OGDEN — The Man of the Hour at Friday’s NCAA Mountain Region Cross Country Championships was Jared Ward, the BYU runner who had been reinstated by the NCAA only 24 hours earlier.
How race-ready would he be after missing the entire season? How would he fare after running only one race this fall? How would he handle a 10,000-meter effort just five weeks after running a 2:16 marathon in Chicago?
Fine, it turns out. On a cool, rainy day on the Riverside Golf Course in Ogden, Ward cruised to a fourth-place finish and barely looked out of breath afterward. BYU also finished fourth in the team race and qualified for next weekend’s NCAA championships in Indiana.
“It’s good to be back,” Ward told a teammate shortly after crossing the finish line.
Ward, if you somehow missed the news, had been declared ineligible by the NCAA for running in what was basically a fun run shortly before enrolling at BYU. He was given an 11th-hour reprieve by the NCAA on Thursday morning, enabling him to compete in the region championships and the NCAA meet — a decision even his rivals applauded.
Early in the race, Northern Arizona’s Brian Schrader told Ward, “Hey, good to have you back.” That’s the way it was all week. While waiting for the NCAA to decide his fate, Ward received words of encouragement from fans, rivals and friends via emails, phone calls, texts and Facebook.
“It’s been amazing to have so much support from everyone,” says Ward.
BYU coach Ed Eyestone was relieved to have Ward on the team again. The Cougars had climbed to No. 5 in the national rankings even without Ward, a four-time All-American. How good could they be now?
“We are hoping to get on the podium (top four) in the national championships,” the coach said.
With the NCAA championships only eight days away, Eyestone decided to bench four of his top runners for the region meet — Steve Flint, Jon Nelson, Tom Gruenewald, Spencer Gardner. He instructed his other NCAA-bound runners — Ward, Tylor Thatcher and Jason Witt — to give a fast but restrained effort. He wanted to qualify with the least effort possible and knew fourth place would do the trick. The top two teams automatically qualify, but under an at-large points system, the Cougars had accumulated enough points during the season that they were a lock to qualify as long as they placed in the top four.
“It’s getting a little cute with things, but with the depth we have now we can afford to do it, and now we’ll have some fresh legs going into the national meet,” said Eyestone.
He might have held out Ward, as well, but the coach thought he needed a race under his belt.
“The most important thing for us today, besides qualifying, was the performance of Jared,” Eyestone said.
The Mountain Region meet, which consists of 17 teams, was a good preview of nationals. Three of the top five teams in the nation competed in Ogden Friday (Colorado, Northern Arizona and BYU). Northern Arizona won the region team race, with 61 points, followed by Colorado (69), New Mexico (79) and BYU (109). Southern Utah was seventh and Utah State 11th.
The individual title went to Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka, the defending NCAA champion, with a time of 29:23.6, followed by UTEP’s Anthony Rotich and NAU’s Futsum Zienasellassie. Ben Saarel, the top-ranked runner in the nation as a senior at Park City High last year, placed seventh in 29:46.4. Ward was BYU’s top finisher, in 29:45.6, with Thatcher and Witt 18th and 19th.
Shalaya Kipp, a senior from Skyline High who competed in the 2012 Olympics, placed second in the women’s race to lead Colorado to the team championship. The race was won by New Mexico’s Sammy Silva in 20:29.3, two seconds ahead of Kipp
Among the local schools, BYU was third, Weber State fourth, Utah eighth, Utah State 11th, Southern Utah 12th and Utah Valley 18th. Weber’s Summer Harper, a freshman from Orem, was the top local finisher, placing eighth, with BYU’s Andrea Harrison and Utah’s Rebekah Winterton taking the next two spots.
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org