NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The cross country course at Notre Dame’s Burke Golf Course – home to Friday’s 62nd running of the Joe Piane Invitational – is flat and relatively fast, but only for those that get out quickly and safely as it takes a hard right bend 600 meters from the starting line.
“Round 1 in the Sea of Humanity,” was Florida State men’s coach Bob Braman’s description of the meet.
Not only is it the first major test of the season for the Seminole men and women, but it’s the first of a half-dozen consecutive big-field events the FSU squads will be competing against.
What sets Friday’s races – the Seminole women with compete over 5,000 meters at 1 p.m., followed by the men over five miles at 1:45 – apart is the comparable quality of the respective 20- and 21-team fields, each with close to 200 runners.
It’s all about positioning. Not only is it pivotal that the Noles – women and men alike – position themselves in the race by getting out quickly on a congested course, but solid finishes against the best competition to date this season could also improve their postseason positioning as well.
FSU’s women and men are currently ranked No. 4 in the South Region, and with only the top two teams at each of nine region championship meets assured of a trip to the NCAA Championships, early-season wins over NCAA qualifiers determine which 13 squads earn at-large trips to the season finale.
And make no mistake, there is no shortage of teams with NCAA Championship pedigrees competing.
Women’s Race Preview
In the women’s race alone five of the nation’s top 12 teams, including No. 1 Colorado, No. 3 New Mexico, No. 6 NC State and No. 9 Arkansas – host Notre Dame is 12th – are among seven nationally-ranked squads among the 20 teams competing.
“They can make a name for themselves,” said FSU women’s coach Kelly Phillips, whose team has won the season-opening Covered Bridge and Virginia Tech Alumni Invitational titles in convincing fashion. “We’ve been ranked what we deserve, but I think in the last two performances I think they are better than how we are ranked. I think we’re a top-two in the region school and have a possibility after this weekend to be ranked nationally, but, we have to go there and make some noise.”
Junior Militsa Mircheva, unbeaten is two races this season, leads the charge with freshman Jodie Judd and sophomore Megan Mooney, as they prepare to test themselves against the best.
“I really want to see what happens this weekend,” said Mircheva, the 2016 Olympic marathoner from Bulgaria who is competing in her first cross country season for the Noles. “I’m pretty excited. I think we’re ready. We did some track speed workouts, so this is almost like the same feeling, running on the flat grass. I’m not afraid. It’s going to be flat and fast.”
“Militsa and Jodie can certainly be with the top group,” she said. “There is no reason they can’t be. With NC State being one of the best teams and the best team in our conference, there’s nobody that they can’t run with.
Men’s Race Preview
The men’s field is a slightly less daunting – on paper – with No. 4 Colorado the highest of five nationally-ranked teams. The Buffaloes are joined by No. 11 Washington State, No. 13 Southern Utah, No. 29 Eastern Michigan and No. 30 NC State.
Still, there are impressive cross country pedigrees among the unranked likes of Alabama, Baylor, Butler, Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas and UTEP.
“We’re looking at it like, ‘Don’t hold anything back; get after this thing and really force our race strategy to put us in the mix,’” Braman said. “I recognize who I know is good. I know if you beat Alabama it’s a big win, but it’s hard to predict ahead who’s going to be good at the end of the season.”
The Seminoles certainly fall into that category, largely because – like the FSU women – the roster has been overhauled from a year ago.
Graduate transfer David Barney has been the team’s top performer through the first two races and veterans Michael Hall, Tyson Murray and Bryce Kelley have provided workmanlike support. Still, the Noles are happy to have Hungarian standout Istvan Szogi, who ran two season years at Southern Utah, making his debut.
The Noles also get 2015 All-ACC performer Stanley Linton back in the lineup for Friday’s race, and sharper versions of Michael Callegari and Steven Cross.
“Our team goal is always to be in the top five,” Braman said. “This is good because you’re going to get this type of race for the rest of the year, where your second-third-fourth-fifth guys and maybe even our first guy, are going to have to run in this sea of humanity for the rest of the year.”
Getting out quickly and staying on your feet, something Cross was unable to do as a freshman here a year ago, are essential to meeting that goal.
You can get live updates of the action from Notre Dame via Twitter @FSUXC with live results available at deltatiming.com. A complete recap will follow Friday evening at Seminoles.com.