May 4, 2006
STORRS, Conn. – With more than half of the 114 athletes on their combined roster making their trip, including 26 NCAA Mideast Regional qualifiers, the Notre Dame men’s and women’s track & field teams enter postseason competition this weekend when they head to Storrs, Conn., for the BIG EAST Conference Outdoor Championships, slated to be held at the University of Connecticut’s George J. Sherman Family-Sports Complex. The three-time champion Irish men are eyeing a return to the top step of the podium after their two-year title reign ended in 2005 with a runner-up finish to Rutgers. Meanwhile, the Notre Dame women can make a bit of history this weekend, as they look to become the first BIG EAST women’s program to win the league’s “triple crown” (cross country, indoor track & field, outdoor track & field) since Villanova did so in 1987-88.
Competition gets underway Friday at noon (ET) with the first half of both the men’s decathlon and women’s heptathlon, with events continuing through the afternoon. Saturday’s action starts at 9 a.m. (ET) with the completion of both multi-event competitions, as well as the trials and final round in the women’s javelin. The majority of the running events will hold their preliminary rounds on Saturday, while half of the field events will be completed that afternoon. Teams then will return to the stadium on Sunday at 9 a.m. (ET), as the men’s javelin competition kicks off the last day of the meet. Finals will be held in all remaining races on the track, as well as the other half of the field events, with the awards ceremony tentatively scheduled to take place at 2:50 p.m. (ET) upon conclusion of the men’s 1,600-meter relay. A complete listing of heat sheets and schedule of events will be available on the official BIG EAST Conference web site (www.bigeast.org), while College Sports Television/CSTV (DirecTV Channel 610/Dish Network Channel 152) will televise the championships on a tape-delayed basis May 15 at 8 p.m. (ET), with USA Track & Field legend Dwight Stones and former Cincinnati standout Lewis Johnson (also a sideline reporter for NBC’s broadcasts of Notre Dame football) on the call.
The battle for the BIG EAST men’s team title could be fierce this season. In addition to Notre Dame and defending champion Rutgers, Connecticut won the conference indoor crown back in February and league newcomer Louisville turned in a strong fourth-place showing. On the women’s side, the Irish will face stern challenges from defending outdoor champion Pittsburgh and Georgetown, which placed second to Notre Dame at this year’s BIG EAST indoor meet.
SCOUTING THE IRISH MEN
Notre Dame will send exactly half of its 64-man roster to Storrs this weekend, with the Irish distance running corps set to provide a firm foundation upon which to build a championship contender. Of the 12 Irish athletes who have qualified for the NCAA Mideast Regional (or met national provisional qualifying standards), nine of them are distance runners and most were members of the Notre Dame men’s cross country squad that placed third at the NCAA Championships last November (the school’s best finish since 1990).
Junior Thomas Chamney (Tipperary, Ireland/St. Columba’s) and sophomore John Cavanaugh (Granger, Ind./South Bend St. Joseph’s) give the Irish a solid 1-2 punch in the 800 meters. Chamney won the BIG EAST indoor 800-meter title and went on to earn All-America honors with a sixth-place finish and season-best time of 1:48.50 at the NCAA Indoor Championships. Meanwhile, Cavanaugh was second to Chamney at the conference indoor meet and has been a solid contributor for Notre Dame in his first full track season (he played soccer last year), posting the league’s seventh-fastest qualifying time (1:49.69) at the Meyo Invitational on Feb. 3. He also was a member of the Irish quartet that won the BIG EAST indoor 3,200-meter relay title and garnered All-America honors with a sixth-place finish in the distance medley relay at the NCAA Championships.
In the long distance races, junior Kurt Benninger (Chepstow, Ontario/Walkerton D.S.S.) is among the league leaders at both 1,500 and 5,000 meters (and a regional qualifier in the latter event), and he owns five career All-America citations following his latest award with Notre Dame’s distance medley relay unit at this year’s NCAA indoor meet. A two-time BIG EAST indoor champion (2005 mile and 3,000 meters) and five-time all-BIG EAST honoree, Benninger is seeking his first conference outdoor crown after runner-up placements in the 1,500 meters and 3,200-meter relay in 2004.
Other Irish distance runners that could be heard from include: senior Sean O’Donnell (Kansas City, Mo./Rockhurst) in the 5,000 meters (regional qualifier), senior A.J. Andrassy (Bay Village, Ohio/St. Ignatius), junior Todd Ptacek (Benton Harbor, Mich./Lake Michigan Catholic) and sophomore Jake Watson (Stillwater, Minn./Stillwater Area) in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and sophomore Brett Adams (Davenport, Iowa/Assumption) at 1,500 meters.
Senior Ryan Postel (Lexington, Ky./Lexington Catholic) will carry the torch for Notre Dame in the sprints, having qualified in both the 200- and 400-meter dashes. Postel’s specialty is the 400 meters, an event he won at the BIG EAST outdoor meet in 2004, and one in which he has met the NCAA Mideast Regional qualifying mark with a season-best 46.89 seconds at the Central Collegiates.
On the infield, sophomore Kyle Annen (Orofino, Idaho/Orofino) has been the BIG EAST standard-bearer in the hammer throw this year, currently setting the pace with a personal-best and regional-qualifying heave of 190-3 (57.98 meters) that he recorded at last week’s Drake Relays. Annen took third in the event as a rookie at last year’s conference outdoor meet, with former teammate Chip Roberts bringing home the title.
Speaking of freshmen, high jumper Blair Majcina (Mokena, Ill./Lincoln-Way East) is the most recent Irish athlete to earn a Mideast Regional berth with a season-best clearance of 6-10.5 (2.10 meters), good for fourth in the BIG EAST, at last week’s Hillsdale Gina Relays. Notre Dame has never had a conference outdoor high jump champion, coming closest with Quill Redwine’s second-place showing in 2001.
SCOUTING THE IRISH WOMEN
Notre Dame will have a large contingent of women’s athletes suiting up this weekend at the BIG EAST Outdoor Championships, with nearly 60 percent (29) of its 50-person roster having met the conference qualifying standard in their particular events. What’s more, the Irish will bring along NCAA Mideast Regional qualifiers in 10 different events, displaying good balance in all disciplines heading into the postseason.
Like their male counterparts, the Notre Dame women will be rooted in the success of their distance runners, many of whom were part of the Irish squad that took seventh at last fall’s NCAA Cross Country Championships, the fourth consecutive national top-10 showing for the program. Seniors Stephanie Madia (Wexford, Pa./North Allegheny) and Molly Huddle (Elmira, N.Y./Notre Dame) will be the leaders of this group, with Madia coming off her second track All-America honor with a fourth-place finish in this year’s NCAA indoor 5,000-meter final. She also won the same citation in the same race during last year’s NCAA Outdoor Championship and will be seeking to add to her stockpile of seven all-BIG EAST plaques (although she is still looking for her first conference title of any kind).
Huddle is the most decorated female athlete in terms of All-America honors in school history, having won a combined eight certificates in track and cross country during her illustrious career (one short of Ryan Shay’s total of nine for the most by any athlete in the Notre Dame record books). Huddle, who did not compete during the 2006 indoor season due to injury, has the nation’s fastest time in the outdoor 5,000 meters this year (15:40.41) and has qualified for the Mideast Regional in that event as well as the 1,500-meter run. In addition, she has won three BIG EAST individual titles and owns nine all-conference designations, including the outdoor 5,000-meter crown in 2003 and 2004, tying the school record in both categories (with junior teammate Maryann Erigha, Liz Grow and Lauren King in the former; Grow, King and Jennifer Englehardt in the latter).
Beyond Madia and Huddle, the Irish have a solid mix of veterans and youth this season. Sophomore Jacqueline Carter (Boise, Idaho/Bishop Kelly) is a regional qualifier in the 800 meters, while junior Katie DeRusso (Fairport, N.Y./Fairport) has done the same in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Junior Amy Kohlmeier (Sarnia, Ontario/St. Patrick’s) has looked especially sharp this season and will battle for points in the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters (regional qualifier), while sophomore Sunni Olding (Minster, Ohio/Minster), a two-time cross country All-American, cannot be overlooked in those races either.
Notre Dame’s sprint crew is led by junior Maryann Erigha (Stone Mountain, Ga./Chamblee), who has the conference’s top time in the 100 meters (regional-qualifying 11.60 seconds at the Central Collegiates) and second-best mark at 200 meters (23.74 at the Meyo Invitational). She also has been a key cog in the Irish 400-meter relay unit that is a Mideast Regional qualifier after a 45.67-second effort at the Central Collegiates. Erigha is a two-time BIG EAST individual champion, winning last year’s outdoor 100-meter title and this season’s indoor 200-meter crown, and is one of two nine-time all-BIG EAST selections competing for Notre Dame this weekend (along with Molly Huddle).
Fellow junior Okechi Ogbuokiri (Willingboro, N.J./Willingboro) has won seven all-conference citations and is a two-time individual champion, having claimed the 400-meter and 1,600-meter relay hardware at last year’s indoor meet. She has the BIG EAST’s second-fastest 400-meter qualifying time this season (54.00 at the Notre Dame Indoor Opener) and has earned a spot in the regional meet with a 54.47-second performance at the Pomona-Pitzer Invitational.
Notre Dame’s depth extends to the field events as well. In the high jump, no less than four Irish athletes have qualified for the Mideast Regional, led by senior Emily Loomis (Fort Wayne, Ind./Bishop Luers), who cleared a personal-best 5-10.75 (1.80 meters) at last week’s Hillsdale Gina Relays. Three other Notre Dame leapers — senior Stacey Cowan (Ferndale, Wash./Ferndale), junior Cassie Gullickson (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Brentwood (Tenn.)) and freshman Lauren Biscardi (Wading River, N.Y./Shoreham Wading River) all have top marks of 5-8.75 (1.75 meters) this season. Loomis was the 2003 champion in the event, while Cowan finished second last year and is a former indoor All-American (2004).
Senior Laura Huarte (Shingle Springs, Calif./St. Francis) was the 2004 BIG EAST outdoor pole vault champion, but her focus this year has been the javelin, where she has shattered the school record with a personal-best, regional-qualifying and league-leading throw of 154-2 (47.00 meters) at the Mount SAC Relays. In the pole vault, freshman Mary Saxer (Lancaster, N.Y./Lancaster Central) has the league’s second-best clearance to date (13-3.25/4.05 meters at the Notre Dame Indoor Invitational) and qualified regionally with a 12-9.5 clearance (3.90 meters) at Mount SAC.
IRISH AT THE BIG EAST OUTDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS
The Notre Dame men have reached the podium at the BIG EAST Outdoor Championships a total of nine times in their first 10 years as a league member. The Irish have three BIG EAST outdoor titles to their credit, winning in 2000, 2003 and 2004, along with three runner-up finishes (1997, 1999 and 2005). The Notre Dame men also boast 32 individual BIG EAST outdoor champions in the past decade, including returning winner Ryan Postel (2004 – 400 meters). The Irish coaches have been honored as the Outstanding Coaching Staff of the Year three times (1999, 2000, 2003), and four Notre Dame individuals have been tabbed as the BIG EAST Outstanding Track Performer, most recently Godwin Mbagwu in 2004.
On the other hand, the BIG EAST Outdoor Championship remains the one trophy that has eluded the Notre Dame women, who have finished second three times in the past four seasons. Nevertheless, the Irish have picked up 16 individual BIG EAST outdoor titles in the past decade, including returning champions Maryann Erigha (2005 – 100 meters), Molly Huddle (2003 and 2004 – 5,000 meters), Emily Loomis (2003 – high jump) and Laura Huarte (2004 – pole vault). In addition, Liz Grow was chosen as the Most Outstanding Track Performer at the 2002 BIG EAST outdoor meet.
— ND —