Sept. 7, 2005
By Chris Masters and Joe Meginnes
During the past 17 seasons, the Notre Dame men’s cross country team established itself as a consistently strong performer at the NCAA Championships, making 14 trips to the national meet and registering 10 top-10 finishes in that time. After a one-year hiatus in 2003, the Irish returned to the NCAA Championships last season, entering the event ranked fifth in the nation. However, an 11th-place showing left veteran head coach Joe Piane and his charges dissatisfied and hungry to return Notre Dame to its perch among the country’s elite programs in 2005.
“We had a great season up until the NCAAs,” Piane said. “We went from being totally unranked to being ranked fifth in the country. Then, we just ran poorly at the NCAAs. We’ve been trying to debate why that happened, but I guess we need to use that as a motivator for this year. We ended up 11th and the fourth- and fifth-place teams were both teams we had beaten twice. It was a disappointing finish to say the least.
“We need to understand that no one is going to roll over for us,” Piane continued. “We just didn’t run with the right vigor and commitment and that’s not going to happen this year. If you talk to those kids, they’ll tell you the same thing. They’re all really fired up. They’ve learned that they have to do every little thing that it takes, and if the weather is inclement they have to turn that into a positive. If the weather is great, then we’re going to run great. They’ve also learned that they don’t need to take a back seat to anybody.”
While still feeling the sting from last year, Piane has reason to be excited about the prospects for the Irish this season, with a very experienced group of returning runners in the fold, highlighted by six of the team’s seven NCAA Championship participants from a year ago. Among these harriers are the team’s co-captains — senior Tim Moore and fifth-year senior Sean O’Donnell.
Moore served as a co-captain on last year’s squad and has been the only Irish runner to compete at each of the last three NCAA Championships. The individual champion at the 2004 National Catholic Championship, Moore finished 43rd in last year’s NCAA meet after taking ninth at the Great Lakes Regional. Already boasting three all-BIG EAST honors, Moore will be looking to add a fourth to his resume this season, along with his first All-America citation.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame retains another experienced leader in O’Donnell, who was a co-captain and all-BIG EAST selection for the Irish last year. He brings consistency and stability to the Irish top seven, as evidenced by his ninth-place finish at the ’04 BIG EAST meet and 19th-place showing at last year’s Great Lakes Regional. An accomplished student as well, O’Donnell was named to the 2005 ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America Third Team, posting a 3.854 grade-point average as he earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering back in May.
While Moore and O’Donnell lend veteran savvy to the Irish roster, Notre Dame’s most exciting harrier could be junior Kurt Benninger. A two-time All-American during the 2004-05 indoor track season, Benninger prefaced those honors by evolving into a top threat on the cross country course, logging four top-10 finishes in the five meets he ran, while also being the first Irish runner across the line at the NCAA Championship. On the track, he went on to become just the third Notre Dame runner ever to run a sub-four minute mile while garnering All-America citations in the mile and distance medley relay. Early in the outdoor track season, Benninger also broke the school record in the 5,000 meters by five seconds before seeing his year truncated by an injury.
Another possible frontrunner for Notre Dame this season is senior Kaleb Van Ort. A two-time all-BIG EAST choice, Van Ort also finished eighth at the Great Lakes Regional a year ago. After qualifying for the 2005 NCAA Outdoor Track Championships in the 10,000 meters, Van Ort figures to be the fourth Irish runner gunning for cross country All-America honors this fall.
Kaleb Van Ort is coming off an eighth place finish at the 2004 NCAA Great Lakes Regional.
Rounding out the probable top five for Notre Dame is senior Vinny Ambrico. Prior to last season, Ambrico had been known primarily as a strong middle distance runner for the track team. However, in 2004, he improved enough to be Notre Dame’s main fifth runner, a development that would be critical in clinching a one-point Irish victory at the BIG EAST meet. Heading into this fall, Ambrico is out to continue his improvement and tighten up the spread between the top five Irish runners.
“It’s kind of an eclectic group,” Piane observed. “You have Tim Moore, who was a Foot Locker national champion in high school and was at a pretty high level when he came in. Kaleb Van Ort was a pretty good runner out of Indiana who has made himself into a national class runner. You take Kurt Benninger, who was very good as a miler and half-miler in high school, but has evolved into a terrific distance guy. He’s one of the best 5,000-meter runners in Canada now. Then you take Sean O’Donnell, who is a coach’s dream, who was a 4:27 high school miler. He has turned himself from an average high school runner into a guy that has become awfully good. It’s not a group that came from the same background — they weren’t all high school studs. Some of those kids have really evolved into greatness.”
Other prospective contributors for Notre Dame in 2005 will be seniors A.J. Andrassy and Austin Weaver, junior Todd Ptacek, and sophomores Dan Curran, Brett Adams, and Jake Watson. Andrassy competed with the Irish at the 2004 NCAA Championship and brings valuable big-meet experience to fill out the team, while Weaver is a two-time monogram winner.
Ptacek was prepared to join the varsity squad last season before a hamstring injury sidelined him for the remainder of the campaign. He bounced back with an excellent track season featuring a 4:05 mile and 9:05 steeplechase, and he appears ready to assert himself in the Irish rotation. Curran earned a monogram during his rookie season at Notre Dame and should compete among the top 10 Irish runners this season.
Though Piane may not need to rely heavily on his incoming freshmen to ensure a strong team, there are several incoming athletes that will add quality depth to the Irish roster. Robbie Barany earned All-America honors with an eighth-place finish at the 2004 Foot Locker Cross Country Championship, capping off a stellar high school career in Yakima, Wash., at Eisenhower High School, one of the country’s elite prep cross country programs. Another freshman, Patrick Smyth, also figures to be in the mix after an outstanding career at Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“I’ve never had a team this deep,” said Piane, who is in his 31st season at Notre Dame. “We’re probably 14-18 kids deep. We will take a big hit this year, but that just means that the Robbie Baranys and the Patrick Smyths will have a golden opportunity. They could really step in this season, but as deep as we are, they’ll struggle to be in the top seven. I look at guys like Jake Watson and Todd Ptacek as being in front of those kids right now.”
While big things are expected for Notre Dame this season, it already will be a milestone campaign for another reason. On Sept. 30, the Irish will play host to the 50th annual Notre Dame Invitational, which has evolved into one of the nation’s oldest intercollegiate cross country races. The Notre Dame Invitational, which was created in 1956 by legendary Irish coach (and Canadian Track Hall of Famer) Alex Wilson, is widely considered one of the most competitive regular season meets in the country.
“The Notre Dame Invitational has grown into a very good national meet,” Piane commented. “It’s a good opportunity to run against teams outside your region, so we attract teams from all over the country. Last year, people said they thought it was the best non- pre-national or regional meet in the country. I don’t know if it was, but hopefully, it will be very similar to that this year. It’s a source of pride and when we have a home meet, I don’t feel like a cross country coach, I feel like a host.”
Notre Dame also will serve as the host site for the 26th National Catholic Championship on Sept. 16, continuing to build an impressive tradition for the meet Piane founded in 1980. Besides their two home events, the Irish will open their season at the Valparaiso Invitational on Sept. 9 and are slated to compete in the Pre-National meet Oct. 15 in Terre Haute, Ind., on the same Lavern Gibson Course that will play host to the NCAA Championships at season’s end. Notre Dame will aim to defend its BIG EAST title Oct. 28 at Van Cortland Park in Bronx, N.Y., before turning its focus to the Great Lakes Regional in Bloomington, Ind., on Nov. 12. A visit to the IC4A Championships back in the Bronx on Nov. 19 will serve as a tune-up for the NCAA meet two days later.
“Our first goal is getting to the NCAA meet and I’ll be disappointed if we don’t do that,” Piane said. “I expect us to be in the top 10 and frankly, we have a chance to be on the podium as one of the top four teams. As each goal is attained, it gets a little more difficult. I also think we have a legitimate shot at contending for the BIG EAST title. We won it last year and we return six or seven so we should have a good shot.”
“Our guys hold themselves accountable,” Piane continued. “I think if we had run exceptionally well at NCAAs last year, then that might have been a problem, but they know that on any given day, a team can screw up. The NCAA meet is not to see who runs the best, but instead it’s a meet to see who screws up the least. There are two examples from last season — one would be us and the other would be Wisconsin. Wisconsin went into that meet last year highly touted, and everyone basically conceded them the win. Then, Colorado came out and kept moving up and did a great job. Right now, when you look on the Internet, people are making predictions and we’re not a factor. I love it.”
Numerous ingredients are needed to create a successful team, and it would appear those pieces — talent, experience, depth and an insatiable work ethic — and have been put in place for Notre Dame in 2005. As such, the Irish are poised to add the latest entry in a historical ledger of excellence and bring the program its second national championship.