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Track and Field

Freshmen adjust and excel in early going

| Monday, January 27, 2014

Freshman sprinter and hurdler Conner Stapleton is only a few meets into his college career, but he’s already noticed a huge change from high school.

Between the daily practices, weekend meets and other responsibilities of the student-athlete, he said he’s had to search for an extra gear to keep pace with the higher expectations.

Freshman Harvey Smith, left, runs during the Notre Dame Invitational on Saturday. Smith is one of the Irish freshmen off to a strong start in 2014.Mike Monaco | The Observer

Freshman Harvey Smith, left, runs during the Notre Dame Invitational on Saturday. Smith is one of the Irish freshmen off to a strong start in 2014.

“We have a meet every weekend, and you’re always expected to perform, whether you’re ready or not,” Stapleton said. “You really have to prepare yourself every way to run 100 percent and give it the best, whereas in high school, I remember being fresh all the time.”

Thus far, however, Stapleton and the rest of the freshman class seem to have adjusted quite easily to the increased responsibility. Stapleton notched a top-five finish in both the 400-meter dash at the Simmons-Harvey Invitational in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Jan. 18 and the 500-meter dash at the Notre Dame Invitational last weekend.

Two pairs of freshmen finished first and second in their events in Ann Arbor, with Alex Groesch (49.55) edging Harvey Smith (49.81) in the 400-meter dash, and Jacob Dumford (1:53.78) squeaking by teammate Chris Marco (1:54.13) in the 800-meter run. Dumford followed up that performance with a second-place finish last weekend in the 1,000-meter run.

Irish coach Joe Piane said he sees great potential for Dumford and Marco for the mile run.

“I think their future is definitely in the mile,” Piane said. “It’ll be interesting to see how well they could do this year, but they are the next two really good Notre Dame milers.”

Piane also singled out Patrick O’Connell, who won the 800-meter race last weekend, as another freshman off to a great start.

O’Connell, Marco and Dumford all competed for the Irish cross country team this fall, and Dumford said that experience was great preparation for the track season.

“I’m probably running 15 to 20 miles more a week [this spring] than I was in high school,” Dumford said. “But cross country was really helpful in the transition for me because … I was able to use most of the fall to put in a lot of miles and get really fit.”

Smith said there was also a lot of work the freshmen had to put in off the track.

“They put me on an eating plan, so I can’t eat stuff like chocolate,” Smith said. “I was on a strict protein diet earlier in the year, but it’s not as bad now. I don’t get as much sleep as I probably should, but … I try to get my homework done early so I can get a full night.”

Smith and Groesch also run two legs of the Irish 400-meter relay. While some might feel pressure about joining a team that competed in the NCAA meet last season, especially when the other two runners are returning All-American seniors Pat Feeney and Chris Giesting, Smith said they see last season’s success as inspiration.

“We have two All-American sprinters on the team, and they really help push us,” Smith said. “I don’t want to let them down. Our goal is to do better than what they did last year.”

Similarly, Dumford said he measures himself against his teammates, especially Marco and graduate student Jeremy Rae.

“In my first three races I’ve raced against … Chris Marco in all three of those,” Dumford said. “We kind of had our little rivalry and trash talk. There is a little fun banter back and forth.”

While the Irish teammates try their best to defeat each other on the track, little animosity survives once the race is over. According to Stapleton, the freshmen have relied on each other throughout the tough transition to college track.

“I think the freshmen are really, really close,” Stapleton said. “It’s a good friendly, competitive atmosphere; same with the upperclassmen, too. Every practice is really competitive and we always try to push each other to be better.”

Fellow sprinter Smith agreed.

“We’re all one big family,” Smith said. “It’s just nice to have a bunch of people that can help you succeed and push you.”

The freshmen and the rest of the Irish will return to action Saturday at the Indiana Relays and the New Mexico Team Invitational.

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