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ND CROSS COUNTRY: Squad runs from memories of 2004

Chris Khorey | Thursday, November 17, 2005

Kurt Benninger raced out to the front – no one was ahead of him. He was in first place at the NCAA Championship meet and the feeling was a thrill. Unfortunately, the moment was over almost before it began and Benninger fell behind more patient runners, finishing 42nd as the Notre Dame men’s cross country team, ranked No. 5 heading into the meet, finished in a disappointing 11th place.

That was 2004. A year later, Benninger and the Irish are ready to erase some of their bad memories at the 2005 NCAA Championships Monday in Terre Haute, Ind.

Notre Dame again heads into the meet ranked No. 5 in the nation, fresh off a second-place finish in the Great Lakes Regional last Saturday.

But while 2005 has so far been a success, the Irish know they have to do well Monday to remember this year fondly.

“Last year was a huge disappointment, both individually and as a team,” Benninger said. “Since the day after the race none of us wanted to be in that position again. We just know that this is the meet we have to do well and this is everything for our season. What we’ve done up until now doesn’t mean anything.”

Notre Dame coach Joe Piane said the team has been using last year’s race as motivation ever since.

“As soon as they crossed the finish line last year they knew they had not run up to their potential and they have been determined to change that the last 12 months,” Piane said.

The veteran coach also said that although he has not changed his practices, there has been a visible difference in the way the 2005 team goes through its workouts, especially with four out of the five scoring runners from last year’s squad back to motivate the rest of the team.

“It hasn’t been that the workouts are any different, it’s more the attitude,” Piane said. “It’s not only the training, but their attitude which is different. It’s not just four or five guys, it’s the first guy down to the 25th guy. It started with the upper class[men], Benninger and the three seniors [Kaleb Van Ort, Tim Moore, and Sean O’Donnell.”

Benninger said he feels the team’s focus on this year’s NCAA Championships will be an advantage come race time on Monday.

“Racing’s so mental, especially when you get to this level and everyone is equally as strong, equally as fit, and equally as good, that mental edge is just huge,” he said.

The junior has a routine of going through each race in his head before he runs it. Most meets he focuses on the week before, but the NCAAs have been on his mind for much longer.

“I just like to go over the race and try to figure out what I want to accomplish and where I want to be at certain points over the race,” Benninger said. “I want to prepare for anything that could happen. For me that process started before I even got to campus this fall, planning the race out and everything.”

Last year’s meet was also held in Terre Haute. There had been rain in the week leading up to the race, which made the course sloppy. Benninger said the conditions and his fast start hindered the team’s and his personal performance in 2004.

“Personally, I just didn’t run smart. I went out to the front and was leading the race early on, but I wasn’t on that level quite yet,” he said. “It was very muddy, which didn’t play into my strengths.”

Freshman Patrick Smyth will replace departed senior Ryan Johnson – the only scoring runner from last year’s NCAAs who did not return for this season.