Sept. 23, 2015

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Annie Heffernan jumped up and down before the start of the National Catholic Championships cross country meet on the University of Notre Dame golf course Friday afternoon.

Rachel DaDamio stretched out her legs.

Anna Rohrer pounded her thighs with her fists three times.

Then, after the starter delivered the final instructions and raised the starting gun, Heffernan, DaDamio and Rohrer leaned forward and steeled themselves into their starting positions.

Frozen in place in the seconds before the start of Friday’s race, Notre Dame’s freshmen bolted from their starting positions, setting in motion what has the looks of becoming a remarkable legacy for the Class of 2019 runners.

Notre Dame’s freshman runners-both men and women–played a critical role in helping the Fighting Irish sweep to titles in the National Catholic Championships.

Paced by blue-ribbon winner Rohrer, Notre Dame easily outran the competition in the women’s race. The Fighting Irish placed five runners in the top 10 and finished with 20 points. Runner-up Xavier finished with 84.

In the men’s race, Notre Dame nipped Canisius 40-41 for the team title.

With NCAA women’s track 10,000-meter national champion Molly Seidel sitting out for the Irish, three freshmen led Notre Dame’s effort.

Rohrer placed first in 17:20.7. Heffernan finished third at 17:33.9, and DaDamio placed fifth in 17:43.4.

For Notre Dame associate head coach Matt Sparks, the race was a great tune-up for the prestigious Joe Piane Invitational that Notre Dame will play host to Oct. 2.

“I love the open-mindedness of the freshmen,” Sparks said. “They come in with a fresh, new perspective on everything. As a team and as a coaching staff, everything we say is new. They take that and build upon it. It makes things a little more challenging as a staff to make sure you’re saying and doing the right things. It’s fun. That’s what you look forward to. When you’re a coach, you want to have athletes that you can mold to be championship-caliber people.”

Friday’s National Catholic Championships allowed Notre Dame’s freshman class to get a feel for racing in a major collegiate event.

“I think (Friday’s race) will give them peace of mind that they have that first college race out of the way,” Sparks said. “With that comes confidence. We’re going to be in the hot box in two weeks with New Mexico, they’re No. 1 in the country, and one of our biggest ACC rivals, N.C. State, racing here.

“This is the first meet for most of the freshmen, to ease them into the elite schedule that we put together. The challenge for the staff over the next two weeks is to raise that level of competitive thought in their minds, to forget about what happened here today and now look at things along a national scene. This was, in a lot of ways, a time trial for a lot of the freshmen. Now, we have to come out and compete on a higher level with more elite people.”

Rohrer, a high school national champion from Mishawaka, Indiana, ran with the Irish pack until the final 800 meters. Then she was given the green light, and she easily pulled away to leave the field in her rear-view mirror.

“It’s really cool that I won, but I think it’s more exciting that I had teammates coming in right behind me, coming in within 20 seconds,” Rohrer said. “It’s really exciting to have so many people who are this close in ability. I’ve never had that before on a team. It’s cool to be able to run with so many other girls who are my age, and we’re going to be on the team for a long time together.”

Notre Dame’s freshmen have the ability to help the program continue to emerge as a bright spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the NCAA.

“I think Molly Seidel set the tone last year, winning a national championship, along with Danielle Aragon with her school record in the 1,500,” Sparks said. “I think that allowed the freshmen to have peace of mind that this was a professional running environment for them to commit to.

“The next step for the freshmen is to build upon what Danielle and Molly set. That helps our recruiting become a little easier in that when you get the No. 1 recruit in the country and arguably the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, we feel we can have an in with any kid looking at an elite-level running experience.”

Rohrer loves the family environment the Irish program offers.

“We definitely have fantastic coaches,” Rohrer said. “I also think a lot of it is being able to have so many people who have been in my place and being able to talk with them. Mostly, it’s been great to be able to talk to and get support from the people on the team and the coaches, but also, having the professors who are always there to help you with school work.

“I think we all just kind of clicked,” Rohrer said of the closeness of the Irish team. “We all bring each other up when we’re down. We’re all there to help each other, whether it’s with school or helping a teammate push through a race.”

Notre Dame’s focus on excellence as a person, a scholar and an athlete stand out to DaDamio, and the Irish have provided essential support to facilitate a quick transition to the collegiate level for the freshmen.

“Notre Dame really puts an emphasis on starting out and being successful right away and really striving to be your best everywhere, in life, in the classroom, as well as on the athletic field,” DaDamio said. “The sense of community here is really awesome. We have an insane number of people here that you can talk to if you need help with anything. It’s amazing how many resources Notre Dame has.”

Heffernan was also won over by the support and sense of community that Notre Dame offers.

“Notre Dame has so many resources for us, inside the classroom and outside the classroom,” Heffernan said. “I was attracted to the family spirit here, which carries over into the team. We really have all become fast friends, and we all look out for each other. I really feel that we’re family. I really like that about this team. That’s something that drew me to Notre Dame.”

Heffernan is excited about the potential that the freshmen have to make a special mark.

“I feel we’re a program on the rise,” Heffernan said. “Coach Sparks is an amazing coach. He’s done so much for this team in just one year. That definitely shows through Molly Seidel, who won a national championship last year. I’m really excited for all of us and to see what we’re going to be able to do in the next four years with the great coaching staff and the great resources that we have here.”

Freshman Aaron Roe, who ran a 26:21.4 (59th) in the men’s race, said Notre Dame offers the opportunity to develop the complete person.

“I feel like Notre Dame really tries to make a conscious effort to reach the whole athlete,” Roe said. “They can’t make the whole athlete, but they can provide resources so people can become the whole athlete.”

Roe, who is from Mill Creek, Washington, loves that the Notre Dame community is making sure that he is thriving three time zones away from home.

“I meet with my athletic counselor once a week just to talk about how things are going at school,” Roe said. “It’s just not athletics, it’s how everything is going at school, how is my diet going, how are my friendships going, my relationships with my parents and my friends at home.”

Roe is also convinced that the freshman class will be part of something special at Notre Dame.

“I would definitely say this is a program on the rise,” Roe said. “There are a lot of guys who are trying their hardest day in, day out. They put in a lot of hard work when nobody else sees it. They care about the team and not just the individual, and they really pride themselves on doing work together, rather than as an individual.

“Everyone here is a standout athlete, but in high school standout athletes are more far in between. When you’re a standout athlete in high school, you get used to doing things on your own. Then, you come to a place like this, and everyone wants to work together and be jiving on the same vibe. That’s very special, very unique, and something I’ve never been around. It’s a very welcoming and awesome culture.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent