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ND Cross Country: Men’s, Women’s teams take first at National Catholic Championships

Jay Fitzpatrick | Monday, September 18, 2006

Home course advantage came in handy for Notre Dame Friday in the National Catholic Championships as the Irish swept both the men’s and women’s events.

For the No. 12 Irish men, it was their second win in as many tries this season while the Notre Dame women were able to build on a disappointing second-place finish in the Crusader Invitational last week with a tie for first with No. 18 Marquette at 28 points a piece.

The women competed first and Notre Dame led most of the way with a strong pack near the front of the race. This group was led by eventual race champion Sunni Olding. The Irish junior completed the 5K race in only 17:51.

“I’m glad I was able to lead the team to a strong finish this week,” Olding said. “I just ran hard and was able to hold off any moves anyone tried to make on me.”

Olding became only the second woman to win the National Catholic Championship two years in a row since women began racing in the event in 1984. The only other previous repeat winner was Notre Dame’s JoAnna Deeter, who won the event all four years she ran it.

Chasing Olding at the finish were three runners from Marquette, finishing over 12 seconds after Olding had crossed the line. The three Golden Eagles were followed by three Irish runners – junior Julie Opet (18:17), freshman Lindsey Ferguson (18:17) and sophomore Heidi Rocha (18:42). Sophomore Becca Bauman rounded out the Irish points qualifiers with a total time of 18:58.

Rocha’s finish was especially crucial as she held off advances from Duquesne’s Amy Ruffolo (18:43) and Marquette’s Amanda Beggs (18:44) down the stretch to secure the first place tie for Notre Dame.

Women’s coach Tim Connelly was glad his team won the race, but knew there was still a lot of room for improvement as Notre Dame will play host again in two weeks, but this time to many top-25 teams in the Notre Dame Invitational.

“This will give them a lot of confidence going into the tough races coming up,” Connelly said. “We do have a lot of room to get better. I don’t think we closed particularly well, but now we’ve got some confidence to build on.”

One reason Connelly knows his team has so much room to improve is that he saved his best runners for the important races later in the season when they will be needed to beat top-ranked opponents.

On the men’s side, coach Joe Piane also held out his top two runners, senior Kurt Benninger and sophomore Patrick Smyth, but the Irish could not be denied a win as they topped second-place Marquette 48-58.

Although a Notre Dame runner did not win the individual race – that honor was given to John Riak from St. Martin’s College, who finished the 8K race in 24:38 – they did have the best team Friday.

Junior Jake Watson led Notre Dame with a strong second-place finish, chasing Riak down the stretch but falling to him by only two seconds.

“I ran hard and gave it everything I had,” Watson said of his tough finish. “I had tried to break him early but he was able to hold on to me.”

Junior Brett Adams (25:18) and junior Mike Popejoy (25:20) finished eighth and ninth overall.

Freshman Jake Walker (25:39) and sophomore Robbie Baranay (25:57) rounded out Notre Dame’s top 5.

Adams and Popejoy were the only Irish runners to follow Piane’s gameplan and stay in a tight pack, a technique that won Notre Dame the Crusader Invitational, said Piane.

“Honestly, we had a few freshmen in the race and they ran like freshmen,” Piane said. “One thing they need to realize about the difference between college and high school cross country is that this is all about the team, not individual performances.”

Notre Dame will also reinsert its top runners in two weeks at the Notre Dame Invitational, with Benninger and Smyth returning to the race lineup.

“When we slip in those two fellows we will eliminate 25 points from our total,” Piane said. “We add in a 3:58 miler in Benninger and Smyth who can run 5000 meters in 4:10.

“With those two guys and two more weeks of practice we can only get better.”