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Track and Field

Track and Field travels to Austin, Texas for national championship

| Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Though most Irish seasons have drawn well to a close, Notre Dame head coach Matt Sparks’ team is gearing up for its national championship in Austin, Texas. The meet, opening Wednesday, will feature seven Irish athletes, all competing on the track.

While much of the focus for Sparks’ staff will be on the six women who qualified for the national meet, sophomore distance runner Yared Nuguse is expected to kick things off strong for the Irish in the second running event of the day. Nuguse is entering the 1,500-meter race with a regional victory and a third-place national seeding. Though this event is his first national appearance in an outdoor venue, he’s built himself an impressive resume, anchoring the national championship distance medley relay team (DMR).

”Yared’s made a big jump from a year ago when he failed to advance to the finals,” Sparks said. ”In indoor, he gained a lot of confidence by leading the men to a national championship in the DMR. Somehow he got an ‘x’ on his back. He’s become one of the top 1500-meter guys in the country.”

Sparks said the experience Nuguse gained over the past year has changed his strategy on the big stage.

”He’s known to get out in front and push the pace early and I’m sure the national meet will be very similar,“ Sparks said.

Following Nuguse’s debut, the Irish will return to the track Thursday. This time, the women will be taking their shot at a top-20 team finish. First up, graduate student Jessica Harris will look to continue Notre Dame’s dominance in the 1,500-meter, having won her regional race with a time of 4:12.64.

Less than an hour later, Summer Thorpe is scheduled to compete in the 100-meter hurdles.

Although this is the junior’s first time qualifying for the national championship, Sparks said “she’s had a couple years to find a level of maturity.”

In the final race of the meet, senior Anna Rohrer will lead freshmen duo Jackie Gaughan and Maddy Denner in the 10,000-meter run.

Sparks said Harris and Rohrer are both veterans and should be the most prepared to handle the expectations that come along with the national spotlight.

”[It‘s a] different feel for them going into it,” he said. “They know what to expect. This shouldn’t be an overwhelming experience for them. They’ll just have a lot more confidence and comfort level going into the championship, which is the big advantage they’re going to have.“

Nuguse, Thorpe and Harris will hope to qualify for the final two days of competition. Senior Rachel DaDamio will also join them in one of the last events of the meet, the 5,000-meter run.

While Rohrer and Harris are certainly favorites to get the Irish women on the board this week, Denner, Gaughan, Thorpe and DaDamio have all proven capable of making a splash in Austin.

In fact, despite Rohrer and Gaughan finishing first and second, respectively, in the longest race of the meet, Denner’s 10,000-meter qualifying race came as a pleasant surprise to Sparks. Halfway through the race in the regional meet — only the second of Denner’s career at that distance — the freshman found herself solidly in the mid-20s, clearing outside of the top 12 that qualify.

“It looked like she was going to be on the short end of that stick. But over the last half of that race, she raced with an enormous amount of confidence for a freshman, second-time 10k runner,” Sparks said.

Denner’s strong finish was enough to punch her ticket to the Lone Star State.

One of Sparks’ major concerns entering this meet was the “less-than-optimal conditions for distance runners,“ he said. With temperatures expected to reach well into the 90s throughout the week, hydration will be of particular priority for the team, he added.

Sparks said what each team and individual racer plans to do in preparation for the meet is very personalized.

“The men have had some elite-level performances over the course of the last 12 months,“ he said. “Now, it’s just a matter of bringing up that kind of second tier of guys. … This year, they did some things [on a national level], but I don’t think they were fully confident and on what they were ready to do out there.”

However, Sparks said he is confident the men‘s program‘s time is just around the corner, citing Nuguse as a big part of its rise. Meanwhile, the women‘s program has reached a point of sustained success, raising the team’s expectations, Sparks said.

“The woman fully expect — and it’s kind of ingrained in each them  — that this is the expectation. [It’s] what they’re going to do it,“ Sparks said of the roster set to compete Thursday.

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