Junior Kurt Benninger has finished fifth or better in all three of his races this season, and will lead the fifth-ranked Notre Dame men into Saturday's NCAA Great Lakes Regional.

Irish Cross Country Teams Set To Race Saturday At NCAA Great Lakes Regional

Nov. 11, 2005

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Fresh off matching BIG EAST Conference titles two weeks ago, the nationally-ranked Notre Dame men’s and women’s cross country teams return to action in the second part of the postseason when they head to Bloomington, Ind., on Saturday for the NCAA Great Lakes Regional, to be held at the Indiana University Cross Country Course. The men’s 10,000-meter race will start at 11 a.m. (ET), followed by the women’s 6,000-meter event at 12:15 p.m., with the top two finishers in each competition earning automatic qualification to the NCAA Championships on Nov. 21.

Under the guidance of 31st-year head coach Joe Piane, the fifth-ranked Notre Dame men’s cross country team has won four regional titles (most recently in 2001) and has finished second at the meet on five occasions, including last year. The Irish will be challenged this time around by top-ranked Wisconsin (the defending regional champion), No. 15 Ohio State, No. 23 Michigan and No. 25 Indiana.

In that 2004 regional race (contested on Eastern Michigan’s campus in Ypsilanti, Mich.), Notre Dame placed four runners among the top 19 in the field, led by current junior Kurt Benninger (Chepstow, Ontario/Walkerton D.S.S.), who took third-place honors in 30:17. Current seniors Kaleb Van Ort (Waterloo, Ind./DeKalb) and All-American Tim Moore (Novi, Mich./Novi) also finished in the top 10, coming in eighth and ninth, respectively, both in 30:25. Current fifth-year senior Sean O’Donnell (Kansas City, Mo./Rockhurst) was 19th at last year’s regional in 30:35.

All four men are in the Notre Dame lineup this weekend, following an impressive showing at the BIG EAST Championship Oct. 28, when the quartet each finished in the top eight (and all in 24:35 or less) to earn all-conference honors. Benninger’s runner-up placement was his third top-five finish in as many races this year, posting an average 8,000-meter time of 23:52 in those events. Meanwhile, Moore had not finished lower than 14th in three meets this year with an average 8K time of 24:09, and O’Donnell has ended up 18th or better in his three events thus far, clocking a median 8,000-meter time of 24:12. Van Ort is experiencing a late-season resurgence, coming back from an injury with two top-30 finishes in two races and a 24:30 average.

Freshman Patrick Smyth (Salt Lake City, Utah/Judge Memorial), the 2005 National Catholic Championship individual winner (24:36), has developed into a very capable fifth runner for the Irish and he held up that spot well at the BIG EAST meet, placing ninth in 24:42 to pick up his first all-league citation. Sophomore Jake Watson (Stillwater, Minn./Stillwater Area) turned in a solid 18th-place outing (25:14) at the conference championship to book his place on this weekend’s regional travel squad. Senior A.J. Andrassy (Bay Village, Ohio/St. Ignatius) will round out the Notre Dame lineup, making his first appearance among the top seven this season after finishing among the top 10 in the Notre Dame Invitational Gold Division race (ninth, 25:15) and the Pre-National Meet open race (fourth, 25:08).

“Our top priority this weekend is to finish in the top two at the regional and earn that automatic spot in the NCAA Championships,” Piane said. “For us, this is the second step in the championship part of our season and we want to continue building on the progress we showed at the BIG EAST meet a couple of weeks ago. It’s our goal to be peaking by the time the NCAA race comes around, but in order to do that, we need to have a good race at the regional on Saturday.”

Meanwhile, the No. 4 Irish women’s cross country team will seek to regain the Great Lakes Regional title it won in 2002 and 2003 before finishing second to Michigan last year, its third runner-up placement since beginning regional competition in 1986. In addition to the third-ranked Wolverines, Notre Dame will battle No. 22 Butler, No. 23 Marquette, No. 29 Indiana and No. 30 Michigan State for the Great Lakes title.

Head coach Tim Connelly, now in his 18th year with the Irish, has arguably the nation’s strongest top four runners, with three veteran All-Americans and a freshman destined for the same running far ahead of the pack. Senior All-American Stephanie Madia (Wexford, Pa./North Allegheny) has placed sixth or higher in her three races this year, highlighted by the individual title at the 5K Notre Dame Invitational (16:36), and she has averaged 20:36 in her two 6,000-meter events to date. Fellow senior All-American Molly Huddle (Elmira, N.Y./Notre Dame) appears fully healed from a foot injury that hampered her much of last season — she has a pair of runner-up finishes in three meets this year, including the BIG EAST meet (20:52), when she came in two seconds clear of Madia to help both garner all-conference honors. Huddle missed the ’04 Great Lakes Regional with her injury, but won the regional title in 2003 and finished second as a freshman in 2002.

Sophomore All-American Sunni Olding (Minster, Ohio/Minster) has three top-10 finishes in her four-event portfolio this season, including the individual crown at the 5K National Catholic Championship (17:42) and a fifth-place all-league finish at the BIG EAST Championship (21:04). Freshman Ramsey Kavan (Yankton, S.D./Yankton) will look to continue her impressive rookie season, one that has seen her finish 15th or better in all three of her races thus far, topped by an eighth-place outing at the conference meet (21:26), good for her first all-BIG EAST plaque.

Ultimately, Notre Dame’s chances for success at the Great Lakes Regional will hinge on the performance of its fifth runner. Junior Katie DeRusso (Fairport, N.Y./Fairport) assumed that role at the BIG EAST Championship in superb fashion, coming across the line in 16th place (21:58) for her second top-20 finish of the season. Senior Jean Marinangeli (Arlington Heights, Ill./Buffalo Grove) held that post at last year’s regional and could be a factor this time around, as well. She was hot on DeRusso’s heels at the conference meet, finishing 18th in 22:01. Senior Elizabeth Webster (Dearborn, Mich./Divine Child) will make her Great Lakes Regional debut on Saturday, having raced four times this year with a top finish of sixth (18:08) at the National Catholic Championships.

“Our goal for this weekend is to finish among the top two teams and automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships for the fifth straight year,” Connelly said. “I was really pleased with our team’s performance at the BIG EAST Championships. It was by far our best team race of the season, especially for our fifth, sixth and seventh runners, and we are hoping to build on that performance at the regional meet. With the strength of the region, we will need to run very well to automatically advance, but training has gone very well since the conference meet and our runners are confident that we can finish among the top two teams.”

Complete results from the 2005 NCAA Great Lakes Regional will be available upon conclusion of the day’s races at the official Notre Dame athletics web site (www.und.com) as well as the Notre Dame Sports Hotline (574-631-3000).

— ND —