Sept. 3, 2002
The University of Notre Dame women’s cross country team has been preparing for the upcoming 2002 season since the program’s inception in 1988. During that time, the Irish have competed in one of the toughest conferences (BIG EAST) and regions (Great Lakes) while building a noteworthy resume.
Head coach Tim Connelly has enjoyed successful seasons, including appearances in the 1993, 1999 and 2001 NCAA Championship meets. The 2002 season, however, could be the first time the team will expect to compete with the best cross country squads in the nation.
“Our goal every year is to get better than we were the year before,” Connelly says.
“Last year, the team did a great job of that. This year we have a good starting off point and realistically, we can be very good. We are at the point where we can compete with every team in the BIG EAST and that is not easy.”
Connelly is comfortable with his confidence, as the Irish return all nine top runners who competed on cross country courses across the nation last year. The expectations were not high for the Notre Dame women’s team in 2001, but an impressive team victory at the Notre Dame Invitational was followed up by a solid fourth-place finish (behind three higher-ranked teams) at the BIG EAST Championship.
The Irish kept the momentum up at the Great Lakes Regional meet, finishing second as a team in the field to ensure a spot at the NCAA Championship. Notre Dame entered the national meet ranked 15th and eventually ended up 19th in the championship race.
“We have our top nine runners back from last year,” Connelly says. “They have all improved.”
Freshman Lauren King arrived on the scene later than usual during her rookie season last year. The Toronto, Ontario, native competed in track and field throughout the summer before coming to campus in the fall of 2001 and did not start cross country training until the beginning of the season.
After a few weeks of training, King stepped out on the collegiate course for the first time at the Notre Dame Invitational and made a great rookie start, winning the individual title and helping the Irish to a team victory.
Two weeks later King took 15th in the Pre National Meet, but was held out of the BIG EAST Championship to recuperate from the race. She returned to take second place at the Great Lakes Regional and earn All-America honors with a 27th-place effort in the National Championship race at Furman.
“Lauren King was an All-American in cross country and she just kept getting better during the year,” Connelly says.
“She didn’t have any summer training last year, but this year she has had a whole summer of work outs. I expect her to be a lot better in cross country.”
King had one of the best freshman seasons in Irish cross country and track and field history. After her All-American effort in the fall, she just missed advancing to the final race of the mile run during the NCAA Indoor Championship. She moved on to the outdoor season to post one of the top 1,500-meter times in the country and earn All-America honors with a seventh-place finish at the NCAAs.
Though King might attract the most attention because of her All-American finish in cross country last year, she is not the only highly talented runner on the Notre Dame roster.
Senior Jennifer Handley is poised for another solid year after an outstanding BIG EAST Championship meet in 2001. Handley began last year with an individual victory at the National Catholic Championship, while also finishing 22nd in the Great Lakes Regional. Her seventh-place effort at the BIG EAST meet played a key role in the Irish finishing fourth in the highly-competitive field.
“Jennifer Handley had a really good year all around,” Connelly says.
She had a great BIG EAST meet, then came down with bronchitis at the national meets (PreNational and NCAA Championship). It is not unrealistic to expect her to be among the top 30 or 40 runners in the country this year.”
The talent continues down the roster with junior Megan Johnson. Johnson has been consistently among the top three runners on the Irish team the last two seasons and seems poised to take another huge step forward in 2002. Johnson’s finishes last year included third place at the National Catholic, 10th at the Notre Dame Invitational, 14th (to earn all-BIG EAST honors) at the BIG EAST Championship and 20th at the Great Lakes Regional.
“Megan Johnson had a really consistent year (in 2001),” Connelly says.
“She was close to being an NCAA-caliber runner and came up just a bit short. I would be surprised if she didn’t get to that level this year.”
After a clear top three, the rest of the Irish lineup might be undetermined until late in the season due to the talented options Connelly will have.
Jennifer Fibuch has quietly developed into possibly the most consistent athlete on the team. She just keeps getting better.
“Fibuch was our fourth runner last year,” Connelly says. “She works really hard and is an competitor. I like the way she competes. I would expect her to be among our top kids.”
Sophomore Christi Arnerich, who posted three top-25 finishes in her first three collegiate races last year, also figures in the mix. Arnerich might not appear until late in the season, however, as an injury kept her from competition during the outdoor track and field season last spring.
Julia Schmidt (63rd at the Great Lakes Regional), Muffy Schmidt (44th at the BIG EAST Championship) and Rachel Endress (48th at the BIG EAST Championship) provide further options among the returning veterans. Emily Showman and Katie Wales, both of whom enjoyed outstanding outdoor track and field seasons in 2002, might also figure in the mix.
Combine the returning veterans with a highly-touted freshman class and the Irish will be a force to reckon with on the course this season.
“I think some of the freshman are capable of being among our top runners, but I also think we have a nice situation for them,” Connelly says. “They do not have to come in to be the top runner and carry a large load.”
Molly Huddle and Stephanie Madia, who Connelly believes are among the top incoming freshmen in the country, will combine with fellow rookies Loryn King and Jean Marinangeli to give the Irish an ‘X’ factor.
“I think (the freshmen) expectations of themselves are that they will come in and contribute right away,” Connelly says.
“We have four freshman that are in that mix with Molly, Stephanie, Loryn King, who is a great athlete, and Jean Marinangeli.”
The Irish are ready to take a major step on the cross country national scene this fall and Connelly realizes that this might be his most talented team since the program began 14 years ago.
“The trick is going to be teaching them to all train together and help each other in their work outs as opposed to racing against each other all the time,” Connelly says.
“Most of them have never been in a situation that they had a talented and deep team around them.”
The goals will remain the same for the Notre Dame team this season, as they have been since Connelly started his career with the Irish.
“We expect to improve on last year,” Connelly says.
For a team that finished among the top 20 teams in the nation and returns all its veteran runners, the 2003 team might have a tough time meeting Connelly’s traditional goal a year from now.
COMING TOMORROW (Sept. 4) 2002 Men’s Season Preview