Updated: Jan 13
Back in March, we published an article about the Notre Dame men and their monumental rise to national prominence. The article touched on their history of success, their notable decline in competitive relevance, and their sudden transformation into a modern-day powerhouse.
That article, along with the top spot in our 2018 summer recruit rankings, are two of the most-read article posts that we have ever published on the site.
It's difficult to pinpoint one specific reason as to why Notre Dame has had such a historic rise as of late. Was it the introduction of Sean Carlson as the team's coach? Was it their elite-level recruiting classes? Was it the stunning development of Yared Nuguse and other supporting scorers? Was it just luck? (spoiler: it wasn't luck)
After a breakout 2018 cross country season, the Fighting Irish men are ready to validate themselves as a legitimate top-tier program that can hang with the titans of the distance running community.
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Notre Dame's 2018 cross country season was one for the ages, but their early-season start wasn't perfect. After a rust-buster on their home course, Notre Dame stayed in South Bend to battle the likes of BYU, Wyoming, and Furman at the Joe Piane Invite.
Admittedly, the overall result wasn't all that exciting. Nuguse posted a very solid performance (placing 12th overall) while Tyler Keslin was close behind in 15th. However, their final three scorers finished 24th, 33rd, and 35th (in the team scoring), giving the Wyoming men a 14 point cushion for 2nd place.
On paper, the result wasn't anything special and it hardly indicated that Notre Dame could be a legitimate contender on the national stage. However, that narrative quickly changed at the Pre-Nats White race two weeks later...
In Madison, Wisconsin, the Fighting Irish toed the line against a deep field loaded with future national qualifiers. Teams like Purdue, Air Force, and Indiana were coming off of strong performances and were looking to continue their momentum heading in the postseason. However, Notre Dame was simply looking to put themselves in the national qualifying conversation...and they did just that.
Nuguse showed to fans around the country that he was more than just a talented miler by securing a key 13th place finish. 10 spots behind him was Andrew Alexander who quietly finished 23rd overall in what may have been the most underrated result of the weekend. With true freshman Danny Kilrea placing 36th, it was hard to ignore the fact that the Fighting Irish had a very formidable top three.
However, the final two scoring spots of Notre Dame's lineup is where the gaps began to form. Anthony Williams finished 55th while Kevin Salvano placed 93rd. Still, that top five was enough for Notre Dame to earn a huge 5th place finish over the aforementioned teams of Purdue, Indiana, and Air Force.
Suddenly, the Irish were a very real threat to top-ranked squads around the country.
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Fresh off their pleasantly surprising Pre-Nats performance, expectations were high for the Notre Dame men as they prepared for the ACC Championships. Of course, the obvious title favorite was Syracuse. Their team was simply more accomplished, more experienced, had better firepower, and were (generally speaking) the better team in terms of depth.
But what was read on paper seemingly didn't matter in the actual race.
In what was arguably the most stunning upset of the 2018 cross country season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish pulled off the win, defeating Syracuse by a mere four points to take home gold.
Yared Nuguse had one of the best races of his career by finishing 3rd overall while Anthony Williams had the race of his life by placing 6th. With Danny Kilrea giving the Irish a 10th place finisher, it was clear that Notre Dame had enough firepower to contend with the Syracuse Orange. With Alexander and Salvano finishing 16th and 22nd, respectively, Coach Carlson's group closed out a team score of 57 points to secure victory.
After such a thrilling win, it would have been easy for Notre Dame to become overconfident as they moved up to the 10k distance, especially since they were still a relatively young and inexperienced team.
That, however, simply wasn't the case. At the regional meet, the Irish finished 3-9-18-23-38 to comfortably finish runner-up behind Wisconsin. For the time since 2013, the Notre Dame men were going to the NCAA Cross Country National Championships.
When they toed the line in Wisconsin for the second time that season, the Irish left it all out on the course, proving that their ACC title was no fluke.
Freshman Danny Kilrea locked down a super impressive 33rd place finish to give Notre Dame a legitimate low-stick while Nuguse held his own in 59th. With Anthony Williams placing 97th, Notre Dame (once again) had a reliable top three. Their final two scorers would end the day in 145th and 160th overall, resulting in a 14th place finish at the NCAA Championships.
In two years, Notre Dame had gone from being the 14th best team in their region to the 14th best team in the country.
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As we venture in 2019, the Fighting Irish have the chance to do something special. They return their top six men from last year's National Championship lineup (they lose their #7), add 2017 Footlocker national champion Dylan Jacobs to their lineup (after he redshirted the fall of 2018), and bring in a new recruiting class that is arguably just as good as the one that they had last year.
Just like last fall, both Kilrea and Nuguse will be key front-runners for Notre Dame in 2019. Yet, what makes them so uniquely valuable is the fact that they can still have an impact on the overall team score if they make improvements. Kilrea's 36th place finish at Pre-Nats and 33rd place finish at Nationals can obviously be improved upon and the same goes for Nuguse's 59th place finish at Nationals.
However, it's the other names in this top seven that really interest me.
Let's talk about Anthony Williams, someone who I believe has the potential to be just as good as Nuguse and Kilrea were last year. The rising senior never had a bad race during the 2018 cross country season as he always brought respectable scoring stability to Notre Dame's top five last fall. His 6th place finish at the ACC Championships was a wildly clutch performance and it showed us that he has the potential to be a low-stick for this team if he can replicate that result on a consistent basis. There's no doubt he'll be a useful top five runner for this team, but how much more consistent he becomes is what we'll be watching this fall.
After Williams, we then make our way to two elder scorers that return to the team this fall: Kevin Salvano and Andrew Alexander. If we're being honest, the main weaknesses that we saw from Notre Dame last year were the gaps that we saw between their top three and bottom two. While Salvano and Alexander were never bad, they didn't exactly thrive in larger invitationals.
That, however, could very easily change after seeing the improvements that both of these men made this past winter and spring. Alexander secured strong new personal bests of 8:05 and 14:01 while Salvano dropped a massive 10k PR of 28:54. Those times, specifically Salvano's 10k, makes this team scary good when looking at their top five.
And those are just the top five returners from last year!
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We haven't even talked about Tyler Kreslin who was the team's #6 runner for most of last fall. Despite not having a role in most of last year's scoring, he did earn a strong 15th place finish at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invite. After running a personal best of 29:29 for 10,000 meters this past spring, it's clear that he is yet another name to consider in Notre Dame's scoring equation.
Just on their returners alone, Notre Dame could end up fighting for a podium spot if their success from the track follows them to the cross country course. However, it's the men who didn't run last year who could put this team on the podium.
Dylan Jacobs was the 2017 Footlocker national champion and after being redshirted last fall, he was employed to be the leadoff leg for Notre Dame's DMR which went on to win the indoor national title. We haven't seen what he can do in the longer distances yet, but when you consider how good the past few Footlocker champions have been on the collegiate circuit, it's hard to think that he'll be anything less than phenomenal.
Then we have the new recruiting class which is highlighted by Jake Renfree, Carter Cheeseman, and Nicholas Mota. We could go on and on talking about how talented these men are, but instead of doing that, we're going to redirect you to this article.
Essentially, at least one of these men has the potential to replicate the same level of success that we saw from Kilrea last fall. Each of these three runners are top-tier talents and have the ability to be wildly special, if not this year, then certainly in the future.
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The talking points about this team could extend on for what feels like forever. Notre Dame has become one of the best distance programs in the country and nearly everyone on their roster is making significant improvements. They have a distinct mix of youth and veterans while boasting significant depth and top-tier firepower.
However, what I'm most impressed about is the dramatic turnaround that we've seen from this team in just two years. Coach Carlson has accomplished what few coaches have ever done by having his athletes buy into a vision of grand success without the actual accolades already there.
Obviously, that vision is now a reality.
Admittedly, this group of men is still young and inexperienced, and that concerns me in championship settings. They'll also need to prove that they can run just as well on the grass as they did on the track. But based on what we saw last fall, I have trouble finding any significant flaws in their lineup. Notre Dame is just that good.
It may be a long way to the top, but they aren't far from it.