Sparks' Squad's Success Starts With CultureBy Joanne Norell
Editor’s Note: In 2018, five University of Notre Dame head coaches began preparations for their first seasons leading their respective programs: Chad Riley (men’s soccer), Nate Norman (women’s soccer), Alison Silverio (women’s tennis), Mike Johnson (volleyball) and Matt Sparks (cross country/track and field). This is the fifth of a five-part series examining the past year in the life of those coaches and their outlook now that they’ve navigated a year of competition in the shadow of the Golden Dome.
The list of accomplishments in Matt Sparks’ first season at the head of Notre Dame’s cross country and track and field programs is extensive.
Consider the highlights:
- Atlantic Coast Conference Men’s Cross Country Champions
- ACC Women’s Cross Country Runner-up
- Three Cross Country All-Americans
- Matt Sparks, ACC Men’s Cross Country Coach of the Year
- Rachel Tanczos, ACC Women’s Indoor Track and Field Weight Throw Champion
- Yared Nuguse, ACC Men’s Indoor Track and Field Mile Champion
- ACC Men’s Indoor Track and Field Distance Medley Relay Champions
- Logan Kusky, Men’s ACC Indoor Track and Field Weight Throw Champion
- NCAA Men’s Indoor Track and Field Distance Medley Relay Champions
- Four Indoor Track and Field All-Americans
- Anna Rohrer, ACC Women’s Outdoor Track and Field 10,000 Meters Champion
- Yared Nuguse, ACC Men’s Outdoor Track and Field 1,500 Meters Champion
- Yared Nuguse, NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field 1,500 Meters Champion
- Three Outdoor Track and Field All-Americans
That would be quite the haul for a program with a first-year head coach. In reality, it’s the product of the work Sparks had already been doing, laying the foundation as associate head coach for four seasons prior to accepting the post as Hatherly-Piane Head Track and Field Coach.
Indeed, that success was expected given the relative stability of the coaching staff, with Sparks retaining distance specialist Sean Carlson and throws coach Adam Beltran. It’s no surprise, then, that those areas were where the Irish excelled the most.
“We anticipated it,” Sparks said. “The coaching staff amongst those groups has been consistent from Coach Carlson to Coach Beltran to myself, having been here for five-plus years. And so there’s a comfort and ease with each other. I think that when you’re in a place like Notre Dame, where the kids are challenged, the 10 hours a day that they’re in school, there needs to be that relaxation and happiness when they come to practice. They’ve got that comfort level with their coaching staff.”
Sparks added three new assistants in Kendra Foley (women’s distance), Wayne Pate (sprints, horizontal jumps) and Rodney Zuyderwyk (hurdles, vertical jumps, multi-events), looking for those who could fit into the laid-back culture he is seeking to create.
“I think the thing that we look for in hiring … is (for) people that are easygoing that the athletes will grow to respect and care for over the years and will develop that same culture within their groups,” Sparks said. “It’s just going to take those groups a little bit of time to get some recruiting going in the sprints, hurdles, jumps, to have that same camaraderie and that connection will spread throughout the entire track team.”
The time Sparks spent as an Irish assistant prepped his understanding of the unique psyche of a Notre Dame student-athlete — particularly that of the distance group as the cross country coach — but his position as head coach helped drive home the similarities of his charges despite their differences in specialties. Whether a sprinter or thrower, jumper or multi-event athlete, the cares and concerns of 120 student-athletes shared commonalities.
The key theme? Passion — for the track program, their academic pursuits and community involvement. It’s a positive attribute, but one that can mean increased levels of stress, especially with their attention pulled in so many different directions.
That understanding helped inform the kind of program he wished to build, and in conveying that same understanding to the rest of his staff.
“It helped that transition and getting to know the kids because they’re passionate about everything they do, and recognizing that and understanding their highs and lows allowed that transition to be a little bit more seamless,” Sparks said. “Conveying that to the new assistant coaches and helping them learn what Notre Dame is about, I think was a little bit quicker with three returning coaches that understood that already.”
Sparks doesn’t want his program to be another stressor for the members of his team. Instead, he wants to build a familial atmosphere and provide the resources that help his student-athletes reach their goals.
“The big philosophy that we’ve tried to share with the team is that the coaching staff is approachable, and we’re here all day, every day,” Sparks said. “Don’t be afraid to approach us whether it’s athletic-related issues, school-related issues or you’re just frustrated being away from home. The philosophy that all of our staff has is that a happy athlete is going to be a competitive athlete. If you’re not happy … then you’re not going to practice well, and then you’re not going to compete on the weekends. So you need to be content and happy with where your life is and if we can help you find your happy place, then then we’re going to be successful come Saturday.”
"If you're not happy, then you're not going to practice well, and then you're not going to compete on the weekends. So you need to be content and happy with where your life is and if we can help you find your happy place, then then we're going to be successful come Saturday.”
With all of the individual and team triumphs that came last season, it seems for now that the plan is working. What’s more — and was a pleasant surprise for Sparks and company — was the contributions from the underclassmen. For the women, sophomore Rachel Tanczos captured an ACC title in the weight throw, while Jacqueline Gaughan and Maddy Denner were two of three freshmen to qualify for the national 10,000 meters race. The men’s team captured the national title in the distance medley relay with freshman Dylan Jacobs and sophomores Samuel Voelz and Yared Nuguse, in addition to senior Edward Cheatham. Nuguse continued that success in the outdoor season with a national title in the 1,500 meters.
But beyond the on-track success, Sparks was pleased with the way his team came together, a tangible representation of the “happy place” he hopes to foster.
A poignant moment came during the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in March, illustrating that perhaps the plan was working. Despite the fact that just one relay team was competing and the event was being held in Birmingham, Alabama — a 10-hour drive from campus — 30 teammates made the trip to cheer on their comrades.
It was something no other team could have boasted, and after that distance medley relay team won the national championship, those 30 student-athletes slung their arms around each other and sang the alma mater.
“That’s what stands out to me,” Sparks said. “You’re going to win races, you’re going to lose races and competitions, but what you’re going to remember about the trips we go on are the connections, the moments when you think back 10 or 20 years from now. It’s going to be moments like that, where you’re singing the alma mater to your buddies at a big event. You’re not going to remember what your split was or what your time was or what your mark was. To me, it’s going to be a lot of the moments off the track that you’re doing something special with your teammates.”
If Matt Sparks has his way, certainly, there are many more of those special moments to come.