Joe Piane

IRISH EXTRA: National Catholic Championships A Special Occasion For Large And Small Schools Alike

Sept. 14, 2015

36th Annual National Catholic Championships
Friday, Sept. 18, 2015
Notre Dame Cross Country Course (Old Nine-Hole Golf Course)
Schedule of Races
JV/Open Race – 3:30 p.m.
Women’s Varsity Race – 4:15 p.m.
Men’s Varsity Race – 5 p.m.

The following feature was published prior to the 35th anniversary of the National Catholic Championships last season. The piece offers insight into the storied tradition and excellence of the meet.

Notre Dame, Ind. – University of Notre Dame cross country standout Emily Frydrych, a senior from Wilmington, Del., knows the euphoria a long-distance runner can experience.

Running two miles deep into the Notre Dame home cross country course, Frydrych encounters a different kind of runner’s exhilaration. As she rounds the back corner on the Notre Dame Golf Course, she lifts her eyes to see a sight that lifts her heart, the Golden Dome atop the Notre Dame Main Administration Building.

Frydrych and more than 800 runners from 38 schools will compete in the National Catholic Championships at 3:30 p.m. EDT Friday at the Notre Dame Golf Course.

“It’s really cool to look up and see the Golden Dome,” says Frydrych, who placed third in the women’s race last season and is the top returning women’s runner. “It’s neat to have that sight from the course. The cool-down and the warm-up is also great, because you can go down to the grotto, which is also special.”

Runners from other schools savor the chance to run amidst Notre Dame’s iconic landmarks.

Marcos Mora of the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, says excitement for the meet spills over to family and friends.

“Whenever we tell people that we’re going to have a race at Notre Dame, they automatically tell us to buy them something at the bookstore, or take pictures of the campus,” Mora says. “It’s almost like a vacation within a competition weekend for us. The atmosphere is very exciting.

“Our time at Notre Dame is special. The fact that our warm-ups and cool-downs are quite long, 15 or 20 minutes, we go on the middle of the campus and check out the different buildings that they have. When we have a pre-run on the course, we check out the sights, and that’s a really neat experience. It’s an opportunity that not many people get to have.”

Bob Schultz, the head coach at Division III Loras College of Dubuque, Iowa, makes sure his athletes have a chance to soak in the culture of Notre Dame.

“We go early and let our kids walk around campus,” Schultz says. “The highlights are always seeing the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus and the bookstore. If it’s a home football weekend, having the opportunity to go to the stadium is really neat.”

Sightseeing and selfies with the backdrop of campus scenes are highlights, but all that is secondary to the competition, which offers smaller Division III schools a chance to line up against Division I powers like Notre Dame.

“Notre Dame is such a prestigious school,” says Chad Maloy of Canisius College, located in Buffalo, N.Y. “We’re a smaller Division I school, so being able to go up against the bigger schools that are nationally known adds value to the race. We really want to put on a good showing and help get our name out there. Just Notre Dame … you hear about it through football and all of its major sports. It’s a meet that the people on the team look forward to running in.”

Mora says the Incarnate Word runners confront some of the toughest competition they will face all season at the National Catholic Championships.

“We’re all excited about competing in this race, because we’re competing against high-profile schools,” Mora says. “It’s an opportunity to see how well we can do. It’s always exciting to see if you can compete with some of the runners from Notre Dame, and possibly even beat them.

“The competition is enhanced, because it’s a more narrow course than usual. That makes it a lot tougher. You want to have more space and be more in the front, and not be crowded in the back, fighting to get a spot in the crowd that’s competing in the front. That just adds to the competition.”

Schultz says the trip to Notre Dame is the meet that gets the Loras runners the most excited.

“Obviously, Notre Dame has the allure, the history and the tradition, and it also gives us the opportunity to run against Division I schools,” Schultz says. “That’s a neat opportunity, especially for our top kids who were considering running Division I. A lot of other sports don’t get that opportunity, to compete at that level, but in cross country and track, they do get that at some meets, and this is one of them.”

Joe Piane, who retired this year after 39 seasons as the Notre Dame cross country head coach, started the National Catholic Championships event.

“I thought it would be an interesting concept to invite all the Catholic schools to the event,” Piane says. “Through the years, we’ve been fortunate to attract the really dominant Catholic schools–Villanova, Georgetown and Providence have all competed here through the years. I thought Catholicism would be an interesting tie. I think it was fairly well received, even from the get-go. We started off with 15 or 20 teams, and now it’s up to 35.”

Piane, a two-time national coach of the year who coached 189 All-Americans at Notre Dame, offered to have the unique event move around to other Catholic universities around the country.

Nobody wanted to move the event away from Notre Dame.

“There are a lot of smaller schools that come here, and they use it as a recruiting tool,” Piane says. “It’s a real kick in the pants for them, to come to Notre Dame, to compete against Division I schools. I’m a product of a Division III school (Loras), and it was a thrill to run against Division I athletes.

“For a lot of kids from the smaller schools, this is tougher than their conference meet, or their national meet. For Notre Dame, it’s a great opportunity to get started. It helps the team get its feet wet.”

Schultz says Loras wouldn’t miss the event.

“Joe Piane is a Loras alum, and we take great pride in that when we run at Notre Dame,” Schultz says.

Frydrych loves the fact the meet has a festive tone.

“The course is spectator friendly, and it’s right off of the campus, so a lot of our families will be there, but also it’s so convenient for our friends from the dorms to come over and watch,” Frydrych says. “The fact there will be a lot of fans, and it’s a pretty contained course makes it a great atmosphere.”

— By Curt Rallo, special correspondent