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Irish runners finish among nation’s best

Bobby Griffin | Tuesday, November 30, 2004

As the Grateful Dead once sang, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

No truer words could be spoken about the men’s cross country team, who started the year unranked, ran its way to No. 5 in the nation, and then finished 11th in the NCAA championships Monday, Nov. 22 in Terre Haute. On the other side, the Irish women finished fourth in the nation, an impressive finish.

For the men, Kurt Benninger led all Irish runners with a time of 31 minutes, 54 seconds, which was good for 42nd place. Tim Moore finished right behind Benninger in 43rd place, with a 31:56.

Kaleb Van Ort and Sean O’Donnell finished 96th and 97th, respectively, with identical times of 32:32.

Ryan Johnson, Vincent Ambrico and AJ Andrassy also ran for the Irish, finishing 189th, 224th, and 240th overall.

Men’s coach Joe Piane was upset with the team’s performance, despite the fact it was better than anybody expected at the start of the season.

“I was very upset, we did not run up to our potential,” Piane said. “To a man, each guy, to the seven that competed, each could have run a little better. Some could have run a lot better.”

Piane attributed part of the disappointing finish to certain runners simply not doing what they were supposed to do.

“A couple guys didn’t do what they were told to do, and that certainly did hurt them,” Piane said.

The culmination of their brilliant season was slightly disappointing, but considering where they were at the beginning there is something to be proud of.

“At the outset of the season, if you had said, ‘Coach, you could be No. 11 in the country,’ I would have said ‘Thank you’ and walked away a happy man,” Piane said. “But after the way the season went, which went exceptionally well, that was disappointing.”

Piane compared the team’s loss to a situation where the football team is expecting to go 6-5, and suddenly finds themselves at 11-0, only to then lose in the BCS championship.

Meanwhile, the women had a lot more success in the race as they finished fourth.

“There were a whole lot of them that were far from 100 percent, they just ran and gave everything they had,” Irish women’s coach Tim Connelly said. “It was a great effort.”

Stephanie Madia led the Irish with a 23rd place finish overall, running a 20:58. Sunni Olding and Kerry Meagher were not too far behind Madia, finishing 32nd and 34th, with times of 21:10.

All three were All-Americans.

Molly Huddle, who was running on a broken foot, finished in 40th place for the Irish.

“We were really happy, I mean going in we had a couple kids injured, and we really didn’t know what to expect,” Connelly said. “Our kids competed really, really well.”

Connelly spoke at length about how proud he was of his team, a team that had a season full of injuries and problems that had to deal with on a weekly basis.

“Its kind of funny because a year ago, we had a great season all the way through and then at the end we kind of fell apart at nationals,” Connelly said. “This year the whole season was a struggle … and at the end they were able to put it all together and really accomplish something great.”

Connelly also discussed how the attitude of the team slowly changed because of the injuries over the course of the season.

“At the start of the year, our goal was to be top three or four in the country, and to be quite honest going into nationals we had stopped worrying about that,” Connelly said. “Our goal wasn’t to where we going to place, it was just to have seven people coming out of that meet feeling like they ran as well as they could. That was the most important thing that we accomplished the other day.”

Both the men and the women should be excited for 2005.

“We’re bringing back some great kids,” Connolly said. “Our expectation is to every year be one of the better teams in the country, and whether that means top four or top-10, that’s kind of our expectation.”

Piane agreed.

“We should be pretty strong next year. We retain six of our top seven, but the fellas that were eight, nine, 10 and 11 are also all back,” he said. “So that gives us 10 of our top 11 back.”