TSR's "If Everything Was Normal" D1 XC Top 25 Teams (Men): #4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Additional contributions by Garrett Zatlin

We are aware that certain conferences and universities will not be competing this fall due to ongoing concerns surrounding COVID-19. However, for the sake of content, we have constructed these rankings as if a regular cross country season will happen.

The Notre Dame men have become a true powerhouse program over the past few years, and they are still getting better. An 8th place finish at last year's national meet put them in elite company, but Coach Sean Carlson has been putting together a team that is aiming for much higher.

Notre Dame returns their entire top seven from last year, meaning that this team should only be getting better. With the ACC moving forward with competition this fall, the Fighting Irish should have some opportunities to take on high-quality competition, including making a bid to take back the title of ACC team title (which they most recently won in 2018) if they opt to field their top talents this fall.

* * *

Notre Dame comes into 2020 with one of the most potent scoring trios in the nation: 2019 XC All-American Dylan Jacobs, NCAA 1500 meter champion Yared Nuguse and 2018 XC All-American Danny Kilrea.

Dylan Jacobs began his season with a win at Notre Dame’s National Catholic Invitational, leading the way for the Irish to sweep the team points and win on their home course. While the level of competition in that race did not exactly challenge the Fighting Irish, a dominant win always creates good momentum.

Back on their home turf a couple weeks later, Jacobs took 12th at the Joe Piane Invitational as Notre Dame’s second man. This was a much more competitive field, and Jacobs finished among some of the nation’s top runners. In his first collegiate cross country season, Jacobs was immediately proving to be a true low-stick with tons of potential.

As for Yared Nuguse and Danny Kilrea, they made their season debuts at Joe Piane and we got our first look at what the Irish were capable of.

In his first race back after winning the 2019 NCAA 1500 meter title, Nuguse took 6th place behind some of the best cross country runners in the nation. The middle distance star was quickly showing that he was strong enough to roll with the more long-distance oriented athletes over 8000 meters on the grass.

It is often said that the NCAA cross country season doesn’t really heat up until the Nuttycombe Invitational and Pre-Nationals weekend. This was certainly the case last year, as Notre Dame showed up to Nuttycombe alongside many of the best teams in the nation.

However, jumping into such a deep field seemed to be a bit of a shock to the system for the men from South Bend as they finished all the way back in 15th place, far from what their desired result must have been.

* * *

At this point, Notre Dame needed a good showing at ACC’s if they wanted to head into the regional and national meets with momentum. Yared Nuguse once again showed that he is much more than just a 1500 meter runner and finished 2nd overall. Dylan Jacobs was not far behind in 5th place.

However, what followed was a bit of a gap in the team scoring, with Andrew Alexander in 14th place and Matthew Carmody in 23rd place, followed by Danny Kilrea closing out the scoring positions in 29th. It was these gaps that ultimately allowed Syracuse to take the team title by only five points over the Irish.

After a pleasantly surprising performance at the Great Lakes regional meet, the Irish threw down a performance in Terre Haute which would ultimately be the highlight of their season (an 8th place team finish).

Dylan Jacobs took 29th overall to pick up his first All-American honors. Yared Nuguse finished in a solid 46th place (although he certainly could've been better) and was followed closely by Danny Kilrea in 50th place who finally looked like the runner we saw in 2018.

* * *

Under normal circumstances, Jacobs, Nuguse and Kilrea would have all been solid picks to finish as All-Americans this year. Any team that can put three men in the top-40 at NCAA's is usually a threat for the podium. And if a team can produce four All-Americans? Well, that’s hard to beat.

With three potential All-Americans who have proven themselves in the past, the biggest question is...what will the rest of Notre Dame’s lineup look like?

Andrew Alexander’s name has already come up once in last season’s recap. The 14:01 (5k) runner finished 14th at last fall’s ACC Championships, 15th at the Great Lakes Regional Championships and 67th at the NCAA Championships. This sets him up with great experience if a 2020 season were to occur as normal. Based on returners from last year's national meet, Alexander would have been in the All-American conversation.

With one of the deepest Irish teams in recent years, Alexander’s role becomes even more important as a fourth man who has the potential to be in Notre Dame’s top three if someone has an "off" day. He'll be a key piece to watch in terms of stabilizing the scoring portion of this lineup.

After Alexander and the aforementioned trio of Jacobs, Nuguse and Kilrea, the battle is on for Notre Dame’s fifth scoring spot. Notre Dame’s top four may look incredibly solid, but in order to truly compete for a national title, they need a strong fifth scorer as well.

Matthew Carmody, a current sophomore, placed 23rd at ACC’s, 27th at the Great Lakes regional meet and 122nd at NCAA’s last fall. He also made a massive leap in fitness this past winter, running a new personal best of 13:56 for 5000 meters.

Carmody has made significant improvements over the last few seasons and has clearly developed into someone who can be relied upon as a scorer. Who knows? He may even emerge as a potential low-stick if he is able to maintain his momentum whenever competition returns.

Senior Kevin Salvano didn't have the same top-level cross country finishes that some of his fellow teammates do, but owns an outstanding 10k personal best of 28:54 which he ran in the spring of 2019. If he can translate that success from the track to the grass, then he could be another major scorer who helps fill in any gaps within this Notre Dame lineup.

* * *

All of those guys are talented, but they aren't necessarily the reason why we have the Notre Dame men listed at TSR #4 in our preseason rankings.

The main reason can be attributed to their incredible amount of elite-level recruits over the last few years who have yet to be fully unleashed when it comes to cross country.

Between Josh Methner, Carter Solomon, Robbie Cozean and Lisandro Berry-Gaviria, all of these men have nationally competitive personal bests and/or cross country finishes that could effectively translate to the collegiate scene.

Methner was the 2019 Foot Locker national champion, as well as the runner-up to Nico Young at the NXN Championships last fall. Not far behind Methner at the Foot Locker National Championships was Carter Solomon who ended up securing the silver medal and giving Notre Dame the top two finishers in a national championship race for this year's recruiting class.

When you factor in Cozean’s 14:26 (5k) personal best and Lisandro Berry-Gaviria’s 2019 NXN appearance, it seems fair to say that at least one of these men could have/would have contributed to the Irish's cross country lineup this fall.

But wait! There's more.

Carter Cheeseman and Jake Renfree are two young talents from the class of 2020 who have yet to showcase their full potential on the cross country course.

Cheeseman was a two-time top-10 Foot Locker finisher at the high school level, finishing 6th and 10th in 2017 and 2018, respectively. He has yet to compete attached, but is similar to Renfree in terms of talent and potential.

As for his counterpart, Renfree finished 5th at Foot Locker in 2017 and later finished 2nd at the same meet in 2018. This past winter, he also ran 1:49 for 800 meters, 4:03 for the mile and 8:13 for 3000 meters. In a lot of ways, he replicated the same freshman year success that Jacobs had in 2019 and as we already mentioned, Jacobs went on to become an All-American last fall.

We saw both Renfree and Cheeseman compete unattached in the Joe Piane Open race last fall, both recording a pair of top-10 finishes. However, other than that race, we have yet to truly see what they can do on the grass when given enough opportunities.

If just one of those youngsters followed the same trajectory that Jacobs and Kilrea had during their underclassmen years, then Notre Dame could have had a fourth All-American-caliber talent this fall if the national meet wasn’t cancelled.

* * *

Admittedly, we do have some questions for this Notre Dame team.

First off, will Kilrea be able to emulate his success from 2018 when he was an All-American? Or will we see some of the inconsistency that he showed last fall? His ability to emerge as an All-American once again would have been pivotal in Notre Dame's goal of standing on the podium during a normal year.

Additionally, we also don't know how heavily these younger runners will be leaned on or how often they will be utilized. Youth and inexperience can sometimes be a liability in championship settings, but they can also provide unexpected help in the team scoring.

Finally, how will some of the older runners and scorers from last year's lineup perform? They each had their moments last fall and winter, but they also showed some inconsistency as well, specifically at Nuttycombe.

* * *

Notre Dame wasn't super consistent throughout last fall, but they peaked in the postseason and showed up when it mattered the most.

On paper, they have at least three All-American talents (and maybe even one more) if everyone runs at their best on the same day. However, uncertainty and youth of this program leaves many of us wondering if they can deliver on their outstanding potential.

In a year where everything is normal, the Fighting Irish would have been a major force and a difficult team to stop. They have collected and recruited elite athletes for years now, and with Nuguse originally set to enter his final season of collegiate cross country competition (before the NCAA approved a blanket waiver for fall eligibility), this would have been the year for Notre Dame to go all-in with the best distance runners that their roster has to offer.