Blue and Gold Illustrated


Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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60 PRESEASON 2022 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY TODD D. BURLAGE T his time last year, college athletics had finally returned to normal after dealing with pandemic protocols, postponements and protections since the spring of 2020. And with the COVID cloud finally lifted in 2021, Notre Dame's Olympic sports teams couldn't have performed much better than they did last fall. • The men's soccer squad won the ACC championship and advanced to the NCAA College Cup semifinals for only the sec- ond appearance in program history. • Both the men's and women's cross country teams recorded top-10 finishes at the NCAA Championships. • Women's soccer won 14 games, fin- ished 10-1-1 at home and reached the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in four seasons. Bundle these impressive results with a top-10 Irish football team, and Notre Dame enjoyed one of its best-ever fall sports seasons. Based on the Director's Cup standings that are compiled and scored based on the finishes of each of a school's sports programs, only BYU had a better 2021 fall sports season than Notre Dame. Graduations, transfers and coaching changes rattled two Irish fall programs after last year. But promise for a great 2022 fall season remains. MEN'S CROSS COUNTRY Season Opener: Winrow-Valparaiso Invite Sept. 2 at Valparaiso, Ind. ACC Predicted Finish: First or sec- ond; Syracuse provides a tough chal- lenge, and so does Wake Forest. NCAA Best-Case Scenario: Top 10 Coach's Expectations: Notre Dame director of cross country and Irish track and field Matt Sparks had a busy off- season. Following an ACC champion- ship and a ninth-place national finish in 2021, Sparks lost his three top runners and his men's head coach, Sean Carlson, who took the top job at Tennessee. Gone are standout student-athletes Yared Nuguse, Danny Kilrea and Dylan Jacobs. "Those were three of our superstars from the last three years that did a lot of elite things for us," said Sparks, who will lead both the Irish men's and women's teams this year. Yet, even with the heavy turnover, Sparks believes his roster remains ready to make a run at a third straight ACC title and another top-10 finish in the NCAA Championships. The secret to reaching those goals, Sparks said, is to get a group of inexperienced runners to hit the ground running. "We just need to get the young guys that haven't been counted on previously to accept that responsibility and feel comfortable in that role," Sparks said. Top Runner: Senior Matthew Car- mody is the leading returner from an Irish team that was ninth in the country last season. Carmody finished third on the Irish and 49th overall at the NCAA Championships last November. Athlete To Watch: Freshman Izaiah Steury joins Notre Dame after winning the Indiana state meet for Angola High School as a junior in 2020, before fin- ishing second as a senior last year. Don't Miss: Sparks will coach his team to peak late in the season with an eye toward grabbing a third straight ACC title on Oct. 28. WOMEN'S CROSS COUNTRY Season Opener: Winrow-Valparaiso Invite Sept. 2 at Valparaiso, Ind. ACC Predicted Finish: Top 3; reign- ing national champion North Carolina State will be tough to beat. NCAA Best-Case Scenario: Top 10 Coach's Expectations: The fifth- place finish for Notre Dame at the 2021 NCAA Championship last November seemed unexpected to many, but not to Sparks. Steady improvement defined his 2021 team. So when it saved its best performance for the biggest meet, that was more expected than surprising for the head coach. "We put a premium for both genders to be elite in November," Sparks said. Four of Sparks' top five scorers return for the Irish women, and Sparks expects another fine postseason because this veteran group understands the system. "There is no panic when we go to some of the regular-season meets and don't perform at an elite level," Sparks explained. "They've already done this, so they're comfortable enough to know that they'll be elite when it matters, which is in November." Notre Dame finished fifth in the 2021 ACC Championships, then won the Great Lakes Regional qualifying meet for the NCAA Championships, before its fifth-place national finish. Top Runner: After finishing ninth at the 2021 NCAA Championships, gradu- ate student Maddy Denner returns to lead this seasoned group. A two-time All-American, Denner also was ninth last year at the ultra-competitive ACC Championships. Athlete To Watch: Senior Olivia Markezich is back after finishing 11th nationally and 12th in the ACC last year. Markezich was second at the Great Lakes Regional. Don't Miss: Given Sparks' "peak when it matters" coaching strategy, the NCAA Championship on Nov. 19 is it. Irish Fall Sports Provide Promise And A New Look Graduate student Maddy Denner, a two-time All-American, placed ninth at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 2021. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS ND SPORTS

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