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ND Cross Country

Cross country set to compete for ACC title

| Friday, October 30, 2020

The Notre Dame women’s and men’s cross country teams will compete in the ACC Championships in Cary, N.C. on Friday in their last meet of the season. Both teams are nationally ranked and will head into the meet with high expectations. 

Head women’s coach Matt Sparks talked about how his team has responded well to having four weeks off from racing.

“We have gained a lot of confidence during this time by just being able to train and worry about workouts and hitting some fast times in practice without having to worry about a race coming up,” Sparks explained. “There’s a lot of positive energy as a result of being able to focus on training over the last four weeks.”

The Irish women are currently ranked No.12 in the country, and they will face stiff competition against North Carolina State (No. 4), Florida State (No. 21), Georgia Tech (No. 25) and North Carolina (No. 27).

Grace Aubry

A group of runners from the Notre Dame women’s cross country team travel in a pack during a race

Sparks commented that defending conference champion North Carolina State looks like the fastest team on paper, but nothing is for sure until the runners hit the course.

Sparks said sophomore Jessica Schneider, who has been the top runner for the Irish this past year, has been limited over the last week and a half in training, but he hopes that she is at her best come Friday.

“Hopefully we will have her back in full strength on Friday,” Sparks said. “That’s the unique thing about this team. Jess has been our number one, but the 1-5 gap has been the smallest of any team in the conference.”

Sparks emphasized how the strong depth of his team is what makes this team so special. 

“A 1-5 gap of maybe 20 seconds is a unique quality that Notre Dame hasn’t had in a long time,” Sparks explained. “We have often had the number-one runner way out there and then a 1-5 gap of maybe one minute and 30 seconds or so. I am really confident about our depth. That’s what’s really unique about our team right now. If one person’s down in that top five, our sixth person is not far behind them moving up into the fifth spot.”

Sparks knows that the course on Friday is fast, so he has been emphasizing to his team the importance of running for place rather than time. He also mentioned how his team’s depth should help with this.

“No one cares about what your final time was. They care about what your final place was,” Sparks said. “We are running for place, not time. One thing that I think will help them get the spots that we need to get is working together and finding each other. It helps to have that 1-5 gap, and when you see your teammates you train with everyday, there’s a sense of confidence that comes along with that. I expect that to hold true again on Friday.”

On the men’s side, the Irish head into the meet ranked No. 6 in the country and appear to be clear favorites. Their top competition will likely be Virginia (No. 16), defending ACC champion Syracuse (No. 17) and North Carolina State (No. 21).

The men have only competed once this season and haven’t raced in over a month, but that has not worried head coach Sean Carlson too much.

“A big thing is that the better your team becomes and the better you become individually, typically the less races you need,” Carlson stated. “If you look at the professionals, all those guys don’t have a bunch of races leading into their major effort. We think of it a lot like that.”

Carlson also has a lot of faith in his team’s maturity.

“I think we have a really mature team for the most part,” Carlson said. “They know what they are doing. If we were a team of freshmen and sophomores, then I’d be a little more worried because they wouldn’t have had that race experience.”

The main goal for the Irish on Friday is to win, but Carlson also wants to build confidence ahead of a national cross country meet that is currently scheduled for March 15. Carlson hopes that Friday’s result shows that his team is ready to compete on the national stage.

“The goal is to win and gain more race experience in the championship setting and learn from that,” Carlson said. “We’d like to see not just if we can win, but how much can we win by? If we want to be one of the top teams in the country, then we should have a little bit of cushion there. So if we score Notre Dame against the conference, that would be a good indicator of where we are.”

As far as race strategy goes, Carlson wants his team to go out somewhat conservatively because there are some hills on the course. 

“The course is pretty hilly and pretty narrow because it goes into the woods,” Carlson said. “We are going to be a little bit conservative early on in that race, and then there will be a point in the race where we try to start taking control of it. When I say conservative, I don’t mean we are going to go out slowly. We are still going to get out with most of our guys to the front, it just might not be in control of that race until a little bit later on. It’s a little bit too hilly to be too aggressive too early.”

A big theme for this weekend’s trip to North Carolina will be the strict COVID-19 protocols that the team will have to adhere to on the trip. Both coaches discussed the bizarre nature of having no spectators at races, having to eat before going to the airport, catering meals to the hotel and spending more time at the hotel in general.

Friday’s race will take place at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. The men’s 8K race will be at 10 a.m., followed by the women’s 6K race at 11 a.m. The meet can be streamed on ACC Sports Network Extra. 

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