Oct. 20, 2005
By Chris Masters and Joe Meginnes
The past three years have been special for the Notre Dame women’s cross country program. Three top-10 finishes, including two trips to the awards podium as a top-four squad, would make a good decade for just about any team. However, the Irish are not your average cross country program and the 2005 squad is not content with a drop-off at the national meet.
While longtime head coach Tim Connelly loses two of the most decorated athletes in school history in three-time cross country, All-American Lauren King and 2004 cross country All-America pick Kerry Meagher, the cupboard is hardly bare in terms of returning talent.
“When you run well at the end of the year, that gives you confidence in what you’ve been doing, so now you go back this year and trust that we are going to be ready when it counts,” Connelly says.
“Nobody’s expectations are higher than my team, and that’s the important thing. They’re confident, and when you believe in what you doing, that more than anything is probably the key to our success. It’s not that we’re doing anything different than anybody else in terms of training. We have some really talented kids, but we also have kids that everybody else has who believe in each other and what they’re doing. That’s how you have success.”
Ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation this season, Notre Dame has gotten off to a solid start with three consecutive top-three finishes to open the campaign. The Irish rolled out their top runners for the first time on Sept. 30 at the Notre Dame Invitational and showed the nation they have more than enough firepower to compete for the national championship. Notre Dame had four of the top 11 finishers in the high-powered field, which featured nine nationally ranked teams. By comparison, no other school had more than one runner among the top 11 at the Notre Dame Invitational. However, the fifth Irish scorer got caught up in a cluster of runners further back in the field and was held up just enough to drop Notre Dame to third in the final standings.
The college cross country season kicked into high gear last weekend with the Pre-Nationals, which were held in Terre Haute, Ind., at the same LaVern Gibson Course where the NCAA Championships will be contested in late November. The meet will give teams an indication of where they stand heading into the postseason events that start up at the end of the month. For Notre Dame, that means the BIG EAST Championships and a chance to regain the title they lost to Providence last year. Then, it’s on to the Great Lakes Regional in Bloomington, Ind., and an opportunity to follow up on a runner-up placement in 2004. The NCAA Championships will arrive on Nov. 21 and Notre Dame will battle defending national champion Colorado, Duke and Michigan for the NCAA crown.
Leading the way for the Irish is senior Molly Huddle. A seven-time All-American (including twice in cross country), Huddle battled through an injury-plagued 2004 season, still managing to contribute to the team’s fourth-place NCAA finish. A three-time all-BIG EAST selection, Huddle also placed seventh in the 5,000 meters at the `04 U.S. Olympic Trials and twice won the NCAA Mideast Regional title in that same event (2003, 2004).
Huddle made her `05 debut at the Notre Dame Invitational and looked none the worse for wear. The 5-4 Elmira, N.Y., product finished second overall in a time of 16:39 for the 5K course, part of a group of four Irish runners among the top 11 in the high-powered field.
“The key with Molly is to not do too much too soon,” Connelly notes.
“If we do that, she is talented enough to run with the best, and obviously, the goal and the hope is that she’ll be at the level she was at a year ago when she was seventh at the Olympic Trials. I don’t see any reason why she can’t get back to that.”
Another outstanding top returnee is senior Stephanie Madia. Between cross country and track, Madia had a breakthrough season a year ago with two All-America honors and a number of top performances. In addition to being the first Irish runner to cross the finish line at the national meet (23rd place), Madia also earned all-BIG EAST honors at the league meet. She capped her year by qualifying for both the NCAA indoor and outdoor track meets, garnering All-America honors with a fifth-place finish in the outdoor 5,000 meters.
Like Huddle, Madia opened her final cross country season at the Notre Dame Invitational and did so in grand style, winning the race in a time of 16:36, only 14 seconds off the meet record. It was the second career individual title for the Wexford, Pa., native, following up her win at the National Catholic Championships last year.
“Part of the reason why Stephanie was so successful last year was that she knew she had to step up,” Connelly says.
“Molly wasn’t going to be able to get it done and Stephanie looked at the situation and said `I’m going to get it done.’ She’s been a great leader ever since she’s been here. Last year, she finally had all the pieces together where she could do it on the track, too. What I expect of her isn’t any more than she expects of herself. She expects to improve.”
The third All-America cornerstone for Notre Dame this season is sophomore Sunni Olding. In just her first year with the Irish, Olding secured a spot among the team’s top five runners, winding up third on the team and 32nd overall at the NCAA Championship. Also a sixth-place finisher at the 2004 Great Lakes Regional, Olding forms one-third of an extremely fast leadoff trio for the Irish.
Olding’s power at the front of the pack has been evident early on this season. In two races, Olding has finished among the top 10 individuals on occasions, winning the National Catholic Championships and placing ninth at the Notre Dame Invitational. In less than two years at Notre Dame, Olding now has four top-10 finishes to her credit.
Two incoming freshmen may provide Connelly with the biggest potential addition to the team’s top seven. Ramsey Kavan and Morgan Schulz join the Irish after highly successful prep campaigns in South Dakota and Colorado, respectively. Kavan, a two-time Gatorade South Dakota Track Athlete of the Year, owns sixth- and third-place finishes in the past two Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, while Schulz took 11th at the prestigious national prep race in 2003. Both athletes will hope to duplicate the success that Olding had in her rookie season at Notre Dame.
Kavan wasted little time in making an impact on Irish fortunes, coming home 11th in her collegiate debut race at the Notre Dame Invitational. Meanwhile, Schulz was the top Irish finisher in her first-ever event, taking 23rd-place honors in the Gold Division race at the Notre Dame Invitational.
“Sunni is one of those kids that has the potential to be a great one,” Connelly says.
“I also think we have freshmen coming in who have that potential as well. Those kids coming in here expect to run at that level right away, and that’s one of the things that I’m looking for. I think we have a nice blend.”
The past three years have seen Notre Dame blaze trails on the women’s cross country circuit that have never been seen in the program’s history. Now, the challenge will be to sustain and build upon the foundation that has been laid with those three consecutive NCAA top-10 finishes. With the amount of talent, both young and old, on the Irish roster, it’s apparent that the future is exceptionally bright for Notre Dame and it may not be long before championship gold finds its way back to the Golden Dome.