With all due respect to the Utah football team, the most accomplished program in the state these days resides in Provo, even if relatively few sports fans know it. The BYU cross-country program is a powerhouse. Two of them, actually — men’s and women’s.
The men are ranked No. 2 in the latest national polls and the women No. 3, and they’ve been making high rankings a habit from year to year.
Both teams will be on display Friday morning when they compete in the NCAA Mountain Region Championships, which serve as a qualifying meet for the NCAA championships eight days later. The women’s race will begin at 11, the men at noon.
Six times in the last eight years, the men’s team has finished in the top seven of the NCAA championships; they were second last year and third the year before that.
The women’s team, revived since the hiring of coach Diljeet Taylor, was seventh last year and 11th and 10th the two previous years.
There are nine region meets throughout the country; the Mountain Region is the most talented. The men’s race will feature the top three teams in the national polls — No. 1 Northern Arizona, No. 2 BYU and No. 3 Colorado (Utah State is No. 20). The women’s race will feature five nationally ranked teams, including No. 3 BYU, No. 8 Colorado, No. 9 Utah and No. 10 New Mexico.
The first- and second-place teams from each region automatically qualify for the NCAAs, plus 13 at-large teams determined by wins against quality opponents during the regular season. BYU could finish anywhere in the top five and still qualify for nationals, having won the pre-nationals meet a month ago (in which they beat No. 3 Colorado) and the conference championships. The women’s team also has quality wins this season. For that reason, BYU has decided to rest a couple of its top runners this weekend so they’ll be rested for the NCAA meet.
“Third place is as good as first place,” says Ed Eyestone, who is the overall director of the BYU track and cross-country programs. “They all get you to nationals.”
Conner Mantz, a junior from Sky View High, is unbeaten this year, although Eyestone indicates his top runner will run “a chill race. Winning doesn’t position him any better for nationals.”
BYU’s other top runners: Matt Owens, Jake Heslington, Danny Carney, Brandon Garnica and Kramer Morton. All except Carney are from Utah.
“The women might actually have a better shot at winning the (NCAAs) than the men because they have a strong one-two punch,” says Eyestone.
He was referring to Erica Birk-Jarvis and Whittni Orton, who are a threat for top-five finishes at nationals. The team’s other entries include Courtney Wayment, Olivia Hoj and Anna Camp-Bennett. All five runners are from Utah.
The University of Utah, which does not have a men’s team, jumped seven spots in the rankings after a third-place finish in the Pac-12 Conference championships. Their region entries will be Scarlet Dale, Poppy Tank, Bella Williams, Cara Woolnough, Sarah Feeny, Trina Moreno and Ellie Lundgreen.