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Saturday, March 2, 2024
The Observer

Irish cross country battles through strong fall season, track and field prepares for postseason

Notre Dame cross country began its season with a dominant win at the Winrow-Valparaiso Invite, an annual event hosted by Valparaiso University. The men’s and women’s teams both took first in the early September meet that Matt Sparks, Irish director of track and field and cross country, saw as a tune-up opportunity.

“Valparaiso is almost an exhibition type, just kind of a rust buster, just to kind of see where everybody is after the summer,” Sparks said. “Kind of lets the younger kids on the team establish themselves, while the older kids on the team do not necessarily compete because we knew who they were.”

Two weeks later, on Sept. 16, Notre Dame hosted the National Catholic Invite. Once again, both teams swept the competition and claimed first place.

The men carried that momentum into another win at their next meet, the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invite, also in South Bend. The women, however, finished fourth in a competitive field that featured top teams like New Mexico, NC State and Alabama.

“That was a good taste of what we were going to see in the postseason,” Sparks said.

The two teams then traveled to Madison, Wisconsin to participate in the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invite. Going into the competition, Sparks knew that the Irish would be up against a challenging course and environment.

“That invite is very similar to the NCAA Championship meet,” he said about Nuttycombe. “It has roughly 20 of the top 30 teams in the country there. It is hosted on a facility that has hosted the NCAA Championship in previous years, so it has a championship feel from the competitive side to the facility side.”

Both fields contained top-25 talent, adding to the already tricky competition. The two teams each placed fifth, which Sparks felt was a good outing for the women’s team.

“The four teams that beat us were all ranked in the top five in the country, so we knew if we were just on the outside of that group, we could run with everybody,” he said.

Chris Neal, assistant track and field and cross country coach, who coached the men’s team, felt similarly.

“Even though it looks like, ‘Oh, you finished fifth or sixth,’ we actually jumped up to being ranked seventh in the country the following week,” Neal said.

On Oct. 28, the Irish traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia to compete in the ACC Championship meet. The women placed second in the meet, behind only eventual national champion NC State. The men’s team finished fourth.

Next came the NCAA Great Lakes Regional, which allowed the top two teams to qualify for the national championship meet. Both teams earned a spot at nationals, with the women taking first place.

Soon after was the NCAA Championship meet in Stillwater, Oklahoma, just a week later. According to Neal, the men began to face challenges before the meet even began.

“We had a guy get mono, we had another guy get the flu, and we had another guy get injured at regionals,” he said. “We were kind of putting together a team with duct tape and super glue to get to the line by the end.”

Those adverse conditions resulted in a 15th-place finish for the men. The women finished better at seventh, though Sparks felt his team could have placed even higher.

“Our goal was to be in the top five and finished seventh,” he said. “As I told the girls, we were a little disappointed in our finish. But the talk then and since then [has been], if we’re seventh in the country and we’re disappointed, then the program is probably in a pretty good place.”

The team then pivoted to the indoor track and field season in the early spring semester, which culminated with the ACC Indoor Track and Field Championship and the NCAA Indoor Championship.

The women earned sixth place at the ACC competition and then had an outstanding outing at nationals, finishing in a three-way tie with Alabama and Tennessee for seventh. They totaled 24 points, while the national champion, Arkansas, finished with 64. Sparks was more than happy with the showing.

“Second-best finish in school history, we are very proud of that,” he said.

Meanwhile, the men’s team finished 12th at the ACC Championship and did not score at Nationals. Sparks admitted that those results were far from ideal.

“We’re in a bit of a rebuilding process with them,” he said.

With the spring semester complete, the Irish will continue in postseason competition for the outdoor season. Both teams performed well at the ACC Championship on May 11 to 13. The women earned seventh place and the men claimed ninth.

The NCAA Regional Championship, which will occur in Jacksonville, Florida is scheduled for May 24 to 27. The NCAA Championship meet will be held in Austin, Texas on June 7 to 10.

Sparks feels good about his team’s chances for the national championship meet.

“For the women’s side, I think we should try to be in the top 10 in the country again,” he said. “Regionals is an un-scored meet … but in order for us to be top 10 in the country, we really need to have 6 to 8 athletes make it to the national meet.”

While Sparks knows his men’s team will likely not achieve as high of a finish, he still expects them to show their growth from the indoor meets.

“The men, we need to be top 10 in the conference,” he said, prior to the men's team placing ninth in the ACC. “We know we are rebuilding a little bit, but we know we are better than we were in indoor.”