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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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Solomon wins individual title as women finish second, men fourth at ACC Championships

Notre Dame cross country travelled to Earlysville, Virginia to compete in the ACC Championships Friday morning. The No. 6 women’s runners battled to a runner-up finish, narrowly falling to heavy favorite and defending national champion NC State. On the men’s side, No. 6 Notre Dame placed three runners in the top-10 on its way to earning fourth place in a tight race where just six points separated the second and fourth-place teams. Irish sophomore Carter Solomon used a late surge to claim the individual men’s championship, becoming just the second Notre Dame runner ever to do so.

Heading into the meet, finishing in the top-two would have qualified as a success for the Notre Dame women. A loaded No. 1 NC State team that beat the Irish by 177 points at the Nuttycombe Invitational two weeks earlier appeared virtually unbeatable. However, it quickly became clear on Friday that the Irish were a much-improved squad that was ready to fight for a title. NC State featured several elite frontrunners, meaning that any team hoping to challenge them would need strong efforts from their entire top-five. Notre Dame had exactly that on Friday, as the Irish were the only team to put four runners in the top-eight places and five in the top-14.

Junior Olivia Markezich has led the way for Notre Dame all year, and she came through again. Markezich finished in third place, behind only NC State’s Katelyn Tuohy, who won the race, and the Wolfpack’s Kelsey Chmiel, last year’s ACC Champion. Just behind Markezich was a group of three Notre Dame runners. Senior Katie Thronson finished in sixth, sophomore Siona Chisholm took seventh and graduate student Maddy Denner was just behind in eighth. Thronson and Chisholm continued to play crucial roles in their first season after transferring to Notre Dame. Denner, an All-American in 2021, provided a strong performance after having been hindered by injury for much of the regular season. Graduate student Anna Sophia Keller completed the scoring for Notre Dame with a 14th-place finish.

Having placed in the top-21, each of Notre Dame’s five scoring runners earned All-Conference honors as the team finished with a score of 38, narrowly ceding victory to NC State, who finished with 34 while winning their seventh consecutive ACC title. In the close defeat, the Irish established themselves as legitimate national championship contenders and will be eager to get another shot at taking down the Wolfpack at the NCAA Championships in November.

The Notre Dame men, coming off of a performance at Nuttycombe that saw them place fifth against most of the nation’s best teams, entered the ACC meet as co-favorites along with No. 8 Wake Forest. A standout performance from the Deacons on Friday that saw them put three runners in the top-five and four in the top-eight on their way to a 42-point victory meant that the Irish would be fighting for second after having won the previous two ACC titles. Notre Dame sophomore Carter Solomon, though, had his eyes set on first. Halfway through the 8k race, Solomon was in sixth, but he steadily worked his way up until he trailed only North Carolina’s Parker Wolfe heading into the final uphill stretch. Using a huge kick, Solomon passed Wolfe in the final meters before the finish line, winning the individual ACC title by just 0.2 seconds with a time of 22:55.9.

Freshman Izaiah Steury and sophomore Josh Methner also performed well for the Irish. Steury finished ninth and was the highest freshman finisher in the race. Methner, competing for just the second time all season, rounded out the top-10 less than a second behind Steury. Both Irish runners received All-Conference accolades along with Solomon. Irish seniors Quinn Gallagher and Matthew Carmody placed 31st and 41st, respectively, to complete the top-five for Notre Dame. Despite a strong top-three, the sizable gap between Notre Dame’s third and fourth finishers left them vulnerable to be overtaken by teams bunched in more tightly. The Irish ultimately slipped down to fourth with a score of 92. No. 16 Syracuse took second place with 86 points and No. 18 North Carolina finished in third with 87.

Up next, the Irish will be closer to home as their postseason journey continues with the Great Lakes Regional in Terra Heute, Indiana on Nov. 11. Notre Dame is the defending Great Lakes champion on both the women’s and men’s sides, and the Irish will need to finish in the top-two in order to automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships on Nov. 19 in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Both teams have expectations of finishing among the top teams nationally and will look to build on their ACC Championship performances in the coming weeks.

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Irish men win, women take fourth at competitive Joe Piane Invitational

On Friday morning, Notre Dame cross country hosted the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational. The No. 14 men’s team used a balanced effort to win the meet, while the No. 8 women battled a trio of Top-10 opponents and earned a fourth-place finish.

The meet began with the women’s 5000m, one of the most highly anticipated regular season races in the country this season. Notre Dame head coach Matt Sparks spoke after the meet about the valuable experience that comes from facing elite teams like No. 1 NC State, No. 3 New Mexico and No. 10 Alabama.

“[The meet] gives us a taste of where we need to be [and] what we need to work toward over the next eight weeks as we prepare for the national championship,” Sparks said. “It’s the nice thing about these early season meets. You get a measuring stick against the best teams in the country.”

Defending national champion NC State put three runners in the top six to take first place with a score of 55, followed closely by New Mexico’s 68 and Alabama’s 70. Notre Dame placed fourth with 144 points.

The Irish were led by a strong eighth-place finish from All-American junior Olivia Markezich. Also scoring for the Irish were graduate student Anna Sophia Keller and senior Katie Thronson in 24th and 25th, graduate student Maddy Denner in 35th and sophomore Erin Strzelecki in 54th. Denner, an All-American, has been hampered in training with a minor injury and should provide the team with a big boost when fully healthy. Sparks praised Markezich’s performance, noting that her ability to run with the front pack at big meets stems from her mental toughness as well as her fitness.

“Over the course of the last four years, she has developed the confidence to go out in the front of that lead group,” Sparks explained. “To see her step up early in the year and assert herself really just shows me how she’s grown as a person since she’s been here.”

The Irish still have work to do in order to close the gap with the teams that defeated them, but at this stage of the season, that is a position they are comfortable with being in. Last year, Notre Dame finished fourteenth at the same meet and went on to place fifth at the NCAA Championship, so a fourth-place result is encouraging for the team.

“I’m really excited about where we are,” Sparks said. “A year ago, we had a lot of things on the list that we knew we could improve upon and it took us eight weeks to figure them out. This year, we’ve got a shorter list, so we’ll just work through those things over the coming month.”

On the men’s side, an inexperienced Notre Dame team needed some time to get acclimated in their first major meet of the season, but used a strong finish to take the victory in the 5-mile race.

“There was some concern how the younger guys that we were counting on were going to step up in a pressure situation like we had this weekend, and they put the coaches’ minds at ease by the way they were able to finish the last half of the race,” Sparks said. “They went out a little bit conservative, which had our nerves a little high, but they displayed a lot of confidence … and ran like mature veterans.”

Running in front for Notre Dame was graduate student Kevin Berry, who finished tenth in his first time suiting up for the Irish following his transfer from Princeton, where he set a school record in the 5k and was an All-Ivy League Performer.

“[Kevin] is new to elite running. He was not a highly recruited kid out of high school,” Sparks said. “The Princeton staff did a great job of developing him and he’s taken some steps since he’s been here, really finding himself as a runner. He’s run fast times, but he’s never competed on a national level at the end of the season, so we need to help nurture him to be successful when it matters most.”

Just behind Berry, Irish sophomore Carter Solomon and freshman Izaiah Steury finished less than a second apart in thirteenth and fourteenth places just two weeks after the duo took first and second at the National Catholic Invitational. While most Notre Dame freshman are redshirted to allow further time for development, Steury immediately stepped in as one of the Irish’s leading runners.

“We knew it would be hard to keep him on the bench,” Sparks said. “He’s trained so well over the last month that we knew we needed him in the lineup.”

Sparks credits Steury’s focused mindset with having him ready to compete at an elite collegiate level.

“He just goes into this zone. You can see it in his eyes,” Sparks said. “He flips the switch when it’s time to compete. It’s a unique skill set that will help carry him far in the sport.”

Beyond their top-three finishers, Notre Dame’s depth was the difference maker that guided them to victory, even without one of their top runners in All-American sophomore Josh Methner, who is expected to debut for the Irish at their next meet. Alabama put three runners in front of Notre Dame’s first, and Tennessee added two more, but strong efforts from the Irish’s fourth and fifth men, senior Matthew Carmody and junior Carter Cheeseman, pushed them over the top.

“The thing we take a lot of pride in is the depth of our team, and that’s what you saw that allowed us to win,” Sparks said. “We feel like we’ve got ten to fifteen guys that are almost interchangeable, that if we need somebody to step up, we can always call on the next guy up and be successful.”

The Irish now turn their attention to their final regular season meet, the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational on Oct. 14. The Nuttycombe field is expected to be very strong, as over 20 of the top 30 teams from last year’s NCAA Championship on both the men’s and women’s sides will be racing. Notre Dame will look for continued improvement in their final race before beginning postseason preparations.

Contact Matthew Crow at mcrow@nd.edu

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Irish cross country teams to compete at Joe Piane Invitational

The Irish men’s and women’s cross country teams will return to action this Friday at the Joe Piane Invitational, their biggest home meet of the season. The Irish have competed in a couple of smaller meets this year, but Friday’s meet will be the first larger meet with some high-caliber competition.

Because of the competitiveness of the invite, head coach Matt Sparks is racing the majority of his top runners on Friday. The one notable runner that will not be racing is sophomore Josh Methner, who Sparks said will debut in a couple of weeks.

“[Methner]’s had a bit of a slow start to the season,” Sparks said. “He just needs another couple of weeks, and we will see him debut at Wisconsin. With his absence, it will force some other guys to step up as well.”

The men will look to fill the shoes of former All-Americans Yared Nuguse, Dylan Jacobs and Danny Kilrea, who all graduated last year. Sparks hopes that a leader will emerge on Friday.

“We have a lot of talent behind them, but we need to figure out who is going to establish themselves as the leader when it comes to racing,” Sparks said.

Sparks mentioned three men who he expects to step up on Friday.

“[Sophomore] Carter Solomon and [junior] Tom Seitzer are two guys that competed well last spring for us and have looked great in practice and been great leaders in practice. Those are guys that we would like to see run up front for us,” Sparks said. “[Senior] Matthew Carmody is a veteran on the team that has competed at the national level for us previously. We are confident that he can find his way back to the front of the group.”

Sparks is also looking forward to seeing freshman Izaiah Steury race this weekend.

“We are confident in Izaiah, who will be the only freshman running in uniform this weekend on either side,” Sparks said. “He has had a great first month of practice, so we are going to take the redshirt off of him. I expect him to be another one of those guys to establish himself as a leader.”

Steury is part of an Irish recruiting class that is arguably the best in the nation. Sparks mentioned freshman Ethan Coleman, who is not running on Friday, as another runner with potential.

“Ethan has had a great preseason of training and could potentially earn a roster spot and compete for us this year,” Sparks said. “[Steury and him] are really the two that have really stepped up. They have both come from very good training backgrounds in high school.”

Sparks said he understands that despite the great freshman recruiting class, it might take some time for those recruits to pay dividends.

“We arguably have the best freshman recruiting class in the country, but it takes a year or two to see that recruiting class play out with the exception of Izaiah, who is ready to put his uniform on right now and lead us into battle,” Sparks said.

On the men’s side, there will be plenty of competition for the 14th-ranked Irish with 24th-ranked Butler, 25th-ranked Alabama, and 27th-ranked Michigan competing.

On the women’s side, the Irish are led by two veteran runners in graduate student Maddy Denner and junior Olivia Markezich. Sparks hopes that the women’s team can establish depth behind their two stars.

“We have a very veteran group led by two All-American leaders in Maddy Denner and Olivia Markezich,” Sparks said. “We are looking to just establish our depth in our top seven. We are going to run a strong group of five women, but we aren’t sure how strong we will be in the six-seven spots. We are hoping to find some more depth on the women’s end of the roster.”

The eighth-ranked Irish women will face a very difficult test on Friday. Defending national champions and top-ranked North Carolina State, third-ranked New Mexico, and tenth-ranked Alabama are all competing.

Sparks said he was for both of his teams to compete at the elite level this season.

“There have been a great group of guys and women training really well this fall, but when it’s time to compete on the elite level, this will be the first time this year that either team has had elite level competition,” Sparks said. “It will be exciting to see who takes on the leadership responsibilities for both genders.”

Sparks said he plans to use Friday’s meet as another building block to the postseason, which begins in four weeks with the ACC Championships.

“It’s great to have a home meet building towards the postseason,” Sparks said. “The month of September is very comfortable for us as far as training and building towards the postseason. This is really our first competitive opportunity. It’s a little bit of a pretest for the postseason run to see where we are today.”

The Irish will have one more meet between Friday’s race and the conference meet.

“Each meet kind of builds on the previous, and each meet gets a little bit more competitive. This is the first meet with some elite teams coming to our home course to race. And then we will head to Wisconsin in a couple of weeks in a little bit more of an elite field compared to the Joe Piane Invite,” Sparks said.

The women’s 5000m race will begin at the Burke Golf Course at 10:30 am. The men’s 5-mile race follows at 11:15 a.m.

Contact Nate Moller at nmoller2@nd.edu.