Senior Kurt Benninger is the fourth Notre Dame runner to qualify for the NCAA finals in his event, finishing 12th in the 1,500-meter semifinals (season-best 3:43.34) at the NCAA Outdoor Track &amp; Field Championships Thursday night in Sacramento, Calif. <i>(photo by Stephen Slade/BIG EAST Conference)</i>

Irish Men Rally To Win BIG EAST Outdoor Track & Field Championship; Women Finish A Close Second

May 7, 2006


STORRS, Conn. – The Notre Dame men’s track & field team used a thrilling charge on the final day to come from behind and win its third BIG EAST Conference Outdoor Championship in the past four years on Sunday afternoon at the University of Connecticut’s George J. Sherman Family-Sports Complex in Storrs, Conn. The Irish scored 132 points to edge past Louisville (125) and pick up the 11th BIG EAST Championship for a Notre Dame athletics team in 2005-06, setting both school and conference records for titles won in a single academic year (the Irish won 10 crowns in 2004-05). Meanwhile, the Irish women’s track & field team saw its bid for the first BIG EAST “triple crown” (cross country, indoor/outdoor track & field) in 18 seasons come up just short, as Notre Dame placed second with 106.5 points behind Pittsburgh, which won its second consecutive crown with 117 points. It was the fourth second-place finish in the past five years for the Irish women, who came as close as they ever have to winning their first BIG EAST outdoor title, with the three prior deficits all having been at least 40 points.

** NOTE: The BIG EAST Championships will be televised on a tape-delayed basis May 15 at 8 p.m. (ET) on College Sports Television/CSTV (DirecTV Channel 610/Dish Network Channel 152), 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. **

To date, Notre Dame squads have won 11 of a possible 19 BIG EAST titles (volleyball, men’s cross country, women’s cross country, women’s soccer, men’s swimming & diving, women’s swimming & diving, women’s indoor track & field, men’s golf, women’s tennis, women’s rowing and men’s outdoor track & field) with narrow second-place finishes in three other sports (men’s tennis, women’s lacrosse and women’s outdoor track & field). The Irish don’t participate in BIG EAST play in two sports sponsored by the conference (football and field hockey), while two other sports are still waiting to crown their champions (baseball and softball). Upon closer inspection, Notre Dame women’s teams have won seven of a possible 11 BIG EAST titles thus far, finishing second twice and third once (women’s golf), with softball still to be decided.

After trailing Louisville by 24 points entering Sunday’s action at the BIG EAST Outdoor Championships, the Notre Dame men’s track & field team clawed its way and took its first lead of the day on the third-to-last event when the 3,200-meter relay squad placed second in a time of 7:26.04 (second-quickest in stadium history and third-fastest in school history) to earn eight team points, while Louisville’s quartet came in ninth and took no points. After the Irish added a point to their lead with a fourth-place finish in the 1,600-meter relay (UL was fifth), Notre Dame narrowly led the Cardinals, 118-111 with one event (the hammer throw) still to be completed. In the hammer competition, sophomore Kyle Annen (Orofino, Idaho/Orofino) and junior Garet Koxlien (Galesville, Wis./Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau) notched a 2-3 finish for Notre Dame in record-setting fashion, giving the Irish 14 crucial points to offset the winning 10-point effort from Louisville’s Arthur Turland and a fifth-place showing (four points) by the Cardinals’ Brandon Cook. Annen placed second and became the first Irish thrower ever to top 200 feet in the event with a top distance of 201-8 (61.46 meters) on his second-to-last toss of the competition (the old school record of 199-11 was set by Tom Mick at the 1988 IC4A Championships). It appeared Annen’s mark would win the BIG EAST title, but Turland came back with a 202-7 (61.75 meters) heave on his final attempt (while Annen fouled), leaving the Irish second-year standout with a runner-up finish and his second career all-conference citation. Meanwhile, Koxlien took third-place honors with a personal-best throw of 188-2 (57.35 meters), which not only qualified him for the NCAA Mideast Regional, but goes down as the eighth-longest toss in school history.

The tandem of Annen and Koxlien also helped preserve the second comeback victory for a Notre Dame athletics team over its Louisville counterpart in BIG EAST Championship competition during the past two weeks — men’s golf rallied from 12 shots back and defeated the Cardinals on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff on April 25.

In addition to hoisting the men’s team hardware, both Notre Dame squads picked up individual accolades as well. For the fourth time, the Irish coaches — head coach Joe Piane and assistants John Millar (sprints), Scott Winsor (jumps) and B.J. Linnenbrink (throws) — were recognized as the Men’s Outdoor Coaching Staff of the Year, adding this year’s honor to those previously won in 1999, 2000 and 2003. On the women’s side, senior All-American Molly Huddle (Elmira, N.Y./Notre Dame) was tapped as the Outstanding Women’s Track Performer, becoming the second Irish runner to receive that distinction (Liz Grow in 2002).

Besides the men’s come-from-behind victory, Huddle was responsible for two of the signature moments for Notre Dame at this year’s BIG EAST Outdoor Championships, winning the 10,000-meter run in record-setting fashion (32:37.87) on Saturday afternoon and then adding the 5,000-meter crown (16:31.34) on Sunday, as she outkicked Pittsburgh’s Maureen McCandless (16:31.61) down the stretch. Huddle becomes just the second BIG EAST female runner ever to win both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in the same meet, and the first since Villanova’s Carole Zajac did so in 1993. What’s more, Huddle is only the fifth runner (male or female) in conference history ever to pull off the 5,000/10,000 double victory, joining two Notre Dame men’s runners (Jason Rexing in 1996 and Ryan Shay in 2000) and Seton Hall’s Bryan Spoonire in 1994.

Huddle also is the first Irish woman ever to win two individual BIG EAST titles in the same meet, and one of six Notre Dame athletes ever to accomplish that feat (Rexing in 1996 outdoor/1998 indoor, Shay in 2000 outdoor/2002 indoor), Luke Watson (2002 and 2003 outdoor), Selim Nurudeen (2005 indoor) and current junior Kurt Benninger (Chepstow, Ontario/Walkerton D.S.S.) (2005 indoor). Huddle now has five career BIG EAST titles (four individual, one relay), breaking the school record of four she jointly held with Grow (two individual, two relay from 1999-2002) and Lauren King (three individual track, one cross country), and Huddle has garnered 12 combined all-conference plaques (four cross country, four indoor track, four outdoor track), to outdistance her current teammate, junior sprinter Maryann Erigha (Stone Mountain, Ga./Chamblee), who won her 10th all-BIG EAST citation (fifth outdoor) Sunday with a third-place finish in the 100-meter dash (11.65 seconds).

Benninger picked up the other individual title for Notre Dame at this year’s BIG EAST Outdoor Championship, edging out Villanova’s Robert Curtis to win the 1,500-meter crown in a time of 3:46.62 (to Curtis’ mark of 3:46.94). It was Benninger’s third career BIG EAST individual championship (and first outdoor), following his 2005 indoor titles in the mile and 3,000-meter run. He also qualified for the NCAA Mideast Regional in the 1,500 meters, to go along with his prior qualification at 5,000 meters. In addition, Benninger earned a second-place finish in the 5,000 meters (14:12.66) at this weekend’s BIG EAST meet, giving him seven career all-conference awards (four outdoor).

Sophomore Austin Wechter (Shelby, Ohio/Shelby) joined Koxlien in booking a Mideast Regional spot on Sunday with his fourth-place finish in the 400-meter hurdles. Wechter covered the course in a personal-best 52.32 seconds, which is the second-fastest time in school history behind only Aubrey Lewis’ mark of 50.2 seconds in 1957 (a converted time from the 440-yard high hurdles that were run in that era).

Other all-BIG EAST honorees for Notre Dame on Sunday included: senior Ryan Postel (2nd – 400m; seventh all-BIG EAST/fifth outdoor), junior Thomas Chamney (2nd – 800m; fifth all-BIG EAST/third outdoor), junior Okechi Ogbuokiri (3rd – 400m; eighth all-BIG EAST/third outdoor); junior Amy Kohlmeier (3rd – 5,000m; first all-BIG EAST) and senior Emily Loomis (3rd – high jump; sixth all-BIG EAST/third outdoor).

Other record-setting efforts for Notre Dame on Sunday included: junior Dave Viken, who cleared a personal-best 15-9 (4.80 meters) in the pole vault to place sixth, and junior Cassie Gullickson, whose leap of 40-2 (12.24 meters) in the triple jump was not only a personal best, but also the eighth-longest triple jump in school history (best since Petra Dankova’s mark of 40-11.5 at the 2004 NCAA Mideast Regional).

During this weekend’s BIG EAST Championship meet, Notre Dame athletes added four more NCAA Mideast Regional qualification marks along with Huddle’s automatic qualifying time for the NCAA Championships in the 10,000-meter run. To this point, the Irish have a combined total of 33 NCAA postseason qualification marks — 30 Mideast Regional (17 women, 13 men), two NCAA Championship provisional (both men’s 10,000 meters) and one NCAA Championship automatic (women’s 10,000 meters) — as well as four qualifying efforts (three automatic, one provisional) for the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships.

Notre Dame athletes will have one final chance to qualify for postseason competition when they take part in the Georgia Tech Invitational May 12-13 in Atlanta. The NCAA Mideast Regional is scheduled to take place May 26-27 in Knoxville, Tenn., with the NCAA Championships slated for June 7-10 in Sacramento, Calif. The USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships will wrap up the 2006 season for the Irish on June 23-25 in Indianapolis.

— ND —

May 5-7, 2006
George J. Sherman Family-Sports Complex (Storrs, Conn.)

; 2. Louisville 125; 3. Connecticut 103; 4. Villanova 94; 5. Cincinnati 80; 6. Rutgers 62; 7. Pittsburgh 58; 8. Georgetown 54; 9. South Florida 41; 10. Marquette 32; 11. Syracuse 31; 12. Seton Hall 25; 13. Providence 20.

Coaching Staff of the Year: Notre Dame
Outstanding Track Performer: Joel Legare (Sr., Connecticut)
Outstanding Field Performer: Tone Belt (Fr., Louisville)

1. Pittsburgh 117; 2. NOTRE DAME 106.5; 3. Syracuse 87; 4. (tie) Connecticut and Villanova 84; 6. Louisville 63; 7. Georgetown; 8. St. John’s 56; 9. West Virginia 44; 10. Rutgers 39; 11. Marquette 31; 12. Seton Hall 27; 13. Cincinnati 25.5; 14. Providence 15; 15. South Florida 13; 16. DePaul 9.

Coaching Staff of the Year: Pittsburgh
Outstanding Track Performer: Molly Huddle (Sr., Notre Dame)
Outstanding Field Performers: Johvonne Hernandez (Sr., Syracuse) and Buky Bamigboye (Fr., Georgetown)