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Runners confident in 51st annual ND Invite

Jay Fitzpatrick | Thursday, September 28, 2006

In their second consecutive race at Notre Dame, the Irish are confident in their chances of winning. Unfortunately, 14 top-30 teams are coming to South Bend today to ensure that doesn’t happen.

The Notre Dame Invitational, now in its 51st year, will start at 2 p.m. today at the Burke Memorial Golf Course with the women’s gold division. The Notre Dame women’s varsity team will run at 4:15 p.m., the men’s varsity team following at 5 p.m.

Yesterday’s rains will effectively slow the racers but could help the Irish, who already have a better lay of the course.

“It will be a softer ground this week,” Notre Dame coach Joe Piane said. “The times should be about what they were at the National Catholic Championship because everyone will be running slower.”

The Irish women are coming off an impressive win two weeks ago when they tied with then-No. 18 Marquette for first in the National Catholic Championship at 28 points. Led by junior Sunni Olding – the overall winner of the NCC and only second ever repeat winner of that event – the Irish have been successful in their two events this season. But Notre Dame will face its toughest challenge of the season when it matches up against seven top-ranked teams in the Blue Division race, including No. 3 Michigan and No. 7 Illinois.

Today will also prepare the Irish for their more important races later in the season. Having already squared off and performed well against Big East foes Marquette and Duquesne in the NCC, Notre Dame will get an early crack against some of the best teams in the Great Lakes NCAA Regional.

If Notre Dame hopes to advance to the NCAA Championship race later in the season, it will have to finish high in the Big East and NCAA Regional meets later this year, and having a race now against future opponents will help it prepare.

For the No. 16 Irish men, there’s good reason to look forward to this race. The team will insert its top two runners – Kurt Benninger and Patrick Smyth.

“When you add those two guys into the lineup you can only get better,” Piane said. “There’s a reason they are the one and two runners for us this year.”

One main problem the Irish had in their race two weeks ago was their inability to run in a tight pack, something necessary to win against opponents like those Notre Dame faces today. While Jake Watson came in second and Brett Adams and Mike Popejoy were able to stay together near the front of the pack, the remainder of the Irish runners were spread out throughout the race.

“Most of what we’ve been doing in practice was getting the guys to run together,” Piane said. “If we can get Smyth and Benninger to do well at the front of the race and have a strong pack behind them, we can be very successful.”

Practice for the Irish this week has also included a lot of tough workouts to ready the team for the competition it will face. Not including Notre Dame, there are six top-30 teams in the race, with No. 1 Wisconsin heading that group.

“This will be our first big test,” Piane said. “We’re a little bit thinner than we were last year, but I think we’ll do well.”