Sept. 7, 2005
By Chris Masters and Joe Meginnes
The past three years have been special for the Notre Dame women’s cross country program. Three top-10 finishes, including two trips to the awards podium as a top-four squad, would make a good decade for just about any team. However, the Irish are not your average cross country program and the 2005 squad will not be content with a drop-off at the national meet.
While longtime head coach Tim Connelly loses two of the most decorated athletes in school history in three-time cross country All-American Lauren King and 2004 cross country All-America pick Kerry Meagher, the cupboard is hardly bare in terms of returning talent.
“When you run well at the end of the year, that gives you confidence in what you’ve been doing, so now you go back this year and trust that we are going to be ready when it counts,” Connelly said. “Nobody’s expectations are higher than my team, and that’s the important thing. They’re confident, and when you believe in what you doing, that more than anything is probably the key to our success. It’s not that we’re doing anything different than anybody else in terms of training. We have some really talented kids, but we also have kids that everybody else has who believe in each other and what they’re doing. That’s how you have success.
“The goal every year is to get to the national meet and be in a position to run as well as you can on that day,” Connelly continued. “That’s what we did last year — we went there and found a way to run really well. I think our kids’ expectations are that we want to improve on what we did last year and I think that’s a realistic possibility. But the goal every year is to walk away from that situation knowing that we did everything we could do to run well today. The focus last year was just to be as good as we could be, and we knew that we could beat a lot of people, even if we weren’t all 100 percent.”
Leading the way for the Irish will be senior Molly Huddle. A seven-time All-American (including twice in cross country), Huddle battled through an injury-plagued 2004 season, still managing to contribute to the team’s fourth-place NCAA finish. A three-time all-BIG EAST selection, Huddle also placed seventh in the 5,000 meters at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials and twice won the NCAA Mideast Regional title in that same event (2003, 2004). Once she has completely recovered from her injuries, Huddle will be poised to make her final season at Notre Dame a memorable one and return to her post as one of the top runners in the nation.
“The key with Molly is to not do too much too soon,” Connelly noted. “If we do that, she is talented enough to run with the best, and obviously, the goal and the hope is that she’ll be at the level she was at a year ago when she was seventh at the Olympic Trials. I don’t see any reason why she can’t get back to that.”
Another outstanding top returnee is senior Stephanie Madia. Between cross country and track, Madia had a breakthrough year in 2004-05 with two All-America honors and a number of top performances. In addition to being the first Irish runner to cross the finish line at the national meet (23rd place), Madia also earned all-BIG EAST honors at the league meet. She capped her year by qualifying for both the NCAA indoor and outdoor track meets, garnering All-America honors with a fifth-place finish in the outdoor 5,000 meters.
Stephanie Madia was the first runner across the finish line for the Irish at the 2004 national championship meet.
“Part of the reason why Stephanie was so successful last year was that she knew she had to step up,” Connelly said. “Molly wasn’t going to be able to get it done and Stephanie looked at the situation and said `I’m going to get it done.’ She’s been a great leader ever since she’s been here. Last year, she finally had all the pieces together where she could do it on the track, too. What I expect of her isn’t any more than she expects of herself. She expects to improve.”
The third All-America cornerstone for Notre Dame this season is sophomore Sunni Olding. In just her first year with the Irish, Olding secured a spot among the team’s top five runners, winding up third on the team and 32nd overall at the NCAA Championship. Also a sixth-place finisher at the Great Lakes Regional, Olding forms one-third of an extremely fast leadoff trio for the Irish.
A host of athletes will compete to round out Notre Dame’s top seven, beginning with seniors Jean Marinangeli, Elizabeth Webster, and Loryn King. Marinangeli and Webster have been mainstays among the team’s top 10 runners during the past two seasons, with Marinangeli having participated in the past two national meets. King’s career has been stunted at times by injury since her outstanding freshman campaign, but she has the talent to emerge has a solid contributor for this year’s squad.
While juniors Katie DeRusso and Amy Kohlmeier each have the ability to carve out regular spots in the Notre Dame lineup, two incoming freshmen may provide Connelly with the biggest potential addition to the team’s top seven. Ramsey Kavan and Morgan Schulz join the Irish after highly successful prep campaigns in South Dakota and Colorado, respectively. Kavan, a two-time Gatorade South Dakota Track Athlete of the Year, owns sixth- and third-place finishes in the past two Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, while Schulz took 11th at the prestigious national prep race in 2003. Both athletes will hope to duplicate the success that Olding had in her rookie season at Notre Dame.
“Sunni is one of those kids that has the potential to be a great one,” Connelly said. “I also think we have freshmen coming in who have that potential as well. Those kids coming in here expect to run at that level right away, and that’s one of the things that I’m looking for. I think we have a nice blend. We have some older kids that are ready to make that next step like Katie DeRusso and Amy Kohlmeier. Katie wasn’t quite ready physically or emotionally, and Amy has had all kinds of bad luck. She was getting on a roll during the indoor track season and then developed a staph infection in her foot.
“There are people here besides those incoming freshmen that can run at a pretty high level,” Connelly added. “Jean Marinangeli has been our sixth or seventh runner for the past couple of years and has the ability to make that step, so we’re not just strictly relying on freshmen. We’ve got enough good people here that can step in and help us get it done. I just point them in a direction and they motivate each other.”
The past three years have seen Notre Dame blaze trails on the women’s cross country circuit that have never been seen in the program’s history. Now, the challenge will be to sustain and build upon the foundation that has been laid with those three consecutive NCAA top-10 finishes. With the amount of talent, both young and old, on the Irish roster in 2005, it’s apparent that the future is exceptionally bright for Notre Dame and it may not be long before championship gold finds its way back to the Golden Dome.