going to react to being one of those upper echelon teams.”

Sparks is confident the men will respond well to the expectations placed on them.

“They’ve got a really good blend of veteran leadership to go along with talented younger guys, so it’s a good recipe for success,” Sparks said.

The men are led by captains senior Kevin Salvano and graduate student Tony Williams and are complemented by the younger talent of junior Yared Nuguse and sophomore Danny Kilrea. Nuguse was the NCAA 1500m champion in the spring and Kilrea was an All-American and one of the top freshman cross country runners in the nation last season.

Irish junior distance runner Yared Nuguse competes in the National Catholic Cross Country Invitational at Burke Golf Course on Sep. 14.
Irish junior distance runner Yared Nuguse competes in the National Catholic Cross Country Invitational at Burke Golf Course on Sep. 14.

Sparks said another talented runner is redshirt freshman Dylan Jacobs. Jacobs was a member of the first place Distance Medley Relay team in track, and his offseason training is preparing him well for the cross country distance. Jacobs was a high school phenom, winning the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in 2017. Sparks said it will be fun to see what he can do with the longer distances of college cross country.

The ACC Championship team from last year only graduated one of its top seven runners, so there is depth across the board as well. 

The first official meet of the season is the Crusader Invitational Friday at Valparaiso. Sparks said both teams will hold out their top runners and use the meet to see the younger talent and make redshirt decisions.

“The big meet on our schedule that both teams are looking forward to is the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational on Friday, Oct. 4,” Sparks said.

The race will take place at the Burke Golf Course on the southwest side of Notre Dame's campus. Both teams will race their top runners in this high profile meet featuring 12 of the top 30 teams in the country. 

When asked about his goals for the season ahead, Sparks said finishing top 10 at the national meet is his aim.

“Both teams are always going to contend for an ACC Championship,” Sparks said.