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ND Cross Country: Piane forsees tough competition

Vicky Jacobsen | Thursday, August 23, 2012

It’s not easy to claim a conference title in the Big East, where the competition includes historical cross country powers like Villanova, Providence and Georgetown as well as three-time reigning men’s champion Syracuse.

And it’s not easy to qualify for the NCAA championship meet, where just 31 of 310 Division I schools race for a national title.But Irish men’s coach Joe Piane remains as ambitious as ever as he embarks on his 36th season.

“The goals are always the same: win the Big East and get to the NCAAs. Our conference may be the toughest conference in the country for cross country for both the men and the women,” Piane said. “Then the other goal is to get to the NCAAs, and certainly the next goal is to try and get in the top 10 in the country. Now that’s a pretty lofty goal when you consider that there are 310 teams in the country. If you’re in the top 10, boy, you’re pretty good.”

Although the men’s side graduated three of its top seven runners from last season, Piane expects returning fifth-year senior Johnathan Shawel and sophomore Jake Kildoo to keep the lineup from faltering.

“We didn’t run John Shawel last year, so you slip him in there. Then we have another fellow, Jake Kildoo, that didn’t run last year, and boy, he’s awfully good,” Piane said. “Kildoo ran in the World Junior Track Championships this year in Barcelona, Spain, so he wasn’t in our group last year. [He’s] going to be a major help.”

Piane is happy with what he’s seen from his five freshmen, three of whom (Michael Clevenger, Timothy Ball, and Kevin Durham) ran in the 40-man field at the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships as high school seniors.

If all of his athletes perform well, Piane could be faced with the dilemma of which runners to hold out of the varsity seven instead of which to put in.

“You’ve got to look at [senior] Jeremy Rae, who was basically our No. 1 man all year, and then another senior is J.P. Malette, and then Jon Shawel,” Piane said. “Arguably those guys should be in our top three or four. But you can’t count out a junior, Martin Grady, who was at the NCAAs in the 10,000[-meter]. And then you also have Walter Schafer, who is a junior. He has all the talent in the world. He could be our No. 1 man if he runs the way he’s capable of running. And there’s a ton of other guys. So we probably have a dozen guys to choose from to get seven.”

The problem for the Irish is their opponents could have just as much talent on their rosters.

“Villanova had a terrific recruiting year,” Piane said. “Providence puts most of their efforts right into distance. And if Louisville gets the Kenyans they were trying to recruit, they’re going to be dynamite.”

The women’s side will face similarly difficult competition, but they will be buoyed by a strong freshman class that includes Foot Locker National Champion Molly Seidel.

“We have three really talented freshmen, Molly Seidel, Sydni Meunier and Dani Aragon, who are performing really well already,” senior Jessica Rydberg said. “It’s really exciting to have such a strong incoming class.”

Rydberg led the Irish last season, and has big plans for her final cross country campaign.

“We want to be top three in the Big East and win the region,” she said. “I would love to be an All-American this year, which would be top 40 in the nation [as an individual]. So I think that’s my ultimate goal.”

Both Rydberg and Piane said they are excited for the two home meets of the season, the National Catholic Championship on Sep. 14 and the Notre Dame Invitational on Sep. 28.

“The Notre Dame Invitational is terrific,” Piane said. “We will have a pretty good array of teams who are coming, [including] Florida State, Princeton, Washington State, New Mexico, Eastern Kentucky, Ohio State, and North Carolina State. So that meet should be very, very good.”

Rydberg and Piane also agreed that the hardest races of the season will come at the Big East Championship in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and at the NCAA regional meet at Wisconsin, where Notre Dame will face championship pressure and a course seemingly designed to drain runners.

“Wisconsin is a challenge,” Piane said. “Our course frankly is one of the flatter, so it’s a great place to run. The Big East course, we run that in New York, Van Cortlandt Park, is a bear. Those two are probably the most challenging.”

But the biggest challenge for seniors like Rydberg might be training hard and savoring their last season while also preparing to move on.

“It’s kind of bittersweet; I’m looking forward to doing things after college, but it’s also really hard to leave the team,” Rydberg said. “I think it’s really making me be sure to enjoy every minute that I have here left.”

The Irish are set to start the season at the Crusader Invitational in Valparaiso, Ind., on Aug. 31.

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at vjacobse@nd.edu