David Rooney. (McNeese State / Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Friday, November 16, 2012 12:57 PM
It’s a long way from Tipperary. And Cork. And Dublin.
Yet McNeese State has become a regular stop for Irish distance runners, with a pipeline that extends across the Atlantic and more than 40 years back in time.
The first to make the journey, Fanahan McSweeney, accomplished the ultimate goal by competing for Ireland in the 1972 Summer Olympics.
But until now, no McNeese cross country runner, Irish or otherwise, has done what senior David Rooney is poised to do Saturday — become an all-American.
With a top-40 finish at the NCAA national championships at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer Park in Louisville, Ky., Rooney will become the first Cowboy to earn that distinction.
“It means a lot. I’ve been here five years,” Rooney said. “All of my years here is leading up to this race. I’ve been to nationals twice and missed out on all-American twice. It’s disappointing.”
The odds are in Rooney’s favor to break in to the top 40 in his third trip to nationals. He qualified second in the South Central Region with a time of 29 minutes, 41.4 seconds in the 10,000-meter race. He has the seventh-best time in the nation going in.
“My goals are even higher than all-American,” Rooney said. “I’m aiming for top 10.”
He then added in his Irish lilt, “It’s really all or nuttin’ this Saturday. I’ll just give it my absolute best.”
Rooney’s previous career peak was in 2010, when he was part of a U-23 Irish team that won gold at the European Championships.
However, he was redshirted last fall, forcing him to put off his goal of reaching all-American status one more year.
That delay may work to his benefit. This year the nationals moved from Terre Haute, Ind. to Louisville, and Rooney is a big fan of the new course.
“This course is a bit different,” said Rooney, who ran there in a pre-national meet last month. “It’s very fast. It’s exciting.”
Meeting his goals will certainly validate Rooney’s decision to pursue a collegiate running career far, far from home.
“Louisiana was a bit different,” Rooney said. “I thought it would be a nice experience to be down South. They’re very friendly people down here. It’s worked out well. The main reason being here is the weather. In Ireland, most of the year it’s raining.”
McNeese cross country coach Brendon Gilroy, himself one of the many Runnin’ Irish to come to McNeese in the last four decades, said he had a couple of things working in his favor when landing Rooney.
One was the previously established pipeline, but the other was the fact Rooney was a raw talent. Until his final two years of high school, Rooney was a Gaelic football player, not a runner.
“He wasn’t the most highly recruited athlete,” said Gilroy, who noted that Iona, Villanova, Providence and Arkansas are top programs known for landing Irish runners. “He wasn’t running that long. A lot of coaches may have overlooked him. It was a friend of mine that ran here that told me, ‘Man, you have to take a look at this kid.’”
Gilroy said though Rooney qualified for nationals as an individual, the competitive nature between past and present teammates is what brought him to this level.
“When Joshua Sawe set foot on campus, it kind of made Dave perk up to catch Joshua,” Gilroy said. “Then you had Jarrett LeBlanc nipping at his heels and Alex Bruce-Littlewood breaking his mile indoor record last year. These guys have some pride. When you start building on that, you get a little rivalry on the team. Which is good when you keep it friendly. You can’t, to use the expression of the kids, be hating on your teammates for breaking your records. It just elevates the program as a whole.”
Sawe, from Kenya, transferred to McNeese after winning the national junior college title and qualified for Division I nationals in 2009. Bruce-Littlewood and LeBlanc finished second and third behind Rooney at this year’s Southland championships as the Cowboys won the team title.
After this race, Rooney will still have the spring track season before attempting to go pro and qualify for Ireland in the 2016 Olympics.
“I’d like to give a couple years to running, because once it’s over it’s over,” he said. “I’d like to try and get in the next Olympics if I get in the right situation.”
That is still a long way off.
For now, Rooney’s focus is on one thing — 10,000 more meters and a date with history that’s more than four decades in the making.