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Saturday, April 20, 2024
The Observer

Irish cross country aims high as new season begins

Entering the 2022 season, Notre Dame cross country finds itself in the unique position of having its men’s and women’s teams on divergent trajectories. Irish director of track & field and cross country Matt Sparks called the current state of the program “a tale of two teams,” with the men counting on underclassmen to take up new leadership roles in the midst of a transition period while the women return a veteran-laden lineup coming off of their most successful season in over a decade. The one constant, though, is that both teams appear to have all the necessary pieces to be among the nation’s best.

Men's team looks to rebuild

The past three seasons were prosperous ones for the Notre Dame men, as the Irish claimed two ACC Championships and three consecutive top-ten NCAA Championship placements, including a runner-up finish in 2020. Those teams were built around an elite nucleus of Yared Nuguse and Dylan Jacobs, both individual national champions on the track, and Danny Kilrea, a three-time All-American. All three stars have now moved on, along with former men’s head coach Sean Carlson, and Notre Dame’s grasp as the class of the ACC is suddenly considerably less firm than it had been.

“The last two years, we’ve kind of been the clear-cut favorite [in the ACC],” Sparks, now coaching both the men’s and women’s teams, said. “Now it’s a bit of an open competition.” 

While that trio brought consistent excellence on the course, they leave just as gaping of a hole off it, having been the team’s “perennial captains and leaders” over the last three years.

“There’s a lot of leadership loss there,” Sparks said. “We’re still looking for someone to assert themselves as a leader off the course.”

The Irish believe that they have the personnel to fill the massive shoes of the graduating class, with senior Matthew Carmody and sophomore Josh Methner being counted on to carry the torch for this year’s team.

“From a competitive standpoint, Matthew Carmody and Josh Methner are the two guys that we expect to lead us come time to race,” Sparks said. “They could be great leaders for the team, but neither one of those guys … has had to step up and be a leader up until this point.”

There is no doubt that the pair have competition resumes worthy of being tasked with running up front for a national contender. Carmody has been named to numerous All-ACC teams and was a national qualifier in the 10000 meters in the spring, and Methner was an All-American in cross country during his freshman year. Sparks describes them as having “done some elite things” but never having the chance to “lead the charge,” an opportunity they will have this season.

Behind them is an extremely talented group, albeit one that is largely untested and unproven, new territory for the program as of recent years.

“We’re going to be counting on freshmen to run in our top five or seven,” Sparks said. “For the last two or three years, we’ve had a very veteran team and didn’t need to count on the newcomers to carry much weight for our success.”

Luckily, the Irish hauled in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes and early returns from practice indicate that the group will be ready to make an impact from day one.

“Traditionally, the freshmen haven’t been able to make the top seven, and part of it was that their fitness just wasn’t of that caliber to contribute,” Sparks said. “It’s still too early to tell who’s going to rise out of that group and be a contributing member, but it’s been fun because they’re all having a lot of success and are very ready for college running.”

With a young roster and many unknowns about who will emerge as the Irish’s top runners for the postseason, the regular season meets, beginning with this Friday’s Winrow-Valparaiso Invite, will provide a valuable opportunity for the coaching staff to evaluate the team.

“It’s going to be a fun next month to sort things out and let them compete,” Sparks said. “We travel to Valparaiso on Friday for what’s more of an exhibition type of competition, but then we’ve got the two home meets that follow where we’ll really be able to see who’s ready for elite Division I running and who needs some time to figure some things out.”

After the trip to Valparaiso, Notre Dame will host the National Catholic Invite and the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invite in September and travel to Madison in October for the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invite that will serve as the final tune-up before the postseason.

Despite the attrition, the Irish maintain aspirations of high finishes at the ACC and NCAA Championships and will work throughout the season to find the right combination of runners and ensure that they are ready to peak at the right time.

“Having a blend of a couple graduate students, a couple of third year, fourth year guys, and then sprinkle in a freshman or two, it will be a really diverse group,” Sparks said. “We just have to help those guys gel over the next six to eight weeks before we get to the conference meet.”

Women's team seeks to continue last season's success

Last year’s Notre Dame women’s team provides a clear example of what it looks like when a group finds its best form at just the right moment. It is uncommon to see a team follow up a fifth-place conference finish by placing fifth in the nation, but that is exactly what the Irish did.

The women’s team brings back a majority of their top seven from a group that earned the program’s highest NCAA Championship finish since 2004, and led by three key returners, they are highly motivated to go even further this year.

“Conversely from the men’s team, the women have a very veteran feel about who they are,” Sparks said, noting that he expects graduate student Maddy Denner, senior Katie Rose Blachowicz, and junior Olivia Markezich to provide strong performances for the team.

Denner and Markezich headlined an excellent team effort at the NCAAs, earning All-American honors with ninth and eleventh-place finishes, respectively, but for much of the season, this type of standout showing by the Irish seemed unlikely. While the team will still plan to be at its best for the national meet this year, Notre Dame will strive for more consistency throughout the season.

“We knew all along that we had that kind of talent but in the last three weeks [of the season], everything gelled to the point that fitness found confidence at the ideal time,” Sparks said. “We’re hoping to [reach] those objectives a little bit earlier, finding the intersection of those two pieces so that we can be more competitive at the conference meet.”

While the strong returning core merits high expectations on its own, the Irish will be joined by two transfers that are expected to immediately contribute, senior Katie Thronson and sophomore Siona Chisholm. Thronson was previously an All-SEC performer at Tennessee while Chisholm competed in Canada, and Sparks believes that they will help put Notre Dame “over the top.”

The Irish will use the coming weeks to give their younger runners more experience and move closer to determining the postseason lineup, and their first major test will come at the Notre Dame Invite. They will play host to three of the nation’s best teams in New Mexico, NC State, and Alabama. Unlike last year, the Irish hope to match up well with these other national contenders at this early stage in the season.

“Now that we’ve had [a top-five finish nationally] last fall under our belts, I think they’ll come out more sure of themselves come midseason,” Sparks said. “We’d like to be a little bit more competitive.”

Notre Dame’s fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championship last year came as a surprise to many. This season, they will not be sneaking up on anyone. The Irish are confident that another top national finish is on the way, and ready to deliver it.

Matthew Crow

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