The men’s and women’s cross country teams will head out to Charlottesville, Virginia this Friday to compete at the ACC Cross Country Championships.
The goal for the sixth-ranked Irish women is to finish as one of the top two teams. The Irish will have their hands full at the meet with top-ranked North Carolina State, eighth-ranked North Carolina, 15th-ranked Syracuse and 25th-ranked Virginia all competing.
The Irish barely edged out UNC at the Nuttycombe Invitational a couple of weeks ago, and Sparks hopes his team can be competitive again.
“The goal is to be top-two. NC State is going to be a tough team to beat as the defending national champions,” Sparks said. “Competing with UNC and Virginia, who is another top team that we haven’t seen this year, will be the goal.”
With the All-conference accolade being awarded to the top 21 individual runners, Sparks said he hopes that both of his teams can have their top-five runners in this category.
“We would like to have all five of our women in that top-21 All-ACC squad,” Sparks said. “Same thing on the men’s side. I think we have two teams that could have our entire top 5 in the All-ACC category.”
The sixth-ranked men’s team will also face stiff competition against eighth-ranked Wake Forest, 12th-ranked NC State, 13th-ranked Virginia, 16th-ranked Syracuse and 18th-ranked UNC.
The Irish have yet to see Wake Forest this year but the Demon Deacons were the preseason favorite to win the ACC.
Sparks discussed what implications the preseason prediction and his team’s success in previous years will have on the meet.
“Wake Forest was the team that came into the season as the coaches’ pick to win the ACC championship,” Sparks said. “But I know that we have a big X on our back having won three of the last four championships.”
In order to have success on Friday, Sparks hopes that his team can go out more aggressively.
“The thing our men’s team has really grown into this year is a team that finishes really well at the end of races and closes out the last kilometer really strong to put us where we need to be,” Sparks said. “One thing we have talked a little bit more about is let’s get out a little more aggressive.”
Because this meet will only have roughly 150 athletes compared to over 300 at the Nuttycombe Invitational, Sparks believes his team will more easily be able to start the race out fast.
“It should be a little bit easier to navigate the early part of the race to put ourselves in a position in the first mile of the race instead of having to work through the crowd like we had to in the last two meets,” Sparks said.
Another team that neither side has seen this year is the host team, Virginia.
Sparks says he is excited to see how his team stacks up against the Cavaliers, and he acknowledged that they could have a slight advantage because of the home course. The Irish, on the other hand, have not run this course in recent years, but Sparks knows the course will be hilly and challenging.
“The majority of our kids have no idea what that course looks like, but one thing we do know is that it’s going to be hilly,” Sparks said.
The remainder of the courses this season will be challenging for the Irish, and Sparks understands the importance of getting out early and racing smart on the hills.
“The courses from here on out are going to be a lot more challenging than the ones we have run all year. From Charlottesville to Terre Haute for the regional meet in two weeks, to the NCAA championship course, which is the toughest of all three,” Sparks said. “We are really focusing on getting out early and getting into the position we need to get in, and then navigating the hills are going to be keys to our success as we prepare for the ACC championship and beyond.”
Sparks discussed the importance of last week’s fall break in allowing his athletes to recover and peak at the right time of the season.
“Our fall break really leads us into having a great peak,” Sparks said. “Getting that week off from school right after all our exams lets everybody freshen up physically and mentally. It does a great job of breaking our season up into two halves: the regular season and the postseason. It allows us to catch our breath in a lot of different ways and also refocus on the bigger part of the season in the postseason.”
Despite both teams being ranked sixth in the national polls, Sparks has emphasized the importance of his team controlling what they can control in the race and not focusing on rankings or other teams.
“We talk a lot about controlling what we can control. In our sport, we aren’t playing defense at the ACC championship race,” Sparks said. “We have to run our own race and worry about what we are doing. We can’t worry about the polls or what other teams are doing around us.”
Sparks did acknowledge that the high ranking has created more excitement among the team as the postseason approaches.
“If we take care of what we need to take care of then we will be successful, but you still can’t help to notice where we fall in the rankings,” Sparks said. “It does give us a little bit more energy as we prepare for the postseason.”
The men’s 8K race will begin this Friday at 10:40 am EDT, followed by the women’s 6K race at 11:30 am EDT. Both races can be viewed on ACC Sports Network Extra.