ND Cross Country
Notre Dame looks to build on last year as season commences
Joe Everett | Thursday, August 31, 2017
With a combination of new faces and experienced veterans, the Notre Dame men’s and women’s cross country squads appear primed to outpace last year’s finishes as they enter the 2017 campaign.
After the Irish open their season at the Crusader Open in Valparaiso, Indiana, on Friday, the team will host the National Catholic Invitational on Sept. 15 and the Joe Piane Invitational on Sept. 29, both on the Burke Golf Course. Afterwards, the team will split in mid-October to compete in two separate competitions, before the Irish will regroup to compete in their fifth ACC championship, held in Louisville, Kentucky, on Oct. 27. Continuing its run to the national championship, Notre Dame will then travel to Terre Haute, Indiana, for the NCAA Regionals on Nov. 10, and then return to Louisville, Kentucky, and the E.P. Tom Sawyer Park on Nov. 18. Although the road to that final date will be long and arduous, associate head coach Matt Sparks believes the Irish are improved and have enough experience to make a large impact at every meet along with way.
“We’ve got a much more veteran group of athletes than we’ve had in the past,” Sparks said. “[We’ve] got a good group of juniors and seniors, and we’re excited to see how they’ve matured over the last two years. We’ve seen glimpses of each of their successes, whether in track or cross country, but for the most part everybody’s healthy and ready to go, so I’m excited to see [them] put their best foot forward this fall.”
Especially on the men’s side, the team needs individuals to improve and take several steps forward. The squad ended last year’s disappointing season with a 14th place finish at the NCAA Regionals, but Sparks believes the team’s increased depth and improvement over the summer should yield some much better performances, although it is still unclear who these performances will come from.
“You’ll see a much different men’s team this year,” Sparks said. “There are fifteen newcomers … whereas last year we struggled to find five to seven healthy bodies to put out there at any given time, this year there are ten to fifteen interchangeable parts. They’ve all trained well over the summer, as well as the first weeks of practice, but at this point we still couldn’t tell you who’s number one and who’s number 10. For the men’s team, these next couple weeks are going to allow us to see how things shake out with a lot of new bodies, from freshmen who were high school superstars to a couple fifth year transfers that are new to the program to the returning kids who have a whole new fitness level. There are just a lot of unanswered questions on the men’s team, but we’ll be able to figure some things out over the next couple weeks of competition. I feel like they’re all fit and much improved, it’s just a matter of who’s going to really step up and assert themselves.”
On the women’s side, however, the present stability and star power has once again led to great expectations. The United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association has ranked Notre Dame at No. 8 — the highest preseason ranking for the Irish women since 2005. As opposed to the men’s squad, Sparks sees the relative lack of question marks on the women’s side as a positive sign for sustained success throughout the season.
“The women’s team is on the other side of that spectrum,” Sparks said. “There are seven individuals that we feel like can really step in and contribute, and they’ve all been there and done that. So we have a good idea about where they are. They have a few freshmen, but for the most part our top seven is going to be much of the same – [freshman] Anna Sophia Keller is the one name that’ll hopefully step in and [be a part of that group].”
Regardless of preseason rankings, both squads should have the luxury of receive strong leadership from their captains. Seniors Brent Kennedy and Kevin Pulliam will guide the men’s team, while juniors Rachel DaDamio and Anna Rohrer, the reigning ACC champion, will lead the women’s team throughout the 2017 season. Sparks believes these individuals will have great impact at the leadership position.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty on the men’s team as far as who’s going to perform, but the two things we don’t question are Brent and Kevin,” Sparks said. “They’ve been mainstays for the last three years here, this is their senior year and they know the program. There’s going to be a lot of pressure put on them to obviously perform but also to mentor the younger kids and make sure they get started on the right path. Rachel and Anna are both juniors, which is a more unique role for a junior to be in such a leadership position. Anna just commands respect for what she’s done and accomplished, and Rachel’s always been in our top five, and just gains respect by being the person that she is. Anna, obviously by being competitive nationally for so many years, brings a wealth of experience to the table, and Rachel’s always kind of been ‘the team mom’ in a lot of ways — she knows the personalities in the team better than anyone — so they both fill different roles for the team.”
Although it’s typically considered more of an exhibition meet, the Irish will officially kick off their season this Friday at the Crusader Open. With many young runners and even more question marks, Sparks believes this year’s Crusader Open will be especially fruitful in determining who will run where, and hopefully establishing some stability throughout the team.
“For the women, it’s a chance for the freshmen and developing runners to assert themselves and try to give themselves a leg up on making the varsity top seven or eight,” Sparks said. “So out of the seven that will be competing this week, four or five will be freshmen. For the men, we’ll be putting roughly ten guys out there, and many of them will be guys we expect to be in our top five throughout the year. For the men’s team, this’ll be their first hard effort, so it’ll be a better indicator than most years. It’s a very low-key event and we hold out several of our top people, but it’s a chance for our leaders to step up, and for the other kids that had good summers of training to let them show us what it’s really done for them.”
The Crusader Open will begin at 5:45 p.m. Friday at Sunset Hill Farm County Park in Valparaiso, Indiana.