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ND Cross Country: Irish look for three-peat

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, October 27, 2006

After weeks of preparation, the races are finally starting to matter.

Notre Dame will compete against the best its conference has to offer today in Boston at the Big East tournament.

The Irish men are one of the favorites to win again this year. Notre Dame has won the conference tournament the last two years and six of 12 Big East titles since joining the conference in 1994.

That history is compounded with Notre Dame’s success this year, knocking off higher ranked opponents in each of its last two races – the Notre Dame Invitational and the Pre-National Tournament.

Despite Notre Dame’s history at the event and in recent tournaments, the Irish are still faced with some tough competition for the conference title. Three teams join No. 12 Notre Dame in the USTFCCCA Top 30 – No. 16 Georgetown, No. 20 Providence and No. 23 Louisville – meaning the competition will be very stiff for this year’s crown.

“I think we’ve got as good a shot as anybody. Last year we were the heavy favorite but this year we’re definitely not,” said senior All-American Kurt Benninger. “There’s three other teams that have a good chance as well. It’s going to come down to just a couple of points.”

One team with a grudge against Notre Dame is Georgetown, who was a close runner-up for last year’s conference title.

“Georgetown always wants to beat us, especially since we beat them by only a single point last year,” Benninger said.

Georgetown also competed in the Pre-National Meet Oct. 14, but ran in the Blue Division while the Irish were in the White. Even so, the Hoyas ran a strong race their last time out, finishing fifth but dropping in the polls.

The top two striders for Notre Dame will be Benninger and sophomore Patrick Smyth, who have led the Irish climb in the polls in the last month with great finishes in each of their two races on the season. Benninger has had continued success against Big East competition, finishing in the top 10 in his other two Big East tournaments.

“There’s a lot of good guys that are going to be up there so we’re going to just go up there and see what happens,” he said.

Although the stakes are a lot higher for this race than they have been for Notre Dame’s other races, practice has been business as usual for Irish coach Joe Piane.

“I wouldn’t say [Piane has] done anything special at all [in practice],” Benninger said. “Everything since the beginning of the year has been geared toward this part of the year. Everybody’s known what we need to do to take the Big East and then Regionals and the NCAAs.”

The women’s team is also running the Big East tournament, but it will have a much harder time if it hopes to succeed. With disappointing finishes in the Notre Dame Invitational and the Pre-National Meet, Notre Dame’s chances rest with its veterans, namely junior Sunni Olding.

Olding finished 18th in the Pre-National Meet, but she was the only Irish female in the top 50. This destroyed any chance the Irish had of doing well in the race, meaning Notre Dame will have to have its other runners try to stay near the top for it to succeed.

The Irish will also face two ranked teams – No. 12 Providence and No. 18 Georgetown.