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ND Cross Country

Notre Dame cross country to begin season at Irish Classic

| Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Notre Dame men’s and women’s cross country teams are scheduled to start their 2020 season Saturday in the Irish Classic against the Louisville Cardinals. Although the season will look very different than other years, both teams will still have a chance to prove themselves at the end of the year at the ACC Championships.

Women’s head coach Matt Sparks discussed what training and practice has looked like during the COVID-19 pandemic. The team has created “pods” of runners based on fitness level that train together on a regular basis.

“It’s been surprisingly regular. Training has been very similar,” Sparks said. “We found the new normal of working out in that we run in groups of three to four people at a time where we can socially distance and take our masks off.” 

Sparks also said the team has been training on the Burke Golf Course on a more consistent basis in order to separate from the rest of the campus community around the lakes.

Despite the strangeness of having a cross country season in the middle of the pandemic, Sparks said nothing seems too out of the ordinary for the runners.

“If you talk to them, they feel very normal,” Sparks said. “The sport doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

One main difference this year will be the size of the meets. Whereas the Irish would usually be participating in a 40-team race this weekend, they will only have one opponent and maybe some unattached runners this Saturday.

“Instead of 200 people in your race, you are going to have 30 people in your race. That’s going to be the biggest difference that the athletes notice — smaller field sizes in competition,” Sparks said.

Another big difference this year is that there will not be fans at meets. Sparks is confident, however, that his runners will respond to this change well. 

“I think the kids are self-driven enough that the lack of people cheering for them might not be as big of a factor as it might be perceived,” Sparks said. “I know that they are just excited to race for the first time in eight months or so.”

The women’s team heads into the year ranked third in the preseason ACC rankings. Although they lost their top runner from last year in Anna Rohrer, the Irish return a solid core of runners who will look to push the Irish towards an ACC title. That being said, the Irish will need to rely on their depth rather than a top runner.

“The look of our team will be a lot different,” Sparks said. “The last few years, we have had a really low finisher at every meet from Anna Rohrer to Molly Seidel. This year will be the first year since I’ve been here that we’re gonna have a much more cohesive team approach to our success. We aren’t going to rely on our number one runner.”

While the top runner on the team this year appears to be junior Maddy Denner, who was named to the 2020 Women’s All-ACC Academic Team last year, how the rest of the runners fall in place is yet to be determined.

“The depth of our team is where we are going to find our success,” Sparks said. “I feel like we have eight athletes that could be anywhere from our second to fifth runner. We’ve got a lot of kids that are really taking the initiative to recognize that they are going to have to step up if we are going to be where we were previously.”

Sparks is excited to see what his full team will look like this Saturday.

“We’ve had the opportunity for small groups to work together throughout the semester, but this will be the first time this semester that everyone has started a race at the same time,” Sparks said. “It will be neat to see how the groups that we have separated together in separate pods mesh together as an individual team.”

Sparks stressed how important it is to him that his runners focus on controlling what what is within their power to control on Saturday. Due to the pandemic, it is unclear who the Cardinals will have on the line.

“More than ever, we need to focus on what we can control and what we can do in the race. We want to get out aggressive,” Sparks said. “That is always one common theme that we have had in the program. We want to get out fast, but settle in during the middle. Find your teammates during that first 2-2.5 miles and then turn it on a little bit at the end.”

On the men’s side, there are big expectations with the Irish returning their core group of runners from last year. The men are the preseason number one in the ACC and are arguably one of the top teams in the nation. Last year, the Irish placed second at the ACC Championships and eighth at the national meet.

Head men’s coach Sean Carlson shared that the end goal for the men’s team is to win the ACC Championship with the national meet up in the air. The NCAA is currently considering having a cross country championship in the Winter or Spring but nothing is confirmed.

Carlson emphasized the importance of growing in confidence throughout the year.

“When you are really good, you should have the confidence to train within yourself and prove yourself during every race and workout. We struggled a little bit with that last year,” Carlson said. “We want to show we are taking that leap from a confidence and maturity standpoint as a team.”

Carlson also hopes that his team can progress this year despite not having a national meet. The Irish are expected to return their entire roster for the 2021 season and by that point, Carlson hopes his team can compete for a national championship.

As far as this weekend goes, Carlson fully expects his team to control the race against the Cardinals and to get back into the racing mentality.

“We should go out there and control the race,” Carlson said. “The big thing we are trying to do more importantly than win, is not just racing to hurt, but to hurt for each other. There is a big difference between racing for yourself and starting to race for your teammates again. I think you get a much better product when you start racing for other people.”

Saturday’s meet will start at 9 a.m. at Burke Golf Course. No fans will be permitted to watch, however, per the University of Notre Dame’s COVID-19 guidelines.

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