Track and Field
Despite unfulfilled championship hopes, talented Irish teams to bolster ranks with stellar recruiting classes
Mannion McGinley | Friday, May 15, 2020
After the women placed third in the ACC indoor conference championship, matching their best placement since 2016, and the men placed fourth, matching their best finish since 2014, the leading competitors from the Notre Dame track and field teams boarded a plane to Albuquerque for the NCAA Championships, only to turn around and come home within the same 18 hours.
Despite the anticlimactic finish, head coach Matt Sparks still recounts growth from the cross country season and the indoor season, what could’ve been this spring, as well as what all of these pieces will mean for the future.
“The big breakthrough of the fall was the development of the men’s team,” Sparks said. “They had fallen on hard times three, four years ago, but they’ve made a resurgence in the last two or three years. They went from 14th in the country last year to 8th this year and they returned near their entire starting seven. So, really excited to see them take the next step with a great recruiting class that they brought in. They should be battling for a top-five spot in the country.”
Sparks continued regarding the indoor season.
“One of the neat moments for the winter season was we hosted the Indoor Championships,” he said. “Obviously hosting a meet was a big event for us but performing while you’re hosting made things extra special.”
Some individuals had earned their own recognition in each season as well. Sparks first acknowledged graduate student distance runner Anna Rohrer.
“Over on the women’s side with the first four-time all American in Notre Dame women‘s cross country history, [Rohrer] finished 17th this fall at the National meet, especially neat for someone from Mishawaka, Indiana,” Sparks said. “[Rohrer] grew up 20 minutes from campus, bought into coming to college 20 minutes away, which is sometimes a hard thing to sell a kid on, and continued to grow and develop the way we imagined, and kind of a real deep story for someone local to kind of still thrive and grow that close to home.”
While they didn’t have a chance to win the direct national titles, the winter athletes managed to thrive through the season as well, Sparks said.
“There were those that I feel really were ready to break out and establish themselves as elite,” Sparks said. “[Junior thrower] Rachel Tanczos was the NCAA leader in the women’s weight throw. And, you know, that’s an event that Notre Dame traditionally hasn’t excelled in until the last two years, so it was a chance to learn from Rachel specifically and to put themselves on a whole new level. And I think they did that with their regular season marks, she and [senior thrower] Abbey Kapitan. Abbey was ranked seventh in the country going to Nationals so huge chances for both of them to really put Notre Dame throwing, the throwing events, on the map when we’ve traditionally been a distance-heavy running school. So, I really feel for them.”
Sparks also lamented the missed opportunity for the distance running group.
“And then on the men’s side, the distance medley relay was the national champion in 2019, they returned … the entire team,” he said. “And so, we were one of the favorites to claim that title again this year. And then, going outdoors, [junior distance runner] Yared Nuguse was the defending national champion in the 1500m, and obviously did not get the chance to win that title in outdoor track and field.”
However, as juniors, Tanczos and Nuguse will have the chance to potentially claim those titles next year. Kapitan is a senior, but she has deferred law school for a year in order to throw for her fifth year. Others have yet to make a decision regarding a fifth year.
“It’s especially frustrating for [senior] Summer Thorpe who is more of a 100[-meter] hurdler.” Sparks said. “She’s better outdoors so at this time Summer’s exploring her fifth-year options and debating coming back to school here at Notre Dame; she hasn’t made that decision yet. [Senior sprinter and hurdler] Naya [Sharp]’s not sure what her future holds or whether she’s going to pursue her fifth-year … Another interesting one is Logan Kusky; he was the men‘s weight throw champion of the conference. And he‘s in the same boat as well; he‘s got a fifth year of outdoor track eligibility now and he‘s already accepted a job, signed a contract to take a job, and now he‘s trying to decide — does he try to defer that job and come back for a fifth year or move on with his life?”
This extra year of eligibility has changed a lot concerning recruiting. The men’s distance team is gaining a significant number of incoming freshmen, making up one of the strongest recruiting classes in the country. However, most of them will redshirt considering the returning group.
The women’s team has gained two multi-event recruits. Jumper Madison Schmidt and hurdler Jadin O’Brien, along with the rest of their recruiting class, will be more likely than the men to jump right into competition. Both of these classes will be somewhat thrown off, however, due to the high number of graduate transfers that have appeared this year.
Despite this unusual scenario, Sparks maintains an outlook that, while geared toward next season, can be applied to almost every student-athlete and even every student during this pandemic.
“The biggest thing athletes can take out of this is that they get a fresh start in the fall,” Sparks said. “From where they missed out on spring, and whether you maybe had some apprehensions about where your fitness or your training or your health was going into the track season coming into the fall, whether it’s a track athlete or a cross country athlete, you’ve got the summer to make up for what you might not have been ready for in the spring. So everybody gets a fresh start come August. And so, look at it that way, don’t forget … they need to forget about the frustrations they might have had because of the loss of the season in the spring, and use this as a positive to grow throughout the spring and the summer to be ready for the fall.”