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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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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