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ND Cross Country: Irish return strong core of upperclassmen

Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, August 25, 2011

Following a 25th place finish at the NCAA championship meet last season, Irish men’s cross country coach Joe Piane said he expects further development and even more success in this year’s campaign.

“The goal is always to do well in the Big East and make the NCAAs,” Piane said.

Returning all but one of the championship meet runners, the Irish maintain a strong core to make another deep run in 2011. The status of junior Jeremy Rae, who finished 78th in the national meet last year, remains uncertain, however, due to an injury.

“[Rae] is a real question mark because he’s injured,” Piane said. “We’ll see how he responds. If he comes back, and we think he will, he’ll be one of our top runners.”

Piane said senior Jordan Carlson, junior J.P. Malette and sophomores Martin Grady and Walter Schafer would also be key contributors to the team this season. Piane said he already noticed improvements in the team, despite having only had less than a week of practice this season.

“I’ve been really pleased with [sophomore] DJ Thornton,” Piane said. “He’s looked very good so far.”

After the spring track season ended, the team shifted their focus to cross country and changed the pace and types of their workouts.

“We did lots of long distance in the summer in preparation for cross country,” Piane said.

Tim Connelly, Irish women’s cross country coach, is also optimistic about a team that returns six of last year’s top seven runners.

“Our expectations are pretty high. We’re still fairly young but we expect to be much improved,” Connelly said. “We want to be an NCAA qualifier.”

Last fall, the Irish ended their season in Rochester, Mich., after a sixth place finish in the NCAA Great Lakes Regional. Sophomore Alexa Aragon led Notre Dame in the meet, placing 22nd and earning All-Region honors.

“She’s one of our top runners that improved as the season went on,” Connelly said. “I was encouraged by the improvement throughout the year.”

This year, the Irish will host two meets at the Notre Dame Golf Course — the National Catholic Championships Sept. 16 and the Notre Dame Invitational Sept. 30. These meets, however, are not the only ones on Connelly’s mind.

“We always look forward to the championship meets,” Connelly said. “We want to run well in the Big East [championships] and the NCAA Regional meets.”

Both Irish squads will open the season on the road in Valparaiso, Ind., at the Crusader Invitational Sept. 2.