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Conner Mantz, Whittni Orton make BYU history at NCAA cross country championship

Whittni Orton and Conner Mantz hold their trophies after winning NCAA cross country individual titles on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021 in Tallahassee, Fla.
Whittni Orton and Conner Mantz hold their trophies after winning NCAA cross country individual titles on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Tallahassee, Fla.
BYU Photo

Whittni Orton, BYU’s immensely talented but star-crossed distance runner, claimed her first national championship in the last race of her collegiate career, winning Saturday morning’s NCAA cross country championship in Tallahassee, Florida.

An hour later, teammate Conner Mantz won the men’s title for the second time in eight months.

The race also marked only the second time in the history of the NCAA cross country championship that the winners of the men’s and women’s races were from the same school.

The only other time it happened was when Indiana’s Bob Kennedy and Michelle Dekkers won those titles in 1988.

The women’s competition began 40 years ago.

Orton, a senior from Panguitch, Utah, recorded the second fastest time in the history of the NCAA cross country meet, covering the wooded, hilly 6,000-meter (3.7-mile) course in 19:25.4, averaging 5:12.5 per mile.

She defeated the next two finishers, Mercy Chelangat of Alabama and unbeaten pre-race favorite Ceili McCabe of West Virginia, by four seconds.

Orton is the first individual women’s champion from BYU.

“I visualized it for days now,” she told ESPN. “I kind of stopped myself from thinking about it; you can’t think about it or bad things are going to happen.

“It was a wild moment, for sure.”

The Cougars, ranked No. 2 in the polls, finished second in the team race behind No. 1-ranked North Carolina State.

Anna Camp, the NCAA 1,500-meter champion, boosted the Cougars’ score with a 12th-place finish.

BYU, the defending NCAA champion, has finished first or second in the last three championships.

It was much the same story in the men’s race. Mantz, a senior from Smithfield, Utah, repeated Orton’s race plan, patiently running with the leaders most of the race.

When the pace lagged, he moved to the lead and ramped up the speed to take the sting out of his rivals’ finishing kicks.

It’s a painful way to race, but it is what Mantz does better than anyone — long, sustained, intense efforts that break his opponents.

“Someone would take the lead and slow it down, and I didn’t like that,” he told ESPN afterward.

In the late stages of the race, Campbell University’s Athanas Kioko sprinted into the lead and Mantz followed.

Kioko eventually slowed the pace.

“As soon as he slowed down, I made a hard surge,” Mantz said, “and I kind of enjoyed the last 100 meters.”

Mantz dashed away from all challengers and ran the final 100 meters alone, becoming the 12th man in the 83-year history of these championships to win consecutive national titles.

He covered the 10,000-meter course (6.2 miles) in 28:33.1 — a course record and the fourth fastest time ever recorded in the NCAA cross country meet since it was converted to meters in 1976.

He averaged 4:35.7 per mile and finished five seconds ahead of Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo. Mantz closed out his NCAA career with nine consecutive victories dating back to last season.

He is expected to turn professional and skip his senior season of track.

Mantz’s victory was not enough to give BYU the team championship even though teammate Casey Clinger ran a strong race to finish eighth.

In the end, nothing much changed in the men’s race since the 2020 cross country championships, which, because of the pandemic, was postponed until March 2021.

Mantz and Northern Arizona, winners in five of the last six NCAA championships, both repeated as individual and team champions, and BYU, the 2019 champion, finished seventh again in the team race.

Mantz is the third BYU runner to win an NCAA cross country title — the other two were his coach, Ed Eyestone, in 1984, and Josh Rohatinsky in 2006 — but the first to win two of them.

Orton’s victory was vindication and long overdue. She is probably the most talented female distance runner ever to compete for BYU — she holds school records in the indoor mile, 3,000 and 5,000, and the outdoor 5,000 — but one thing after another — COVID, injuries and poor racing tactics — prevented her from winning a national championship.

During the early years of her collegiate career, Orton suffered from four different stress-reaction injuries (a precursor to stress fractures) in her feet and legs, restricting her training to the pool and stationary bike.

But then everything seemed to come together during the 2019-20 school year. Orton finished seventh in the NCAA cross country championships, and during the indoor track season, she ran nation-leading times and set several school records.

But then COVID-19 struck and she was denied a chance to race for a national championship when the NCAA indoor championships and the NCAA outdoor track season were canceled because of the pandemic.

Orton was injured again during the 2020-21 cross country season. She ran one race in October and then didn’t race again until the NCAA championships.

She wasn’t able to resume running until three weeks before the NCAA cross country championships but she entered the race anyway and, despite lacking races and training, led most of the race only to fade to 17th in the last 1,000 meters.

During the 2021 outdoor track season, she owned by far the fastest time in the nation for 5,000 meters heading into last spring’s NCAA outdoor track championships, but she undermined her performance with the same poor race tactics.

She opened a huge lead early in the race only to fade to 18th.

Coach Diljeet Taylor took preemptive action to keep Orton healthy this season. She entered her in only two races — the Florida Open on Sept. 17 and the conference championshis on Oct. 29 (Orton won both).

Entering Saturday’s NCAA championship, Orton was thinking about the 2020 NCAA championship and her dramatic fade from first to second in the final kilometer.

“That definitely fueled me a lot,” she said afterward. “I have thought about that many times, not just today but throughout the year.”

Instead of trying to run away from the field and doing the energy-sapping pace work for her rivals, she exercised patience and poise and let others lead the pace.

She sat on the shoulders of the leaders in third or fourth place throughout much of the race. With about a kilometer to go, she edged into the lead but there was still a pack of nine runners at the front and it was anyone’s race.

A short time later, she made a bold move and began to gap the field, charging up a steep hill.

With 500 meters to go, she shifted into an all-out sprint and pulled away, running to the finish alone, letting out a little squeal of delight as she crossed the finish line.