Conner Mantz, the defending national collegiate champion, wasn’t expected to return to BYU this fall for his senior season of cross-country, but he’s back and dominating the competition again. He will lead BYU into Friday’s NCAA Mountain Region Cross-Country Championships with a berth in next week’s NCAA championships on the line.

The race will begin at noon on the Timpanogos Golf Club course in Provo; it will be preceded by the women’s race, which will start at 11.

BYU will enter strong teams in both the men’s and women’s races. The BYU men, the 2019 NCAA team champion, is ranked eighth in the latest polls, followed by two other local teams, Utah State (21st) and Southern Utah (26th); the BYU women’s team, the 2020 NCAA team champion, is ranked fourth, followed by Utah (seventh) and Utah State (22nd).

The top two finishers in the team race, plus the top four individual finishers not on those teams, automatically qualify for the NCAA championships, which will be held Nov. 20 in Tallahassee, Florida. There are a total of 13 at-large berths that will be awarded to the other top teams in the nation. After the 31 teams are determined for the NCAA field, another 38 at-large berths are awarded to individuals who are not on those teams. 

BYU’s Conner Mantz is one of the best distance runners in the world

Securing an automatic berth is especially difficult in the Mountain Region, annually the toughest of the nine regions.

“The Mountain Region is loaded,” says Utah coach Kyle Kepler.

Northern Arizona and Colorado, ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the men’s rankings, are in the Mountain Region, and New Mexico, Colorado, BYU and Utah are the Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 7 teams in the women’s rankings.

Mantz is unbeaten and riding a seven-race winning streak dating back to last season, including the 2020 NCAA cross-country championships, which were held in 2021 (just seven months ago) after being postponed due to the pandemic. Along the way he has beaten his top two challengers for the national title — Florida State’s Adriaan Wildschutt and Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo, who finished second and third behind Mantz in the 2020 national championships.

A few months ago, Ed Eyestone, the BYU coach, thought that Mantz almost certainly would turn professional last summer and not return to BYU this fall. But, as Eyestone explains, “The timing was such that it was difficult to get a shoe contract after the Olympics.”

Shoe contracts are the lifeblood of professional runners, and in an Olympic year shoe companies award those contracts to Olympic-bound athletes. Mantz failed to make the Olympic team — he was the top collegian in the 10,000-meter run at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, but sixth overall; only the top three qualify for the Olympics.

“The market was saturated,” says Eyestone. “It’s simple supply and demand. He could’ve signed but wouldn’t have maximized his earning potential. He probably missed the sweet spot. He’ll go through the cross-country season and reevaluate it. He probably won’t run track (for BYU this spring).”

‘I’ve been blessed’: After suffering string of injuries, BYU runner Whittni Orton found her stride — and broke four school records

In BYU’s last competition, the men’s team won its seventh consecutive West Coast Conference team championship and Mantz won his third consecutive individual WCC title, as the Cougars took five of the top 11 places. Teammates Casey Clinger, Brandon Garnica, Lucas Bons and Aidan Troutner followed close behind Mantz to finish third, fourth, fifth and 11th, respectively. 

In the same meet, the BYU women’s team won its fourth straight title led by Whittni Orton’s individual championship. Anna Camp-Bennett, the NCAA 1,500-meter champion, showed her range by placing third in the 6,000-meter race. The BYU team took six of the top nine places, with Aubrey Frentheway fourth, Lexy Halladay fifth, McKenna Lee-Hansen eighth and Sara Musselman ninth.

Meanwhile, the Utah women’s team warmed up for the region meet by placing second in the Pac-12 championships — its highest finish since joining the league in 2011. Emily Venters placed third in the race — the highest individual finish in Utah history. The Utes placed five runners in the top 16, including Cara Woolnough (seventh), Simone Plourde (11th), Bella Williams (15th) and Keelah Barger 16th.

The Utes, whose top five includes three transfers and three international athletes, have been ranked as high as No. 6 in this year’s national rankings, also the highest in school history. The Utah team has qualified for the NCAA championships only three times, all in the last six years. The Utes’ highest finish was 16th, in 2019.