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ND Cross Country

Everett: Joe Piane Invitational will prove a true test for the Irish

| Monday, September 17, 2018

While the Irish should certainly be pleased with their performance Friday afternoon at the National Catholic Invitational, to put it in running terms, this was more of a warmup then an actual race.

Because the true test for this young Irish team under the leadership of first-year head coach Matt Sparks is coming up next.

I’m not trying to disparage the Irish winning their 12th consecutive National Catholic Invitational — it’s quite an accomplishment — but once you’ve won something 12 times in a row, it’s obvious that you need a separate measurement to truly seeing whether you’re improving or growing worse and a team and as a program.

Anna Mason | The Observer

Irish sophomore Yared Nuguse runs down the final straightaway during the Joe Piane Invitational on Sept. 29 at Burke Golf Course.

That measurement will come in the form of the Joe Piane Invitational in two weeks on the same course where the Irish mowed down the competition this Friday — only with much better and nationally ranked competition by their side this time around.

The Joe Piane Invitational attracts many of the top teams from around the country every year such as Colorado, New Mexico, Air Force and Southern Utah, and that reality usually results in Notre Dame getting more or less run over on its home course. Last year, the women finished 13th while the men came in 17th. The year before, the women finished eighth while the men finished 25th. Back in 2012? The men’s team finished third while the women’s team finished second. Even in 2015 the women’s team finished fifth with then-star freshman Anna Rohrer joining Irish cross-country legend Molly Seidel.

This is all to say that the Irish haven’t been seriously competitive at the Joe Piane Invitational in quite a few years as the program has been unable to sustain that level of success on the national stage. If new head coach Matt Sparks wants to build this program back into the national powerhouse it once was, then the team will have to start showing up at the big-time meets and beating nationally-ranked teams in preparation for ACCs and Nationals at the end of the season.

But perhaps I’ve made a false start and jumped the gun. One doesn’t simply build a national powerhouse overnight, just as one can’t become a great distance runner overnight. It takes time, practice and patience.

And, to be fair, there were a lot of positive signs to take away from Notre Dame’s performance at the National Catholic Invitational. On the women’s side, Annie Heffernan led the way to her third straight victory at the National Catholic, and she was followed by two freshmen in second and third place — Jacqueline Gaughan and Elana Denner. Together with senior Rachel DaDamio’s fourth place finish and the eventual return of star senior Anna Rohrer — who did not compete at the National Catholic Invitational — the Irish will have a deep and talented group of runners that will be scoring at meets, with sophomore Annasophia Keller continuously pushing that group to be the best it can be. If they can stay healthy, Friday’s near-perfect-score performance is a great indicator of things to come.

On the men’s side, they finally have the combination of great depth and quality talent. Even with some members of the team sick, the Irish still placed four members in the top six, led by senior Anthony Williams. Even if the men’s team is still catching up to the women’s, they’re definitely trending in the right direction. The men’s team didn’t even win the National Catholic Invitational last year — narrowly edged by Dayton — so the victory is in and of itself an improvement.

So yes, Notre Dame still needs to prove itself on the biggest stage and cultivate enough confidence to compete with the best teams, but Friday’s performance was another step in that direction.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Joe Everett

Joe is a senior PLS major and hails from the thriving metropolis of South Bend, IN. In addition to serving as Sports Editor at The Observer, Joe is a RA in Stanford Hall and a past champion of the Observer's Fantasy Football league.

Contact Joe