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ND Cross Country

Matt Sparks ready to debut Irish at Crusader Open

| Thursday, August 30, 2018

This Friday, Notre Dame will head to Valparaiso, Indiana to participate in the 30th Annual Crusader Open.

The Open is their first meet of the year, and the competition will serve as a benchmark for newly appointed head coach Matt Sparks. Sparks, a member of the coaching staff since 2014, served as the team’s associate head coach and focused on the women’s distance program, along the way producing a pair of two-time All-Americans in senior Anna Rohrer and Molly Seidel, the latter of whom would go on to earn the first individual championship of the women’s program during her senior year.

Anna Mason
Irish sophomore Brooke Trossen passes a competitor during the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational 5K Open race at the Burke Golf Course on Sept. 29.

Sparks begins his first season at the helm attempting to lead the Irish back into the conversation of national contention after neither team qualified for the NCAA Championship this past season. There’s no doubting his pedigree, however. During his 12 year tenure as head coach at Southern Illinois University, the Salukis clinched six Missouri Valley Conference titles, including the first for the women’s program in 21 years.

The Irish have a strong foundation to capitalize on last year’s strong recruiting season with an impressive group of freshman in addition to the core of upperclassmen returning from last year. The men added significantly to their team with key recruits including freshmen Danny Kilrea and Dylan Jacobs, both of whom have impressive resumes — a third and first place finish at the 2017 Foot Locker Nationals, respectively — giving Notre Dame one of the strongest recruiting classes in the nation.

Along with the new additions that can be expected to make immediate contributions, the men are also returning six of their seven members from last year’s regional team, including top-20 regional finisher sophomore Yared Nuguse.

On the women’s side, the team looks to veteran leadership from a strong class of seniors, including 4-time ACC champion Anna Rohrer. Rohrer, the former All-American and Foot Locker Champion in high school, has battled a series of injuries in her back and hamstring, causing her to sit out her sophomore track postseason and the entirety of her junior cross country season. The Mishawaka, Ind. native returned to the action in track this past season and went on to earn All-American honors with a sixth place finish in the 10,000-meter run at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.

In the absence of Rohrer, seniors Annie Heffernan and Rachel DaDamio and sophomore Annasophia Keller stepped up, rounding out the top-3 throughout the season. With a more experienced squad, the team should be capable of handling the obstacles the season could present.

The women’s team is currently ranked No. 23 in the preseason poll, while the men’s squad lies unranked. As the Irish open their season, they’ll be looking to maintain the momentum from last year’s results at the Crusader Open, where the men took home first and the women came in second behind Purdue.

After returning for the Crusader Open, Sparks and his team will refocus to their two home meets in the upcoming month — the National Catholic Invitation and the Joe Piane Invitational. Both have attracted elite teams in past years and will serve as a good baseline for training before post season and national meets kick off in October.

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