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ND Cross Country: Irish struggle against top-ranked opponents

Jay Fitzpatrick | Monday, October 2, 2006

Notre Dame ran hard, but in the end it wasn’t enough.

Both the Irish men’s and women’s teams faced tough fields Friday at the Notre Dame Invitational, but only the men were satisfied with their performance, finishing tied for fourth.

Notre Dame’s women’s team came in hoping to run well, but fell behind early and had little chance of catching the seven nationally ranked teams and finished 12th.

The women’s field featured seven teams ranked in the top 30 – including No. 3 Michigan – lining up against the Irish. By the first mile, these top teams had taken control of the race, pushing Notre Dame’s runners back in the pack. This trend only continued at the second mile with the Wolverines leading the pack followed by No. 12 North Carolina State and No. 29 Florida State.

By the finish, Michigan junior Erin Webster had a huge lead over the rest of the field, winning the race in 16:36 – 16 seconds faster than her next closest competitor. Webster helped lead the way for the Wolverines who won the race with 57 points. Michigan also boasted three runners in the top ten finishers with Alyson Kohlmeier (16:54) and Nicole Edwards (17:02) joining Webster at the front of the race.

As runners from Florida State and Providence continued to cross the finish line, the Irish had only one runner in -Sunni Olding, whose 17:15 time was only good enough for 18th place.

The Irish did not have another finisher until 17:44 when Julie Opet crossed the line for 47th place. Despite the low finish for the junior, Irish coach Tim Connelly was most impressed with Opet’s performance.

“We had one kid run well and that was Julie Opet,” he said.

Rounding out the top five for the Irish was Lindsey Ferguson (18:04), Heidi Rocha (18:12) and Becca Bauman (18:20). Connelly said he was very disappointed with his team’s performance other than Opet.

“I don’t know if we’re that bad or if we just had a bad day,” Connelly said. “Overall it was a wasted effort.”

The women’s team will look to rebound and improve in practice before the Pre-National Meet Oct. 14 in Terra Haute, Ind. But with only one runner with NCAA experience – Olding – the Irish will have to work hard to improve their race-running soon.

For as disappointing as the women’s team was, the No. 16 men’s team came out that strong, finishing tied for fourth with No. 26 Florida – one of six ranked teams running against the Irish.

One of the most important factors in the result was the return of Notre Dame’s top two runners for 2006 – Kurt Benninger and Patrick Smyth. Smyth led the Irish across the line with a third place finish at 23:46 – 22 seconds behind event champion Chris Solinsky from No.1 Wisconsin.

“I was extremely happy with my finish,” Smyth said. “I’ve been training all season and I definitely expected to be up front.”

The Badgers would eventually win the meet with 86 points, but coach Joe Piane was pleased with his teams result since it helped them gain at large points in the NCAA. Piane also noted he was more pleased with his team’s performance Friday than two weeks ago in the National Catholic Championship since they were able to compete with some of the best teams in the country.

“We were much better this race,” he said. “There were seven ranked teams in this meet and that means we beat a few.

“We can be a whole heck of a lot better.”

Piane was also pleased with his two freshmen runners -Brock Hagerman and Jake Walker – who finished sixth and seventh for the Irish, respectively. Walker could have finished even higher, but he was knocked down in the first 200 meters of the race. But Piane does think Hagerman has room to improve.

“Brock [Hagerman] needs to learn how to run a 5 mile race,” Piane said.

Overall, Piane was please with the way his team handled themselves against top competition, especially since they have already looked to the longer races later in the season.

“One reason for our finish is that we train for a 10K race [used at Regionals and Nationals]. We should be better there.”