As Utah’s college cross-country teams near the homestretch of the season — with championship meets the next three weekends — five in-state teams appear in the national rankings.
The BYU men’s team is ranked seventh, and Utah State is 21st. BYU’s women’s team ranks third, followed by Utah eighth and USU 28th. BYU’s Conner Mantz is unbeaten in six races this season and is the clear favorite to defend his individual title at the NCAA championships, having beaten all of his top rivals.
All of which is actually business as usual. Utah schools have quietly become a force in college cross-country circles the last few years — specifically, BYU, Utah State, Southern Utah, Utah and Weber State. In the final top-30 national polls of the last six years, teams from Utah have captured 26 spots. More than 300 schools compete in Division I cross-country.
Last season, three men’s teams from Utah schools — BYU, Southern Utah and Utah State — finished in the top 11 of the NCAA cross-country championships.
It’s no secret that BYU is a powerhouse. The women’s team won the 2020 NCAA championships (which were actually postponed to March 2021 because of the pandemic); the men’s team won the 2019 NCAA championships.
Last spring, the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association selected BYU as the women’s NCAA Division I Program of the Year, an honor given to the school with the highest combined finish in the NCAA championships for cross-country and indoor and outdoor track.
BYU was the only team in the nation to finish in the top 10 in the championships of each of those sports — first in cross-country, seventh in the indoor championships, 10th in the outdoor championships. BYU came within .5 of a point of winning the same honor in the men’s competition and certainly would have won if the Cougars hadn’t held out most of their top athletes from the indoor track championships to save them for the NCAA cross-country meet a couple of days later.
The Cougars are strong again this season. The men’s team placed fourth at pre-nationals in Florida two weeks ago. The women were third in a big showdown of top teams in Wisconsin the same weekend, and they competed without Whitney Orton, the superbly talented but often-injured senior and one of the top runners in the country. She was held out of the pre-nationals meet as a precaution to keep her healthy.
“This team reminds me of the 2019 team,” says men’s coach Ed Eyestone. “It’s very strong and maybe undervalued.”
The conference championships will be held this week, the NCAA regional championships the following week and then the NCAA championships the week after that, Nov. 20 in Tallahassee, Florida.
While BYU has made a scene on the cross-country scene, the other Utah schools have developed consistent national-class programs, as well. Utah, coached by Kyle Keppler for 17 years, have had several All-Americans, including Poppy Tank from England and Grayson Murphy, a converted soccer player from Salt Lake City, who finished sixth in the steeplechase at last summer’s U.S. Olympic trials. The Utes have ranked as high as sixth (in 2019) in recent years and now sit at No. 8 — their highest ranking ever this late in the season. They finished second in the pre-nationals meet in Florida, but, as Kepler notes, many of the top teams (including BYU) competed in Wisconsin instead.
Three of Kepler’s top five runners are transfers — Emily Venters (via Boise State and University of Colorado), Simon Ploudre (BYU) and Ariel Keklak (Wake Forest and John Hopkins). Three of the top five are international recruits — Bella Williams (Great Britain), Cara Woolnough (Australia) and Ploudre (Canada).
“We didn’t intend to have so many transfers but COVID threw a wrinkle into our recruiting,” says Kepler. “There was not enough video to see the (high school) kids, so we ended up taking veterans.”
The Southern Utah men’s team, coached by Eric Houle, has been another regular in the rankings, finishing among the top 30 five of the last six years, including ninth last season and 11th in 2016.
And then there’s Utah State. The men’s team finished 16th and 11th in the last two NCAA championships, while the women’s team finished 14th in 2017 and 16th in 2019. The men’s team is ranked 28th this year, led by Camren Todd, a junior from Kaysville who finished ninth out of 227 runners in a loaded field at Wisconsin two weeks ago, leading the Aggies to an 11th-place finish.
BYU, Southern Utah, Utah and Utah State will all be teams to be reckoned with at the NCAA regional championships and NCAA championships.