Sept. 6, 2001
Returning one of the top cross country teams in the nation for the 2000 season, a group led by All-American Ryan Shay, Notre Dame head cross country coach Joe Piane seemed poised to help the team improve on its eighth-place finish at the 1999 NCAA Championship. The Irish had one of the most talented teams in the country and a repeat top-10 finish at the championship meet seemed all but assured.
But Shay, who since his All-American finish in ’99 has established himself as one of Notre Dame’s greatest distance runners of all time, qualified for the Olympic Trials in the middle of the summer and would be unavailable for the 2000 cross country season. Suddenly, Piane was in search of a new top runner and the Irish dropped out of the national spotlight.
But Luke Watson would insure that Piane would have little to worry about, while also making sure to keep the team among the best in the nation. The Stillwater, Minn., native stepped up and took over the role Piane expected Shay to play during the 2000 season.
“Luke had an outstanding season last year,” Piane says.
“He worked hard enough to develop into one of the top runners in the nation.”
Watson, now a senior, began the 2000 season with three consecutive victories in the Valparaiso, National Catholic and Notre Dame Invitationals, helping the team capture two titles and a third-place finish. It was at the Notre Dame Invitational where Watson clearly established that he was one of the top harriers in the country. He out-kicked
Watson was the anchor of an Irish team that finished third at the Great Lakes Regional meet and surprised everyone, even their coach, with a ninth-place finish at the NCAA Championship.
“When we lost Shay for the year we were not expected to even be in the championship meet,” Piane says.
“Then to finish in the top 10 is just a great accomplishment.”
Now it is the fall of 2001 and Piane has the group of runners he expected to have a year ago.
“We return all five of our top runners and also add Shay into the mix,” Piane says.
“If we can stay healthy we will be a hard team to beat at any meet this season.”
Not only have Watson and Shay achieved All-America status at the NCAA meet, but senior Pat Conway (Springfield, Va.) also earned the honor with a 36th-place finish last year. Conway ran perhaps his best race of the season in the frigid temperatures in Ames, Iowa, and will play a key role on the Irish team in 2001.
“Pat Conway ran a fabulous race in the championship last season, but he wasn’t our customary second-best runner,” Piane says.
“Marc Striowski (who also returns) was our second runner across the finish line in every other race last season.”
The return of Shay, who won the NCAA Championship in the 10,000 meters in 2001, gives Piane one of the most experienced teams in the nation. The national running community, which might have overlooked the team last season has taken notice in 2001. Notre Dame has been ranked fifth in the MONDO Preseason Cross Country Poll.
“Those four guys, Watson, Shay, Striowski and Conway, are a top-four group that can run with anyone in the nation,” Piane says.
“The true measure of the season will be the development of our number five and six runners.”
There are a number of candidates to fill that role, including junior Sean Zanderson and sophomores Todd Mobley and David Mertens.
“Zanderson really improved throughout the season last year and played a crucial role in out top-10 finish at the national meet,” Piane says.
“Todd Mobley was our fourth runner in Ames and has really had a great summer of training. If we can keep those top five runners together, there is no telling what this team can accomplish at the end of the season.”