ND Cross Country
Sparks discusses plans for new season, contributions of all runners
Patrick Gallagher | Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Entering into his second year as the Irish director of track and field and cross country, Matt Sparks has had a long and storied career in college athletics. Sparks’ leadership was apparent even in his time as a collegiate athlete at Indiana. He was a key contributor running in the 3,000 meter, 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter events while being named team captain for both cross country and track and field. He was also named Indiana’s cross country MVP in 1996. When asked about how he decided to become a coach, Sparks explained that the example of his father inspired him to follow in his footsteps.
“I grew up as the son of a high school basketball coach, and, in Indiana, basketball kind of reigns supreme,” he said. “I watched the dedication that it takes to be successful, such as having day in and day out commitment, 365 days a year. From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be a coach, but I didn’t know if it was going to be in basketball, track or cross country.
“I had more success as a high school athlete in track and cross country than I did in basketball, which led me to compete in those two sports at Indiana. Upon graduation, I had the opportunity to stay and be a graduate assistant coach there, and the rest is history.”
After serving as an assistant on the Hoosiers track and field team for three years, Sparks spent two years at Ohio State as an assistant coach. He then coached at Southern Illinois for twelve years and became one of the school’s most successful cross country coaches, helping the men and women win six Missouri Valley Conference championships in total. Sparks became Notre Dame’s associate head coach in 2014 before earning his current position last year.
Sparks’ accomplished career with the Irish includes six individual women’s ACC championships and a 13th overall finish at the women’s 2015 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship, which, at the time, was the best placement Notre Dame has ever had at that meet. Despite having coached talented Irish cross country runners such as Molly Seidel and Anna Rohrer, Sparks most fondly remembers the strong performances from runners who are not in the national spotlight.
“The first thing that everybody thinks about when they think of the recent history of Notre Dame track and cross country are the national championship performances by Molly Seidel and Margaret Bamgbose,” he said. “Those are all big things, but the events that stand out are the performances from kids who are not on most people’s radars. Everybody always notices the number one person, … and that’s neat.
“They get all of the attention, but it’s the kid that does the dirty work … that you feel the most excited for and most proud of. Internally, the team knows what they have gone through to get where they are. Sydney Foreman was our fifth runner on our national team last year. She had a big race that helped us out as a team. On the men’s side, [senior] Kevin Salvano had a big finish for us at the conference meet. He was our fifth guy, and he pushed us to win the conference title.”
Sparks also commented on the difficulty of competing in the ACC and described how creating a tough schedule can prepare the team for postseason meets.
“It’s a tough conference on both sides,” he said. “The ACC has four or five teams ranked in the top 30 in both the men’s and women’s competitions, respectively. To prepare for that conference championship, you have to give yourself some confidence while testing yourself along the way. Putting a schedule together that reflects the quality of the teams that you are facing at the conference level will prepare you.”
With the running season underway, Sparks outlined his team’s goals for the year and explained his relationship with others on his coaching staff.
“Both teams are always aspiring to be top ten in the country,” he said. “The women were able to do that last year, and the men were just on the edge of that with their 14th-place finish. We also want to win the conference titles. The men did that, and the women came up just a little bit short. As a head coach, you’re always trying to help your assistants develop, learn and grow as coaches.”
Sparks praised the efforts of the coaches who help him oversee the teams.
“We took a little step this summer by giving Coach [Sean] Carlson a new title for the job that he had already been doing, as he had great success directing our men’s team over the past couple of years,” he said. “Kendra Foley has done a great job assisting with the women, and she’s in her second year of coaching ever. She was a national champion when she was at Grand Valley State and has really connected with the girls on the team.”