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ND Cross Country: Seniors lead team to top-10 rankings

Laura Coletti | Tuesday, August 30, 2011

When preseason rankings were released, the Irish once again found themselves among the region’s elite teams.

The United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association released preseason poll results Monday, and both the men’s and women’s teams have spots in the top-10 of the Great Lakes Region. The men are ranked fourth, behind Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio State, respectively. The women come in at sixth, behind Michigan, Toledo, Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State.

The expected success of the women’s squad, which finished last season ranked sixth, is due to its senior class.

Senior captain Rachel Velarde, and seniors Gena Bleyer, Molly Hirt, Kari Johnson, Allison Schroeder and Susanna Sullivan have enjoyed success during the course of their first three seasons at Notre Dame and intend to take their achievements to a new level in their final campaign.

Velarde, Hirt and Sullivan made key contributions for the Irish last year, each placing in several of the team’s meets, including the Pre-NCAA Meet, the Big East Meet and the NCAA Great Lakes Regional Meet. The six seniors also enjoyed victory at the regional meet as sophomores, when the team came from behind and placed first.

It has not always been an easy road for the class of 2012, as they have faced injuries and lost teammates that have quit the team along the way.

“When my class came in as freshmen, there were 12 of us. Through the years we’ve unfortunately lost some really great girls,” Velarde said. “I think what makes our class unique and what sets us apart is that we’ve had a lot of injuries and setbacks, but we’ve just worked harder and harder and been able to help the team. I think it’s made us better people in general.”

This class has transformed from timid freshmen to bona fide leaders over the last three years.

“Coming in as freshman, it’s a very different experience than high school or any previous experience, and all of us wanted to contribute to the team to make it the best it could be,” Velarde said. “As the years progressed and we got older, we had to try to take on leadership roles, not just by example, but by being vocal leaders.

“We couldn’t be following anymore,” she said. “We had to try to help the younger kids succeed.”

Velarde said their camaraderie has also aided their success.

“Being with these girls, we’re friends on and off the course,” she said. “To be in the sport that we’re in, you have to have so much love for your teammates, and [ours] can be seen both on and off the course.”

Under the leadership of the senior class, Velarde has set high standards for the Irish.

“Our goals for this season are to finish top-4 in the Big East, win [the Great Lakes Region], and finish top-15 in Nationals,” she said.

The first meet of the year for the men and women is Friday at Valparaiso’s Crusader Invitational in Valparaiso, Ind.