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Canadian Benninger leads both on and off the course

Bobby Griffin | Wednesday, November 10, 2004

When one considers the fine athletes hailing from Canada that have risen to prominence in the last several years -namely, Eric Gagne, Steve Nash and Martin St. Louis – one is talking about individuals who have impacted his respective game at a very high level.

While Kurt Benninger is not nearly at that level of athletic distinction, he has still made quite an impact for the No. 5 Notre Dame men’s cross country team – a squad that is looking to make noise in the NCAA Great Lakes regional Saturday.

“The season has really gone well for us, it’s left us with really high expectations, which we had coming in, but everyone was really overlooking us,” Benninger said. “We knew how good we were, and we just went out there every race, and we just proved [it].”

Benninger’s performances to this date have been nothing short of brilliant.

The sophomore runner from Chepstow, Ontario is coming off a seventh-place finish in the Big East Championships that helped facilitate the Notre Dame victory, where he finished one second behind Irish leader Tim Moore.

“[Benninger] has a burning desire to win, and a burning desire to be good at whatever he does, and that becomes infectious,” coach Joe Piane said. “I think that he has really had a profound positive effect on the team.”

It is unfair to say that Benninger has been the sole reason for the success of the Irish squad, but it cannot be denied that he has strung a number of impressive finishes together this season.

At the Notre Dame Invitational, Benninger finished second place overall, where he ran a 23 minutes, 43 seconds and in the Pre-Nationals, Benninger finished eighth place overall, with a time of 24:07.

In both races, he was the first Irish runner to cross the finish line.

In the Great Lakes regional, it will be important for Benninger and Moore to run well together, something they have worked hard at this season, in order for the team to qualify for the NCAA’s.

“I just want to go out there and work together with Tim especially and just get in the front group and race conservative and smart,” Benninger said.

While Benninger’s individual finishes have been impressive, it isn’t fair to look at his numbers this year and get a good idea about him as an athlete.

“You can’t see how hard he works, you can’t see how dedicated he is, you can’t see how he gears his life to being that of a good, a great distance man, a great athlete,” Piane said of Benninger’s character and importance to the team. “It’s not to say that he doesn’t have a great social life, but he does everything it takes to be a great athlete.”

Piane also stressed how much improvement Benninger has made this season.

“He’s really stepped it up. He was a very good runner last year, but he was basically our third or fourth man,” Piane said. “He made a major step last year in track running 3:41 in the 1,500, which is equivalent to a sub four-minute mile, and you could just see his confidence go up.”

Even though Benninger has put together a great individual season, the runner’s primary focus – for good reason – is making sure that the team does well this weekend.

“My expectations are that as a team, we’ll go in there and qualify for [the NCAA’s] and get one of the automatic qualifying spots,” Benninger said.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t expect a lot of himself. Benninger knows exactly what he wants when the NCAA’s are over, and when the season is all said and done.

“I’d obviously like to end up being an All-American and be up there as close to the front as I can,” Benninger said. “My main goal though when we go there is to have our team to be on the podium, which is in the top four.”

Before that happens though, the Irish have a race to run this weekend.

With the way that the season has gone thus far, and the dedication that Benninger as well as the rest of the team has shown towards fulfilling their goals, the Irish should be in a good position.