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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

Irish cross country looks to turn experience into success

As has become customary in recent years, last season’s Notre Dame cross country team was among the nation’s best on both the men’s and women’s sides. But with a strong group of returners at the helm, the Irish are confident in their ability to reach even greater heights in 2023.

“Both teams return a very veteran-led group, with [last year’s top runner] for both teams back this year,” Irish director of track & field and cross country Matt Sparks said about the upcoming season. “Both teams also return a solid nucleus of experienced runners to support them, so spirits are high on the first week.”

Solomon, Methner lead returning core on men's side

For the Irish men, that top returner is senior Carter Solomon, who enters the season following a breakout year. Solomon stepped into a lead role in 2022 and rose to the occasion, winning the individual ACC title and earning All-American honors by placing 18th nationally.

“[The departure of several top runners prior to last season] left a lot of spaces available in the top seven,” Sparks said, “and that allowed Carter Solomon to really assert himself. He'd been here for a couple years but was never asked to really step up and be a front runner and be a leader. And so it's really exciting for him to take that initiative and become that go-to guy for us last year.”

Irish senior Carter Solomon (right) crosses the finish line during a race at the Meyo Invitational on Feb. 4, 2023.
Irish senior Carter Solomon (right) crosses the finish line during a race at the Meyo Invitational on Feb. 4.

This season, the Irish bring back most of their core lineup, providing a sense of stability for a men’s program that sorely missed it last year.

“There was a lot of change last year from the direction of the coaching staff. We lost a coach and [assistant] coach [Chris] Neal's now in his second year leading the men,” Sparks explained. “So the team has a much better expectation of what practices and competition and just general philosophy look like.”

Also at the forefront of their “nucleus” is Josh Methner. Sparks expects the senior to join Solomon, both atop the pack during races and as a team leader.

“Another guy we're really excited about, that's been with us for a couple years but was out much of last year with some injuries [and] has looked great in practice this year, is Josh Methner,” Sparks said. “He was an All-American [in 2021]. He and [Solomon] should be a great one-two punch, and they're both very good leaders for the program.”

But postseason races are frequently decided by depth. And high-level performers throughout the top seven are needed for a team to be competitive nationally. To fill those key roles, the Irish took two opposite routes, one of which was to bring in a pair of graduate transfers with big-race experience.

“[Graduate students Vincent Mauri] from Arizona State and Tyler [Berg] from Columbia are both guys that have experience on the national level. They were both top-100 at the NCAA meet,” Sparks said. “So they will give us four guys that have competed on the high end on the national level.”

In contrast, the Irish will also count on several sophomores who lack experience but developed well in their first year on campus.

“We redshirted all the freshmen last year, and they really improved by leaps and bounds as a result of being able to take that year off and not having to jump in and compete immediately,” Sparks said, mentioning sophomores Ethan Coleman, CJ Singleton and Daelen Ackley as standouts from the class. “[We] expect all of those guys to push to find their way into our varsity top seven.”

Graduate transfers join impressive women's veteran group

The Notre Dame women’s team tells a similar story. Graduate student Olivia Markezich, the team’s top runner last season and one of the best in the country, will lead it. Markezich placed eighth at the NCAA meet in 2022 and followed that effort up in the spring by winning the NCAA title in the 3000M Steeplechase and nearly qualifying for the World Championships in the same event.

“It's been amazing to watch her progression over the last four years,” Sparks said about Markezich. “She has such great composure in the big moments, and that's infectious.”

Her steady confidence and “calm presence” extend to the entire Irish team. Notre Dame returns several runners who performed well last year and look to build off strong seasons on the track.

Sparks pointed to senior Erin Strzelecki and junior Siona Chisholm, Notre Dame’s second and fourth finishers at last season’s NCAA meet, as runners who are likely to be out in front for the Irish along with Markezich.

“There’s a confidence about the group this year that's really exciting to see on the women's side, with a very veteran group,” Sparks said. “[Strzelecki and Chisholm are] returners that we expect to make a big impact.”

Notre Dame's senior Erin Strzelecki (left) and junior Sophie Novak (right) turn a corner during the Meyo Invitational on Feb. 4.

Part of that veteran presence comes from the team’s incoming graduate transfers, a group led by Ericka VanderLende and Andrea Markezich, twin sister of Olivia.

“Ericka VanderLende came from the University of Michigan. She was an All-American for them a couple years ago,” Sparks explained. “[Andrea Markezich] is joining us from [the] University of Washington, and she's run some of the fastest times in [Washington’s program history].”

The Irish have consistently sought out graduate transfers, not only to find runners capable of making an instant impact competitively but also to add new leadership and fresh energy to the roster.

“It's nice to obviously bring the performance on the track,” Sparks said. “But the piece that makes it that much more special is the — I feel like the word culture is overused in sports these days - but just the change in energy that comes with bringing in a 22-year-old veteran leader of a team.”

Add all of the pieces together, and both Irish teams appear capable of surpassing last year’s national finishes: 15th for the men and seventh for the women.

Before they get the chance to do so, they will navigate a regular season that, according to Sparks, “gets a little bit more competitive” with each meet. Notre Dame will start its season with the Crusader Invite at Valparaiso on Friday, an exhibition-like event that provides an opportunity “for some of the younger [runners] to put a uniform on for the first time.”

They will host two meets — the National Catholic Invite and the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invite — during September. The Irish will then close their regular season slate in mid-October with the Wisconsin Nuttycombe Invitational, a highly competitive meet that Sparks says “most emulates the NCAA Championship." From there, it’s on to the postseason with the ACC Championship, NCAA Regional and NCAA Championship to follow.

On the men’s side, Sparks mentioned North Carolina, Virginia and Wake Forest as teams the Irish will compete with for an ACC championship and a top-10 national finish. The women will look to challenge defending national champion NC State for top spots on the ACC and NCAA stages.

“We know what the top of the food chain looks like with NC State,” Sparks said. “We're chasing after them, so we can obviously only get better when the bar is set that high.”

The bar is set and the preparations are complete. The Irish are highly motivated and ready to get their season underway.

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