Sept. 4, 2002
Coming off its most successful season in eight years, one might expect a drop off in performance by the University of Notre Dame men’s cross country team this year.
Luke Watson and Ryan Shay, two of the most accomplished harriers in Irish history, have graduated. Watson will still be around, as he will return for a fifth year of eligibility in track and field in the spring, but he won’t be out on the course for cross country. The team also lost 2000 All-American Pat Conway and the consistent Marc Striowski to graduation as well.
What returns, however, is a team that could sneak up on the cross country nation.
“We graduated five of our top seven and three guys who were All-Americans (at one point in their careers),” Piane says.
“It is hard to replace three All-Americans, no matter how good of a recruiting year you have.
“On the positive side, we have an All-American back in (Todd) Mobley. We have a guy that scored in the BIG EAST (outdoor meet) in the steeplechase in David Alber. We have John Keane, who ran very well during the cross country season last year. Eric Morrison was fourth in the province of Ontario cross country meet two years ago. He can certainly contribute. Brian Kerwin, if he stays injury free, can certainly make a contribution. Kevin Somok can make a contribution as well.”
The 2002 cross country season is an opportunity for a number of Irish athletes to step up and make a name for themselves in one of the most consistent programs in the nation. At least one Notre Dame cross country runner has appeared in every NCAA Championship meet since 1990 and the team has finished in the top 15 nine times during that stretch.
Notre Dame cross country has a history even deeper than Joe Piane’s 28 seasons as head coach. Greg Rice (1938) and Oliver Hunter (1942) each won an individual NCAA title and the 1957 Irish team claimed the team championship.
That history has been carried on in the early 21st century by Watson and Shay, both who finished in the top 15 individually at the NCAA meet over the last three years.
Make no mistake, though, the road toward another appearance in the NCAA Championship will not be an easy trip for the 2002 team. They compete in the toughest cross country conference in the nation, the BIG EAST, and are forced to go up against the best in the Midwest for a spot in the NCAA Championship at the Great Lakes Regional Meet.
“The BIG EAST is really going to be a bear,” Piane says.
“Villanova returns four terrific runners and are the odds-on favorite. The region is very good and Wisconsin returns the whole team, as does Eastern Michigan and Michigan State. Those are three solid teams before you start looking at everyone else.
“Historically, we are one of the top three regions in the country and the BIG EAST is the best conference in the nation for cross country.”
Analysis of the 2002 Notre Dame cross country team begins with returning All-American Todd Mobley. As a sophomore last season, Mobley was consistently the third runner for the Irish. He began the season with an individual victory at the Valparaiso Invitational and followed teammates Shay and Watson to a third-place effort at the National Catholic. He ran with his teammates once again to finish third at the Notre Dame Invitational and highlighted his season with a 38th-place finish at the NCAA Championship.
Mobley will be among the contenders in every race he enters this season.
Behind Mobley, however, the order becomes cloudy even as the talent stays consistent. Junior David Alber ended up sixth on the team at the NCAA Championship last season and finished in the top 20 at the BIG EAST meet. Senior John Keane has a second-place finish at the 2001 Central Collegiate Championships on his resume and finished 62nd at the Great Lakes Regional a year ago.
There also are a number of unknowns, runners who haven’t appeared on the national scene, who figure in the mix as well. Eric Morrison excelled in middle distance for the Irish track and field team last year and figures to be among the top five runners on the cross country team in 2002. Brian Kerwin finished second at the Valparaiso Invitational last year and figures to play a prominent role as well.
With the loss of such a strong senior class, one would expect Piane to hit the recruiting trial and the Irish mentor did not disappoint, landing a top class that should play a significant role this season.
“We bring in Tim Moore, the FootLocker Cross Country National Champion, and that certainly helps,” Piane says.
“Then we have Kaleb Van Ort, second in the state of Indiana in cross country (last year), Tom Longo, fifth in the state of Illinois in cross country, and Austin Weaver, who was a Tennessee state champion. We have 12 solid people and out of that group is only one senior. The future is very bright.”