Big East champ Shay sets sights on NCAA title
By KATHLEEN O'BRIEN
Assistant Sports Editor
Junior cross country runner Ryan Shay's full potential as a runner is yet to be determined, but nothing short of an army will stop him from being confident about his future.
An NCAA title is not out of the question, based on his performance to date, nor is a future appearance in the Olympics.
"I think that would be a legitimate question to ask after the NCAAs," said head Notre Dame cross country coach Joe Piane about Shay's potential. "He's had a marvelous year, but I think for him the benchmark this year is how well he does at the NCAAs."
Shay finished among the top six in every race this season, bringing home the title in all but one meet, the NCAA Pre-Nationals. He paved the way for Notre Dame's rise from unranked to No. 8 in the national standings by being the first Irish finisher in each of his meets. Yet he has his eyes on a larger goal — a national cross country championship.
"I have to have the race of my life," Shay said, in order to win the title. "Steve Fein of Oregon is being favored by some to capture the NCAA championship. Shay finished just six seconds behind Fein at Pre-Nationals on an 8K course, and was closing in on Fein toward the end of the race. The NCAA championships will be a 10K course.
"Over 10K, I think those guys are going to get tired, and I'm going to still be feeling good," Shay said. "It matches up pretty close. It's not going to be an easy race. I've got to keep in my head that I can win. I've got to have that mindset. At the worst, I should be in the top 10."
Shay has been a lethal weapon for the Irish in cross country and track throughout his career. His freshman year he won his first two collegiate cross country meets, then went on to finish among the top three Notre Dame runners the rest of the season.
"I didn't realize he was going to be that good that quick," Piane said. "He's totally focused. He lives with blinders on. Nothing's going to interfere with his desire to be an outstanding runner."
International man of running
That year Shay represented the United States at the World Junior Cross Country Championships in Morocco, where he placed 20th out of 200 competitors. His finish was the best by an American since 1992. It helped lead the U.S. to seventh place as a team, its highest placing since 1988.
"It gave me a taste of international competition and it built my confidence," Shay said. "Whenever I need to think about a good race, I can always think back to the World Junior Championships."
Shay got more than a sample of running at an elite level. He also experienced a very different lifestyle than that of most Americans.
"I learned as much as you can in seven days about the culture," Shay said. "The first night I was there, at four or five in the morning, a siren went off. It sounded like an air raid, but it was the [mosques] calling the people to pray. It was total culture shock."
Children also approached him following his race, wanting to trade some of their possessions for his cross country uniform, because it had USA written on it.
Shay did not compete for Notre Dame in track that year due to injury, and returned particularly strongly since his sophomore campaign. Last year in cross country, Shay consistently finished first for the Irish.
He was the lone Irish runner to qualify for the NCAA cross country championships, based on his 10th-place finish at districts. He won the Wolf and Kettle Invitational and the Notre Dame Invitational, as well as placing sixth in the Big East Championships.
During the 1999 track season, Shay competed at an even higher level of intensity than he had previously. Although his specialty is long distances like the 5K or 10K, Shay won the Big East Indoor Championships in the 3,000 meters in a time of 8:20.38.
In the outdoor season, he received all-Big East honors in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters, where he finished third and second, respectively. He also qualified for the NCAAs in the 10,000 meters based on his time of 29:01.59 at the Stanford Invitational. In the national meet, Shay placed seventh overall in the 10,000 meter run, high enough to win All-American recognition.
Leading the pack
Coming into Notre Dame, Shay wasn't used to having to come from behind. As a high school harrier in Michigan, Shay became the first boy ever to capture four state titles, only losing one cross country meet during his entire high school career.
"He's really become a very patient runner," Piane said, "Where his first couple of years he was very impatient and had to lead a race every step of the way."
In track, Shay was a three-time champion in the 1,600 and 3,200 meter runs, also earning one state title in the 800-meter run.
His athletic success carried over onto the national level. Outside of Michigan, Shay won several AAU titles, was the 1995 USA Track and Field 3,000 meter champion and 1996 USATF 5,000 meter champion and placed fourth at the junior national in the 5,000 meter run in 1997.
"I came from a very large family with four brothers and three sisters," Shay said. "Just being in a family that big, I was always competitive. You've got to be sure of yourself in anything you do when you're in that kind of environment."
All in the family
Running is something of a requirement for being in the Shay family. Shay's dad was his cross country and track coach at Central Lake High School in Central Lake, Mich., where he still coaches. Five of Shay's siblings ran at the college level, and the remaining two are in eighth and ninth grades.
Nathan Shay, Ryan's younger brother, is a freshman at Notre Dame, and a member of the Notre Dame cross country and track teams. Ryan's older brother Casey is also currently training with the Irish. Casey graduated from Lubbock Christian, where he was the 1996 NAIA steeplechase champion and a nine-time All-American. He hopes to qualify for the 2000 Olympic Trials in the steeplechase.
Ryan also has his sights set on the 2000 Olympics.
"That's one of the major goals by the end of the track season —to hit the qualifying time that will get me into the Olympic Trials," Shay said. "I'm pretty sure I can hit that. Right now we're just focused on cross country."
The Irish, currently ranked eighth in the nation, will be seeking an automatic berth at nationals with a high finish at districts Nov. 13. Fifth-year runner Ryan Maxwell said Shay plays an important role for the Irish.
"He's a great leader for the team," Maxwell said. "He sets a good example for the rest of the team with his work ethic. I think it's pretty important that he does well because it really sets the tone for the rest of the team and gives us someone to key off of."
If anyone can lead the Irish to victory, it is Shay. Among his accomplishments this season are a fourth-place finish at the Pre-National meet and a Big East crown, where he ran the third-fastest time ever on the course. His victory in the adidas/Notre Dame Invitational also branded him as the first Notre Dame runner to win that race in more than 30 years.
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, November 3, 1999