September 8, 1998

With only three seniors on the roster, the Notre Dame women’s cross country team will have to rely heavily on underclassmen to put itself back into the NCAA championship field. Although youth may hurt many other teams, 11th-year head coach Tim Connelly believes that age doesn’t necessarily equate to lack of experience.

“We’re young, but lack of experience, I don’t think is a problem, ” Connelly said. “Most of the kids that we’re going to count on this year to score for us have been in the big meets before.”

Last season two sophomores, JoAnna Deeter (Glen Ellyn, Ill.) and Alison Klemmer (Troy, Mich.) provided a good one-two punch for the Irish. Deeter, who was an All-American in 1996 after placing third at the NCAA cross country championships, won the National Catholic Invitational eight seconds ahead of teammate Klemmer. Deeter also placed 14th at the District IV Championships, but failed in her bid to repeat as Great Lakes Region champion.

One of the better stories of last season, was the rise of Klemmer, who was sidelined by injuries in ’97. After not competing in either cross country or track as a freshman, Klemmer ran to a second place finish in her first career meet at the 1997 Scarlet/Gray Invitational. After finishing behind Deeter at the National Catholic meet, the former Michigan all-state runner had top-20 finishes at the BIG EAST championships (18th) and the District IV championships (11th). Klemmer’s accomplishments in the 1997-98 season were further highlighted at the 1998 NCAA outdoor championships where she earned All-American status with an eighth place in the 10,000 meters.

With Deeter and Klemmer returning for their junior seasons, the Irish will need to look for more consistency in the rest of the squad. One runner who Connelly expects to contribute heavily is junior Nicole LaSelle (Dayton, Ohio). LaSelle was expected to be the team’s number two runner a year ago after finishing no lower than 10th in any of her six races as a freshman. Injury, however, limited LaSelle to only two cross country meets. In those two meets, the Scarlet/Gray and Valparaiso Invitationals, she finished with a fourth and a third. Her freshman season, she captured 10th at both BIG EAST and district meets, but did not compete as a sophomore.

“Alison, Nicole and JoAnna – all three of those kids – are really talented,” Connelly said. “The key is that in the past, we’ve never had all three of them at once. If we can have all three at once, we’ll be really solid up front.”

Although the top three spots might be clear, Connelly believes that seven or eight runners could theoretically be in the team’s other four spots. Leading the way may be senior co-captain Kelly Peterson (Escondido, Calif.), the only member of the Class of ’99 to run in more than one race last season. She opened the year with an 18th at the Scarlet/Gray Invitational and finished fourth in the junior varsity division at the National Catholic Invitational. Peterson’s best race of the year, however, was at the BIG EAST race where she finished third on the team with a 30th place finish.

Other top Irish runners include junior Patti Rice (Mishawaka, Ind.) and sophomore Bridget O’Brien (Bloomington, Minn.), who both competed at the District IV Championships. Rice, a local product of St. Joseph High School, had two second place finishes in the National Catholic meet (junior varsity division) and the Notre Dame Invitational (women’s open division). She also had a team-best finish at the Central Collegiate Championships, taking a 14th. Rice improved on her ’96 BIG EAST finish by 17 spots when she recorded a 48th place (19:24).

O’Brien established herself as the top Notre Dame freshman runner last season. She competed in five races, finishing 16th at the Scarlet/Gray Invitational and 11th at the National Catholic Invitational at Notre Dame. Later she was the team’s third top runner at the Furman Invitational in South Carolina, and the team’s fourth best runner at the BIG EAST Championships held on Halloween.

Also expected to be in the mix for the Notre Dame cross country squad will be junior duo Charlotte Kelly (Butler, Pa.) and Erin Luby (Inverness, Ill.). Kelly, whose father played football for Notre Dame, ran in four races in 1997. Her top race was the Valparaiso Invitational in mid-September where she led the team to the title with a team-leading fourth place finish. The former Butler High School star also won the women’s open division race at the Notre Dame Invitational and placed third in the junior varsity division at the National Catholic meet.

Luby, the team’s other co-captain, also raced in six meets for the Irish as a sophomore. In ’97, the former Illinois all-state selection began strong at the Scarlet/Gray Invitational with a 17th place and a week later, won the junior varsity division at the National Catholic meet with a time of 18:51.

Youth was also served a year ago by sophomores Leanne Brady (Trunmbull, Conn.), who ran in five races, and Megan Driscoll (Pittsburgh, Pa.) and Erin Olson (Eden Prairie, Minn.) who each ran in four.

This year’s incoming freshman class includes 10 newcomers. On the top of the list, according to Connelly, is Canadian Hilary Burn (Ottawa, Ontario) and Anne McGrath (Belmont, Mich.). Burn finished fourth at the Canadian Junior National meet, while McGrath is an all-state honoree.

“I think that we have probably one or two kids who can come in and contribute this year (Burn and McGrath), but we have a bunch of kids that have a lot of running potential,” Connelly said.

Although the freshman class will bring new talent into the program, the biggest impact for the women’s squad this year may be the increase of teams at the NCAAs from 22 to 31 teams. Now instead of four at-large spots, there will be 13.

“If you go back in time and if they were taking 31 teams, we would have been in (the NCAAs) every year,” Connelly said. “Every year we were one of the top 25 or top 30 teams in the nation.”

The increase of at-large selections helps the Irish enormously, especially since cross country powerhouses Michigan and Wisconsin compete in the same district (IV) as the Irish. Along with the District IV race, held this year in Terre Haute, Ind., Connelly also believes the Notre Dame Invitational (Oct. 2), the Michigan meet in mid-October and the BIG EAST Championships (Oct. 30) will all be focal points in the 1998 campaign to the NCAAs. All three meets attract teams from different regions, which could weigh heavily on Notre Dame’s chances of qualifying for the NCAAs if they don’t land an automatic bid.

“I think what we try to do every year is to improve,” Connelly says. “We try to look at what we did last year and say, ‘okay, what do we need to improve on?’ Last year, we were fourth in the BIG EAST, so we need to improve on that. We want to be an automatic qualifier.”