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Ticket punched: Irish cross country secures NCAA Championship berth

Notre Dame cross country entered Friday morning’s Great Lakes Regional in Terra Haute, Indiana, needing a top-two finish to qualify for the NCAA Championships. Sure enough, the Irish got the job done. The Notre Dame women won the regional while the men took second, punching their tickets to the national meet next weekend. The win marks the second straight Great Lakes title for the women, and the men qualified for their sixth consecutive NCAA Championship with their finish.

With just one week between the regional and national meets, it was a balancing act for Notre Dame to earn a top-two position while not hurting its prospects at the national meet by overexerting itself.

“We felt really confident in our ability to qualify, it was really more a question of, how much effort do we need to put forth in order to qualify, because it’s still a preliminary meet,” said Irish head coach Matt Sparks. “So the concept is, how controlled and how relaxed can we run and still qualify.”

The No. 5 women’s team came into the meet as heavy favorites after a runner-up performance at the ACC Championship. The Irish used a strong team effort to earn a decisive victory, finishing with a score of 34 points. Runner-up Ohio State was well behind with 111. Notre Dame junior Olivia Markezich led wire-to-wire on her way to winning the individual title. Several more Irish runners followed in quick succession.

Sophomore Siona Chisholm and graduate student Maddy Denner finished in fourth and sixth. Senior Katie Thronson and sophomore Erin Strzelecki both finished in the top twelve, completing the scoring for Notre Dame. Chisholm and Thronson, both transfers in their first season with the Irish, continued to play critical roles for the team.

“You never know how [transfers] are going to adapt to the team culture and chemistry and the training,” Sparks said. “It’s been a seamless transition for both of them. They’ve brought great energy to the team as well.”

Denner, a cross-country All-American last year along with Markezich, is finally healthy after spending most of the season working her way back from injury. She seems to have found her form just in time for the national meet. Sparks believes that she will be vital to the team’s success there.

“The nice piece is that her aches and pains are minimized, so [we’ve been] able to work on her fitness over the last three weeks. That’s where you’ve been able to see her close the gap on where Olivia is,” Sparks said. “We would hope that when we get to Stillwater, they’re able to find each other again at the national meet and give us a really strong one-two punch.”

On the men’s side, the No. 13 Irish faced a difficult test in the form of No. 8 Wisconsin. The challenge was even steeper because graduate student Kevin Berry, one of Notre Dame’s top runners all season, was held out from the race after feeling run down following the conference meet. The Irish could not take the regional title, finishing as a close runner-up to the Badgers. Despite this, they achieved their goal of qualifying for nationals and will go into the meet with the confidence of a team at full strength, as Berry is expected to return.

After winning the individual ACC Championship two weeks prior, sophomore Carter Solomon was out in front for Notre Dame again and continued his impressive season with a fifth-place finish. Freshman Izaiah Steury was the next finisher in sixth. Just as at the ACC meet, Steury was the highest-placing freshman in the race. Sparks spoke about the maturity that has allowed him to compete at such a high level.

“He has a tremendous amount of confidence for a freshman in college,” Sparks said. “It will traditionally take two or three years to make the adjustment [from 5k races in high school to 10k races in college]. In his case, it’s taken two or three months.”

Sparks noted that Steury will be aiming to be the top freshman at the NCAA meet. Both he and Solomon will look to earn All-American status by finishing in the top forty places. While the low scores of Solomon and Steury gave the Irish an advantage on Friday, they needed strong efforts from their other scorers to beat out a tight field for the runner-up finish. They got just that. The trio of junior Jake Renfree, senior Matthew Carmody and sophomore Josh Methner all finished in the top-twenty. Renfree had his strongest race of the season. His current form raises Notre Dame’s ceiling for the national meet.

“The guy that really stepped up, that we’ve been waiting for all year to perform, was Jake Renfree,” Sparks said. “He’d had a great couple of weeks of practice since the conference meet, so we gave him a chance at the regional. Jake is someone that’s previously been an All-American for us and I think his confidence and his fitness are kind of gelling all at the right time. He’s somebody that we’d expect to make a big impact [at the NCAA Championships] as well.”

Heading into the national meet, Sparks said the Irish women had the goal of finishing in the top-four. The men, meanwhile, will look for a top-eight position. With just one week remaining in the season, the Irish have done all they can in terms of physical training. They will focus on rest and recovery in the final days leading into the NCAA meet.

“The X’s and O’s of running are done,” Sparks said. “Sleep well, eat well, rest well; that’s kind of kind of the motto for the next week.”

Notre Dame will compete in the NCAA Championships on Saturday in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The meet beings at 10 a.m. and is available to watch on ESPNU. The Irish will look to improve on last year’s meet, where the women finished fifth and the men ninth.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu.

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