Dec. 19, 2000

by Alan Wasielewski

After finishing eighth at the 1999 NCAA Cross Country Championship, the Notre Dame cross country team looked forward to competing for a spot in the top five and a possible national title at the end of the 2000 season.

Notre Dame returned senior All-American Ryan Shay and two of its top runners from the year before, juniors Luke Watson and Marc Striowski.

Fate would play a hand in the Irish plans for the 2000 season before it even began. Shay, who is also an All-American in the 10,000 meters for the Notre Dame outdoor track team, earned a shot at the United States Olympic Team with an impressive 10,000 meter time during the outdoor track season. Enduring the hardest training of his career, Shay took 10th place at the Olympic Team Trials, posting the highest finish of any runner still possessing collegiate eligibility.

The heavy dose of training for the Olympics meant that Shay was too fatigued to prepare for the upcoming cross country season, which was scheduled to begin over a month after the trials.

“As soon as the pollsters saw that Shay was not running, we dropped out of the top 20,” Notre Dame head coach Joe Piane said.

“No one picked us to do anything this year.”

Faced with the prospect of competing without their top runner, the team chose not to adjust their goals for the season.

“Luke immediately had a sense that he had to run well,” Piane said.

“I remember asking him in August, ‘Now that Shay is out, who is going to win the district meet?’ His answer was ‘Luke Watson.'”

Watson embraced his role as the top Irish runner in 2000. The Stillwater, Minn., native won the Valparaiso, National Catholic and Notre Dame Invitationals, as well as fulfilling his personal prophecy by capturing first at the NCAA District IV meet.

Under Watson’s leadership, the Irish surprised everyone, maybe even themselves, by taking ninth place at the 2000 NCAA Championship on Nov. 20 – just one place below their finish from a year ago. Watson was once again the top finisher with a seventh-place finish, earning All-Ameriuca status.

“It was a great year. This was probably a bigger kick than when we were third (in 1990),” Piane said.

“We went into the meet ranked 20th and ended up ninth in the country. It was a direct result of the great leadership Watson and Shay provided all year. Even though Shay didn’t compete, he was a fine leader.

“Also, Striowski and Pat Conway did everything they could to ensure that we were successful. We did not have one internal problem the whole season. The guys got along well and they knew that, out on the course, they were competing for more than just themselves.”

Both Striowski and Conway answered the call in similar fashion to their teammate Watson. Striowski was consistently the second Irish harrier across the line in 2000. He also finished eighth at the District IV meet, a finish that helped cement Notre Dame’s berth in the NCAAs. Conway showed improvement throughout the season and was usually the third Irish runner to finish.

Striowski and Conway ended up switching roles in the 2000 NCAA Championship meet, as Conway took 36th place (earning All-America honors) and Striowski finishing not far behind in 42nd.

An All-America finish for Conway seemed unlikely at the beginning of the year, but perfectly in sync with the progress the team made throughout the year.

“I guess it was a little bit of a surprise to see how well he (Conway) ran,” Piane said. “He had run very well at the District meet (taking 17th place), but he ran even better at the nationals. There was one thing really turned him on. During workouts before the District meet he ran a 3,000 meters in 8:11 and I could see the light go on. He was convinced he could run among the best.”

Critical to the Irish success was the depth the team developed over the season. Senior Sean Zanderson developed into the fifth runner, a crucial need for any team to be successful. Piane also witnessed a number of freshman develop and contribute at key times.

“The freshman developed pretty well,” Piane said.

“Todd Mobley ended up our fourth man and did a really fine job. We also had David Mertens, David Alber and Brian Kerwin that were in and out of our top seven. I was pleased with the way they performed, but I think every one of them will tell you that they can do a lot better.”

The ninth-place NCAA finish this season is the sixth top-10 finish for the Irish in the last nine years. With a solid nucleus of runners returning next year (all of Notre Dame’s top runners, sans Sean Zanderson, will return in 2001) the Irish have their sights set on the top five at the 2001 NCAA Championships.

“No one expected anything from us this year,” Piane said.

“It will be interesting to see what they say about us next year.”