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ND Cross Country: Notre Dame runs for NCAA Tournament bid

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, November 10, 2006

After a long season, Notre Dame is one good race away from its ultimate goal – the NCAA Tournament.The Irish will run Saturday against teams from across the Midwest in the NCAA Great Lakes regional in Bowling Green, Ohio.The No. 18 men’s team is ready to rebound from a tough third place finish Oct. 27 in the Big East championship against their regional competition. The team’s goal is to finish no lower than second, which would guarantee it a spot in the NCAA Tournament Nov. 20.”We don’t want to leave anything to chance so our goal is second or better,” sophomore Patrick Smyth said. “I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t get that.”Despite Notre Dame’s confidence, the Irish will face tough competition Saturday. The field in the Great Lakes region features five top-30 teams including the Irish, No. 1 Wisconsin, No. 11 Michigan, No. 27 Michigan State and No. 29 Butler.The Irish already met two of those schools – Michigan and Wisconsin – at the Notre Dame Invitational Sept. 29. Notre Dame’s fourth-place finish at that event was good enough to best Wisconsin, who finished eighth. Michigan finished second.Even though the Irish will compete Saturday in of the toughest fields they have seen this season, coach Joe Piane has lightened the workload for his team heading into the postseason. “We’ve been tapering a little bit, but not a whole lot,” Smyth said. “We did some thousands on the track on Tuesday, everybody did well on that. But other than that we’ve been getting more mentally prepared for the meet.”Smyth and senior Kurt Benninger have been the main keys for Irish success this season. The two finished second and third at the Big East race and were named to the all-Big East team along with junior Jake Watson. For this race, Notre Dame’s top two runners hope to again stay at the front of the pack.”If there’s a group of 15 or so, we want to be in that group,” Smyth said. “We just want to be in the front of the pack. We’re not going to work too hard at all; we’re going to save as much as possible for nationals.”The women’s team is also prepared for postseason play, riding the momentum of a strong third place finish at the conference tournament two weeks ago.The Big East result was a team effort, starting with junior Sunni Olding, who finished sixth, and continuing with seniors Ann Mazur and Amy Kohlmeier, who finished 12th and 14th, respectively.Notre Dame coach Tim Connelly hopes the Irish carry their strong finish into the NCAA Regional.”We’ve been steadily building all season so we’re hoping to fix whatever we could after the Big East and just do the little things right this week, because everyone looked awesome at the Big East,” junior Julie Opet said.The women’s field at the Great Lakes regional also has a number of top schools, including No. 3 Michigan, No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 11 Michigan State and No. 28 Butler. But the Irish are confident they can succeed.”Getting to nationals is our one and only focus,” Opet said. “A top-two finish would be awesome. But we are just trying to beat as many teams as possible. We’re looking at at least a top-four finish to get pushed in.”To prepare for this race, Notre Dame has cut down on its practices, an attempt to save some leg strength for the tough competition. “We’ve cut back since this is the postseason now,” Connelly said, “not on the intensity of the training, but just how long our runs are to make sure our legs are in good condition for this race.”