The Notre Dame men’s and women’s cross country teams will look to secure a place in the national meet this Friday when they compete at the NCAA Great Lakes Regional meet in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Head coach Matt Sparks acknowledged that his team understands the high stakes of this meet. He also said the coaches have tried to decrease the amount of pressure on the athletes by treating preparation for this meet like any other.
“One of the themes of the way we coach our sport is to just continue to repeat the process. We don’t build up, and we don’t treat any meet as especially bigger than the one before it,” Sparks said. “The kids know enough about each meet and where they stand and what they need to do. So we as coaches don’t put that extra pressure and anxiety into it for them.”
Sparks is pleased with how both teams have looked in practice over the last couple of weeks.
“We’ve had a great two weeks of practice. Things seem to be falling together at the right time for both genders,” Sparks said.
The men’s team struggled a bit at the ACC Conference Championships a couple of weeks ago. Despite being the favorties to win, the Irish finished fourth as a team.
Despite the disappointing race, Sparks was not concerned about the performance, but he suggested that he tweaked some things to make sure the men’s team was fresh for Friday.
“The men had a little bit of a rougher conference meet than the women did,” Sparks said. “So we adjusted some things over the last couple of weeks to freshen some people up and get them more ready to go.”
Sparks hopes that the men’s team can have a faster start Friday as they try to rebound from ACCs.
“Getting off to a great start, I think it’s a key in any athletic endeavor to give yourself a chance to be successful,” Sparks said. “If you have some rough patches early in the competition, it’s sometimes hard to recover from those. That’s a little bit what the men’s team has struggled with getting a little bit lost early in the race. They were able to rally at the Joe Piane and the Nuttycombe meet to finish well. At the ACC meet, they just couldn’t pull it together the last half of the race.”
Sparks discussed the emergence of sophomore Carter Solomon, who placed first at the ACC Championships a couple of weeks ago, as a leader for the men’s team. Solomon was an elite runner in high school. And Sparks is ecstatic to see Solomon leading the team after two years under his belt in college.
“He quickly asserted himself about a month into the season and recognized that somebody needed to take the reins and be a leader,” Sparks said. “He’s been a great leader on the course, but also in the locker room. He’s vocal, and he’s well respected by everybody. It’s neat to see that maturation process for him to go from where he was as an elite high school kid, but it’s taken two years for him to recognize that it is his turn now to be the leader.”
On the women’s side, Sparks is excited to see his team compete after impressively finishing second at the ACC Championships. The Irish finished only a couple of points back from top-ranked and defending national champions North Carolina State.
“The women have been especially healthy and had a great conference meet,” Sparks said. “NC State is number one in the country, and we gave them a good run for their money. That was exciting and gave everybody a lot of confidence for what the next two weeks should entail, that we are starting to see ourselves with those truly elite programs in the country.”
Sparks said he thought the women benefited from a smaller field size at the ACC Championships, which allowed them to get out fast and have a good race.
“The last month, we’ve been racing competitions that had 25 teams in the race. It just gets very crowded, and it’s a challenge and you become lost in the crowd sometimes. The athletes were able to see their way to the front of the race [at ACCs]. We were out especially well, got up front, and felt very confident and rode that wave of confidence throughout the race,” Sparks said.
The top two teams at regionals automatically qualify for the national meet, with other teams qualifying via an at-large berth. The men’s team are the second-ranked team in the region and the women’s team the top-ranked. Sparks is hoping both can earn an automatic bid to the national meet.
“Our goal is to earn one of those two automatic berths,” Sparks said. “Last year we won both races, which would be a nice thing to repeat, but at the end of the day, all we need to do is finish in the top two to automatically qualify.”
With both team’s recent success in the meet, the Irish could have a target on their backs come Friday. Sparks emphasized the importance of taking care of business and each team running their own race.
“We just need to keep repeating the process and doing what we have always done,” Sparks said. “We control our own race, and that’s the theme we’ve talked about over the last couple of weeks. We need to do what we can do and not worry about what the other team might do. We might be the favorites coming into it. I feel like that makes things a little more exciting, in that we just need to take care of business and be the best version of ourselves on the day.”
The women’s 6K race will begin at 10 a.m. EST, followed by the men’s 10K race at 11 a.m. EST.
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