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Eyes on the prize: Why both BYU teams will be in the hunt at NCAA Cross Country Championships

In all, fives teams from Utah will be competing in Tallahassee, Florida

Members of the BYU women’s cross-country team compete in the WCC championships Oct. 29, 2021.
BYU’s Whittni Orton leads a pack of BYU runners at the WCC Championships Oct. 29, 2021. BYU’s women’s and men’s teams will be among five teams from Utah competing in the NCAA Cross Country Championships Saturday in Florida.
Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

Ed Eyestone, BYU’s cross-country coach, is doing his best to downplay his men’s team’s chances in the NCAA Cross Country Championships Saturday in Tallahassee, Florida — better to be an underdog and avoid the burden of expectations, he reasons. The problem is that his team has undermined his strategy.

The Cougars were ranked no better than eighth in last week’s national rankings, which Eyestone believed underrated his team but was nonetheless glad of it. Then the Cougars made the mistake of winning the NCAA Mountain Region Championships a week ago, even without two of their best runners. In the process they beat the nation’s top two ranked teams, Northern Arizona and Colorado. Result: the Cougars jumped six spots in this week’s poll to No. 2 behind NAU.

That hasn’t deterred Eyestone. “It looks nice, but it has all the significance of a prelim (in track and field),” he says, indicating that perhaps several of the contenders were resting up and not trying for a win there. But, then, neither was BYU. Eyestone kept two of his top runners, Lucas Bons and Garrett Marsing, on the sideline to rest them for nationals.

“I think it signifies to the lazy coaches who were voting every week that we were devalued at No. 8,” he says. “But we don’t feel the sense now that we’re the favorites. There are a lot of good teams this year.”

That’s because many top runners who otherwise would’ve already graduated have returned for another year since the NCAA allowed them an extra season of eligibility as compensation. As Eyestone notes, usually there are about five teams that have a shot at the podium (top three), but he believes there are eight contenders now and not much separates seven of them.

“I still think NAU is the favorite,” says Eyestone.

NAU has won four of the last five NCAA championships. BYU won the 2019 championship, and Eyestone says this year’s team is better than that team, but the competition is also deeper and better.

As BYU learned so painfully last March during the COVID-postponed 2020 championships, things can change quickly. The Cougars appeared bound for a third-consecutive podium finish when Brandon Garnica, running among the top 15 runners at the time, collapsed in the last 200 meters and did not finish the race. It was about a 100-point swing for the Cougars, who wound up seventh.

The Cougars are a homegrown team. Six of their seven runners are Utahns (including their top four) — Conner Mantz (Smithfield), Casey Clinger (American Fork), Garnica (Springville), Aidan Troutner (Provo), Garrett Marsing (Price) and Davin Thompson (Lehi). Lucas Bons, a 3:55 miler from Ohio, has been BYU’s fourth or fifth runner this season. Mantz, Clinger, Garnica and Troutner finished first, third, eighth and ninth, respectively, in the region meet.

BYU distance runner Conner Mantz runs on campus in Provo on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
BYU distance runner Conner Mantz runs on campus in Provo on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Mantz, the defending national champion, has put together a dream season so far. He has won eight consecutive races dating back to last season, including wins over his top two rivals, Florida State’s Adriaan Wildschutt and Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo, who finished second and third behind Mantz in the 2020 national championships. Mantz is attempting to become only the fourth man ever to win consecutive NCAA championships in the sport. He is one of three BYU runners to win the race, the others being Eyestone (1984) and Josh Rohatinsky (2006).

BYU is one of five teams from Utah to qualify for the NCAA championships. The Southern Utah men’s team (ranked 24th) was an at-large qualifier; so are the women’s teams from BYU (fourth), Utah (14th) and Utah State (27th). North Carolina State, New Mexico and Colorado rank 1-2-3 in the women’s polls.

Thirty-one teams qualify for the meet, plus another 38 individual runners who are not on those teams. Utah athletes secured four of those spots — Southern Utah’s Alison Pray (fifth in the region championships), and Weber State’s Christian Allen (fourth), Summer Allen (eighth) and Billie Hatch (12th). Allen, who comes from a long line of distance runners in her family, was the state’s top individual finisher at the 2020 nationals, taking seventh place.

The BYU women’s team is the defending NCAA champion, having routed the field last March. The Cougars finished third in last week’s NCAA region championships, but their top runner, Whittni Orton, did not compete.

Orton, perhaps the most talented female distance runner in BYU’s rich history of distance running, has been sidelined by injuries several times during her career; as a result, the Cougars have raced her sparingly this season in an attempt to keep her healthy. When healthy, Orton is a dominating runner; she holds BYU school records for the indoor mile, 3,000 and 5,000 and the outdoor 5,000.

A foot injury prevented her from competing during the entire 2020 regular season; remarkably, her first race of the season was the NCAA championships. She trained in a pool and on a stationary bike and only 30 days before nationals she began to run again. Not only did she run at nationals, but she led most of the way only to fade to 17th in the last 1,000 meters.

Orton is a threat to make the podium in Saturday’s race, armed with better tactics and a season of racing and training behind her this time. If she runs with more patience, she might actually win the championship, something no BYU woman has ever done. The highest individual finish for a BYU athlete is fourth place by Michaela Mannova in 2003.

BYU’s Whittni Orton broke the school record in the 5,000-meter run in the Sound Invitational in Irvine, California.
All-American Whittni Orton finishes top five in her 1500m heat to secure her spot in the final on Saturday at the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Championships.
Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

BYU won the women’s championship last season by 65 points, the biggest margin since 2012. The Cougars did it without placing a single runner in the top 10; instead, they placed five runners in the top 41 (Anna Camp 11th, Aubrey Frentheway 15th, Orton 17th, Sara Musselman 33rd and McKenna Lee 41st).

Camp, the 2021 NCAA 1,500-meter champion, has proved to be a force at the longer 6,000-meter cross-country distance. She was sixth in the Mountain Region meet, a scant .10 seconds ahead of teammate Aubrey Frentheway. Musselman and Anna Martin also placed in the top 50 at regions.

Coach Diljeet Taylor has willed the Cougars into a national powerhouse. From 2006 to 2015, the highest finish by the BYU women’s team was 19th, and four times the Cougars failed just to qualify for the national championships. Since Taylor was hired in 2016, the Cougars have finished, in order, 11th, seventh, 10th, second and first, respectively. They could be much stronger than their fourth-place ranking in Saturday’s race and could very well wind up on the podium.

BYU’s success is paying dividends, Taylor received a commitment this year from one of the greatest high school distance runners ever — Jenna Hutchins, a senior at Science Hill High in Johnson City, Tennessee. As a 17-year-old, she covered 5,000 meters on the track in 15:34.47, which is not only a national high school record but also an under-20 American record. It has been reported that she will graduate in December to begin preparing for her collegiate career.

The future looks bright for Taylor’s team, which hopes to defend its championship on Saturday in Tallahassee.