When legendary head coach Joe Piane stepped away from Notre Dame in the spring of 2014, he left the Irish with a lot to be proud of. The men's team was coming off of four consecutive appearances at the Cross Country National Championships and they had produced All-American studs such as Jeremy Rae and Martin Grady. Meanwhile, young, promising pieces such as Jacob Dumford, Tim Ball, and Michael Clevenger were slowly developing into valuable scorers.
However, the post-Piane transition period wasn't as easy for the men as it was for the women. The Notre Dame men failed to qualify for the Cross Country National Championships in the subsequent fall and the firepower that had once been a staple of their program had eroded.
Over the next few years, the Irish were plagued with old fashioned bad luck. Injuries became a difficult aspect to manage and the lack of experience became even more apparent, especially with veterans like Tim Ball and Michael Clevenger choosing to use their final few seasons of eligibility elsewhere.
Simply put, the men from South Bend had developed significant challenges while the women were continuing to thrive under the tutelage of Coach Matt Sparks.
However, in 2016, a decision was made to give Coach Sean Carlson full reign over the men's middle and long distance groups. The coaching split between the men and women was a strategic move meant to give the men's program more attention while sustaining the already tremendous results the women had been producing.
Of course, the major obstacles weren't going to disappear overnight. Many of the men were undertrained in terms of mileage and the quick departure of established veterans left many of the youngsters in the program without a clear direction. When we spoke to Coach Carlson over the phone, he explained that most of the 2016 season was simply attempting to "salvage" whatever fitness they had.
In his first season with the men, Coach Carlson's group finished 14th in the Great Lakes region. It was the worst regional finish for the Fighting Irish in recorded history with regional results prior to 2000 unable to be found.
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Over the next few seasons, Carlson would slowly construct a new culture within the Notre Dame program. It was a culture that would be committed to excellence, long-term growth, and the willingness to buy-in to a common goal.
"Before every practice, you can hear the guys blasting ACDC's It's a Long Way to the Top in the locker room. It acts as a reminder that this is a process and that we can always be better."
Fast forward to December of 2017. Fans around the country were still coming down from the high of another exciting cross country season and were preparing for an uneventful winter break. Outside of the early season opener at Boston, no one was expecting to see any notable results.
Jacob Dumford, however, had other plans.
At the Blue and Gold Invitational, a small meet with only a handful of teams filling the Loftus Center, Dumford would solo 2:21 for 1000 meters. It was a result that seemingly came out of nowhere and would rank among one of the fastest mid-distance performances for December in the NCAA history.
Suddenly, Notre Dame had life.
The rest of the indoor season would remain relatively quiet until the 2018 Alex Wilson Invite which was also on Notre Dame's home track. It was there that the Fighting Irish would throw down a monster time of 9:28 in the distance medley relay, shocking the country and forcing fans of the sport to take notice of what the Irish had in their arsenal. Dumford had given his team some stability on the leadoff leg while Tulsa transfer Elijah Silva provided some much needed experience on the 800 leg.
Yet, what was maybe the most peculiar piece of this surprising relay was the true freshman who Carlson had opted to put on the anchor. I am, of course, referring to Yared Nuguse, the 4:06 high school miler who had been tasked with bringing home an All-American finish in the second collegiate season of his career.
At the 2018 Indoor National Championships, Nuguse was given the baton alongside high-level stars such James West, Neil Gourley, and Grant Fisher. However, the true freshman seemed completely unphased by the talent surrounding him. Instead, he thrived in the high-pressure situation, splitting 3:57 and out-kicking Grant Fisher en route to a stunning runner-up finish behind Virginia Tech.
After a breakout performance, things calmed a bit during the outdoor season. There were no relays for Notre Dame's distance group to take part in and Elijah Silva had completed his eligibility. Still, the duo of Dumford and Nuguse kept fans intrigued when it came to the 1500.
Although neither man made it to the national meet, it was clear that Dumford had given the Irish someone to lean on while younger stars developed into low-sticks with exciting potential. Carlson even described Dumford as an integral part of the program's rebuild.
"He had three different coaches during his time at Notre Dame...he could have not bought into what we were doing, but he did. He is a great example of how this process can pay off if you believe in it"
Yet, maybe the most exciting part of Notre Dame's rebuild wasn't even the men that had been on their roster. Instead, it was the men who would be on their roster...
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In the summer of 2018, Notre Dame finalized a superstar recruiting class which consisted of national champions, high school elites, and countless All-Americans. Within the span of a year, Carlson was able to sign recruits that out-shined other top-tier recruiting classes from powerhouse programs such as Stanford, Oregon, and Colorado.
Still, there were many critics who questioned whether or not this team could truly be successful during the fall. Could Nuguse be more than just a miler? Will they have enough firepower? Can these superstar recruits have an impact in their first collegiate season? Can the rest of this roster provide value in the scoring?
The answer to all of those questions was a resounding "YES".
Yared Nuguse proved to the doubters that he could be a reliable low-stick on the grass while freshman Danny Kilrea added crucial scoring potency to the front of their lineup.
However, it wasn't just Nuguse or the star freshman who helped Notre Dame reach another level. In fact, it was the sophomores and juniors who made tremendous leaps in fitness. Guys like Kevin Salvano, Anthony Williams, and Andrew Alexander acted as the backbone of Notre Dame's lineup for most of the season, bringing consistency and stability to a team that was still relatively young.
As a result, Coach Carlson's squad would become legitimate national contenders. After a 5th place finish in the Pre-Nationals White race, the Irish would go on to pull off a massive upset over Syracuse to win the ACC team title.
It was one of the most shocking results of the 2018 season.
The men from South Bend would continue to thrive in the postseason, easily earning an automatic qualifier to Nationals where they would eventually finish 14th overall. Within the span of two years, the Irish had gone from being the 14th place team in the Great Lakes region, to the 14th place team in the country.
The consensus was in.
Notre Dame was back.
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It was clear that the Irish had made a dramatic turnaround under Carlson's guidance, but with expectations now higher than ever before, Notre Dame's next step forward had the potential to be even more impactful.
It felt apparent to fans around the country that Notre Dame would pursue the distance medley once more during the 2019 indoor season, especially with Nuguse returning to the track at a higher level of fitness. However, with veterans like Dumford and Silva no longer in the lineup, Notre Dame had serious gaps that they needed to fill.
That, however, was also obvious to Coach Carlson who was able to bring in DePauw transfer Samuel Voelz, a 1:50 800 meter runner with DIII All-American credentials. And the 1200 leg? That would go to freshman Dylan Jacobs, the Footlocker national champion who had redshirted the 2018 cross country season. Edward Cheatham would return to the 400 leg that he ran on during the 2018 indoor national meet.
The Irish would go on to enter a stacked DMR lineup at the Alex Wilson Invite just like they had in 2018. Despite the overall inexperience, they were able to pull off yet another major upset, this time over the Wisconsin Badgers with Nuguse edging Oliver Hoare at the line. The final results would read 9:26.10 to 9:26.24 which were the #2 and #3 fastest distance medley's ever run in NCAA history.
However, Notre Dame's plans became a bit more unclear after the ACC Championships where Nuguse soloed a 3:57 mile to win the conference title. After a performance like that, many fans around the country, including ourselves, suspected that Nuguse would attempt the mile/DMR double at Nationals.
We were wrong.
Nuguse would end up scratching the mile to ensure that he would be completely fresh for an all-in effort on Friday night. It was yet another small, but subtle sign that individual goals played second fiddle to team aspirations. And as fate would have it, the result was awe-inspiring.
In one of the most dramatic distance medley finishes in recent memory, fans across the country were treated to a rematch of Nuguse and Fisher on the anchor leg. Nuguse would split 3:55 and pull away from Fisher in the final few meters of the race to secure the national title for Notre Dame.
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When we asked Coach Carlson what was next for Notre Dame, we didn't get the answer we were expecting. Specific goals like winning national titles, earning podium spots during cross country, or running record-breaking times weren't mentioned. Instead, he preached patience and emphasized the importance of the process.
"We want to focus on getting better and living by our values. We can't lose sight of who we are or how we got here. Progression isn't always linear so we want to focus on sustained success and our daily culture. If we do that, the results will follow"
The Irish still have a long way to go before they reach the level that every team dreams of attaining. Consistency, after all, is a key characteristic of what makes teams successful. However, with yet another jaw-dropping recruiting class on the way, it's become apparent that Carlson's message is resonating with his athletes. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
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When Notre Dame climbed the stage to receive their ACC Championship trophy, a familiar guitar rift echoed by bagpipes could be heard playing in the background. For the Fighting Irish, it was an all-too common sound.
It's a Long Way to the Top