Oct. 2, 2014
By Staci Gasser
Two weeks after strong finishes at the National Catholic Championships, the University of Notre Dame cross country teams face their first true test of the season this Friday.
The Irish men’s and women’s squads will welcome in an elite field of runners for the 59th annual Notre Dame Invitational at the nine-hole Notre Dame Golf Course.
This invitational is particularly important for the Irish because it provides a chance for them to accumulate at-large points if they finish well, increasing their chances of qualifying for the NCAA Championships in November.
While nationally ranked teams from all over the nation are amongst the competitors, Notre Dame associate head coach for cross country and track & field Matt Sparks wants his runners to focus on their own strategy and look at the meet in a way basketball players look at the NCAA Tournament or “March Madness.”
“That’s the unique thing about our sport: we don’t play defense,” he said. “We have to internally think about what place we are running for.
“It’s like the NCAA basketball tournament where you have to do certain things during the regular season to build your resume, to get where you need to be in [March]. So for us, this is the first weekend where we can begin to accumulate that resume that will put us where we need to be, which is Terra Haute (Indiana) in November (for the NCAA Championships).”
In the 23-team Division I blue division field for the women, New Mexico (12), Butler (29) and Penn State (30) are nationally ranked, with BYU, NC State, Ohio State, Princeton, SMU and Toledo all receiving votes is the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) Top 30.
The Irish women are coming off a first-place team victory at the National Catholic Championships with juniors Molly Seidel and Danielle Aragon nabbing the first and second place spots while seniors Karen Lesiewicz and Emily Frydrych placed fourth and fifth among 288 total runners.
“I wouldn’t say the National Catholic meet was an easy win, but we knew we could do it,” Lesiewicz said. “Staying together helped us prepare, and now translating that to the Notre Dame Invitational, I think it’s going to be a lot more spread out, a lot more competition. Given our strength of being such competitive girls, I think it will give us more of an advantage because there will be more people to pass.”
Each Monday, the team talks about the goals they have for the upcoming meet as well as highlight the top five teams they feel are the toughest competition.
This week’s goal is about attacking individually and the importance of the final mile.
“When you try to beat any team, you’re never going to win it in the first mile, especially at the bigger meets,” Lesiewicz said. “Most of the time whoever is winning in the first mile is almost never winning in the last mile. We need to really focus on that last mile. We need to go out solid, don’t do anything crazy and in the last mile, start hunting them down and looking for the schools we can beat.”
More importantly, it’s about earning that No. 1 spot.
“This meet is important for our confidence,” Lesiewicz added. “It’s about being a top–five team and seeing how close to number one we can because we know we are right there.”
For the men, it’s even more of a test.
The Irish were missing two of their top three runners, Michael Clevenger and Timothy Ball, at the National Catholic Championship, but senior Jake Kildoo won his first collegiate race and earned Atlantic Coast Conference Men’s Cross Country Performer of the Week honors. Sophomore Chris Marco finished second.
“At the last meet, we definitely ran conservatively,” Kildoo said. “We were trying to go hard but not quite 100 percent. It was a bit of a benchmark but this meet will be a true benchmark. We will be going all out this race. I’m hoping [Clevenger], [Ball] and I will be able to run together towards the front of the race and finish in the top 30 (individually). But hopefully better than that.”
Of the 23 Division I teams in the men’s race, BYU (10), New Mexico (15), NC State (16), Tulsa (18), Michigan (19), Princeton (20), Southern Utah (22), Eastern Kentucky (23), Florida State (24) and Colorado State (25) are nationally ranked. Air Force and Penn State have received votes by the USTFCCCA.
“There are a quite a few teams ranked in the 20 to 30 range where we anticipate to fall ourselves in the rankings,” Kildoo said.
The team ramped up the volume and intensity of their workouts last week and backed off a little this week so they will be fresh for Friday.
“This is the first meet where we know teams are better than us so we need to come out and show all of the work that we did in the summer is paying off,” Sparks said. “If both teams can finish in the top five, that will be a positive experience, and that would mean we had have beaten a team who will push us in the national meet down the road.”
And above all else, home course advantage gives the Irish an even bigger edge and comforts this race.
“You slept in your own bed. No [other team] gets to say that,” Sparks said. “And we have been training on this course more than the team traditionally has it the past, so that’s a comforting feeling knowing you have run this loop more than anyone else in the competition.”
The women’s gold division race, which features Division I, II, III, and NAIA teams, begins at 2 p.m. followed by the men’s gold division race at 2:45 p.m. The women’s blue division race starts at 4:15 p.m., with the men’s blue division race rounding out the day at 5 p.m. In between the gold and blue races is an open division race that will have women (5K) and men runners (5 miles) running their respective distances. It’s set to get underway at 3:30 p.m.