How Big 12-bound BYU became a dominant track and field program despite no Power Five status
Cougars, who will send 22 athletes to the NCAA championships this week at reimagined Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, have a shot at finishing in top 10
Sebastian Fernandez is one of those athletes who epitomize the BYU track and field team, and his story is one of the reasons why the Cougars are so successful in the sport, despite not being in one of the so-called Power Five conferences.
The chemical engineering major walked on to the team a few months ago, after having been cut from the squad the previous year, and four or five meets later is now one of the 22 athletes who will represent BYU at the 2022 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships this week in Eugene, Oregon.
Fernandez, a freshman from Andover, Minnesota, qualified in the 800 meters after posting a time of 1 minute, 47.62 seconds at the NCAA West Preliminaries in Fayetteville, Arkansas, last month. He is the first BYU runner to qualify for nationals in the 800 since Shaquille Walker in 2016.
“He is doing unbelievably well,” said BYU associate head coach Mark Robison. “He has only been on the team for, like, two months, and he’s a national qualifier. It’s amazing.”
“What is interesting about this team, is that on both the men’s and women’s side we have people in lots of different groups. To have that kind of spread is a little bit more unusual.” — BYU associate head coach Mark Robison
Fernandez told BYUtv’s “BYU Sports Nation” show that he has shaved six seconds off his 800 time in the space of a year, having tried out unsuccessfully last year. He ran a 1:47.03 at the BYU Cougar Invitational in Provo on May 14 to break the track record.
“Honestly, every time I have stepped on the track this season I feel like I have shocked myself. And that’s a good feeling to have,” he said, humbly crediting a new pair of spikes for his upswing. “It is just cool. It is unreal, honestly, that I was able to make it to nationals. That wasn’t even on my radar.”
Fernandez said after he ran a 1:50.83 in the West Coast Relays as an unattached athlete a few months ago, BYU athletics development coordinator Isaac Wood notified BYU director of track and field Ed Eyestone about the feat and Eyestone gave him a phone call a few days later and made him an official member of the team, after some paperwork issues with the NCAA clearinghouse were resolved.
“I think he is just as shocked as I am,” Fernandez said.
As a team, the Cougars have 22 entries at Oregon’s reimagined Hayward Field this week, which is tied for eighth in the nation and the fifth-most in school history. BYU athletes will compete in 12 events, starting Wednesday and running through Saturday.
Texas has the most entries, with 33, followed by Florida with 28 and LSU with 25.
Men’s events run Wednesday and Friday, while women’s events run Thursday and Saturday. Heptathlon and decathlon — BYU has entries in each with Dallin Vorkink in decathlon and Halley Folsom-Walker in heptathlon — will be held Wednesday-Friday (decathlon) and Thursday-Saturday (heptathlon).
“What is interesting about this team, is that on both the men’s and women’s side we have people in lots of different groups,” said Robison, whose father Clarence was head track coach at BYU for 40 years. The Cougars’ track stadium is named after him.
“To have that kind of spread is a little bit more unusual, and it is a pretty awesome team because of that.”
Secret to their success
BYU, which will join the Big 12 in 2023, is the only team in the top 20 from a non-Power Five conference. How do the Cougars do it, year in and year out?
“A lot of it is just tradition,” Robison said. “We can get kids to come and walk on and be successful. In my group, Dallin Vorkink, the decathlete who has a chance to score points, was a walk-on. Halley Folsom, she is right up there, too, in the heptathlon. She’s a walk-on, and Sebastian, too.”
Track and field is an “equivalency sport,” which means not every athlete gets a full-ride scholarship. Men’s teams get 12.6 scholarships to divide them up however coaches see fit, while women’s track teams get 18.
“So when you have 50-60 people on the team, and you have 12 scholarships to give, that is a real small fraction,” Robison said. “Young people are willing to come and get probably less scholarship money here than they would in other places, and then we hope we can help them in other ways.”
The coach who is in his 37th year at BYU said men’s track has the poorest ratio of participants to scholarships of any sport under the NCAA umbrella.
He said BYU’s relatively low tuition costs for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors the school, also help the program draw scholarship-caliber athletes as walk-ons.
“The state of Utah in track and field, per capita, matches up extremely well with people all over the country,” he said. “And then to have a lot of the LDS kids throughout the United States coming here, that helps. We have been very fortunate to get the LDS and non-LDS kids that can come. And we have been fortunate because BYU is very inexpensive. … With the Pac-12, there is not a school other than the University of Utah that is not a fortune to go to.”
Robison also credited BYU’s administration, saying the school as a whole and the athletic department specifically have been very supportive.
“They let us have a little bigger team, so we could develop it. And then with the returned missionaries and all that kind of stuff, it is a longer plan to be able to get the kids to where they are going to be able to help us. … We have been good for a long time — since my dad was here, and all those years, 30 years ago when he retired. So it has been fun and we have just been able to get the momentum going and have some great young people.”
Utah schools well-represented
BYU isn’t the only school in Utah sending athletes to nationals: Josefine Eriksen (800 meters) and Cara Woolnough (5000 meters) will represent the Utes, while Southern Utah senior Elizabeth White (long jump) is SUU’s lone entrant in Eugene.
Utah Valley is sending its biggest group of qualifiers, four, in school history: Hannah Branch and Everlyn Kemboi in the 10,000 meters; school record-holder Adam Bunker in the 3,000-meter steeplechase; and Aaron Johnson in the long jump.
BYU men eye another top-10 finish
With 12 entries, tied for second-most nationally, BYU’s No. 4-ranked men’s team has a legitimate shot at a top-10 finish, Robison believes. The Cougars were 17th in 2021 and eighth in 2019. No meet was held in 2020, due to the pandemic.
The Cougars are especially strong in pole vault, as Zach McWhorter is ranked No. 2 nationally and will be making his second-straight appearance at nationals, having finished ninth there a year ago. Caleb Witsken is sixth nationally and has a season-best clearance of 5.56 meters.
“Zach doesn’t have the best jump in the nation, but he will definitely be a factor. He was second in indoors,” Robison said. “He’s got a chance to win. And then Caleb Witsken could make some noise, too. Those two could both finish high.”
Kenneth Rooks is ranked No. 4 nationally in the 3,000-meter steeplechase with a best time of 8:31.19 and makes his second trip to nationals. He was 11th at the 2019 national championships before missionary service. Teammate Garrett Marsing, from Price’s Carbon High, also made nationals in the steeplechase after returning from a mission to Moscow, Russia.
“Rooks and Marsing could both make the finals, and score points for us,” Robison said.
Vorkink, a junior from Kirksville, Missouri, was 17th in the decathlon last year and ranks No. 11 nationally with a personal-best total of 7,894 points.
Casey Clinger and Brandon Garnica will compete in the 10,000 meters for the Cougars, and Clinger will also run in the 5,000 meters event. He’s ranked No. 8 nationally in the 5,000 meters with a time of 13:23.33, and will try to match the feat that coach Eyestone did in 1985 when he won both the 5,000 and 10,000 national titles.
Colten Yardley, a senior from Syracuse High in Davis County, will compete in the 400 hurdles for the third time at nationals and also anchor the men’s 4x100 relay squad, joined by Easton Bianchi, Jared Davis and Dallin Draper.
“Yardley is running faster this year than he did last year, so he’s got a shot to make the finals,” Robison said. “On the men’s side, all those guys have very, very good chances of scoring, but the wow, the competition is phenomenal. Our 4x100 relay team is going to have to have an amazing (preliminary) race to make the top eight. That (event) is stacked.”
Michael Whitaker, a freshman from Spanish Fork, will compete for BYU in the javelin.
Can BYU women post another top-10 finish?
BYU’s best chances for national individual champions are a pair of women, Courtney Wayment in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and Ashton Riner in the javelin. Both were tops in their respective events in Arkansas.
Wayment dominated the steeplechase, finishing with a time of 9:42.32, five seconds in front of the second-place finisher.
“Courtney Wayment has run so much faster than anybody else in the country this year,” Robison said. “She is definitely, definitely the favorite in the steeplechase.” Lexy Halladay of Boise, Idaho, was 10th in Arkansas to qualify in the steeplechase as well.
Riner, a junior from Connell, Washington, and teammate Alex McAllister will represent the Cougars in the javelin, with former BYU standout thrower Niklas Arrhenius as their coach. Riner threw a 57.25 meters to win by nearly 8 feet at Fayetteville.
Sable Lohmeier El-Bakri set the BYU record in the discus with a throw of 56.13 meters to qualify, placing seventh at regionals. She’s married to former BYU football star Bracken El-Bakri.
“Nik is doing a tremendous job with our throwers,” Robison said.
Aubrey Frentheway of Cheyenne, Wyoming, qualified in the 10,000 meters with an 11th-place finish at regionals.
Cierra Tidwell-Allphin, no relation to former BYU football coach Paul Tidwell, tied for first with five other athletes in the high jump to qualify (1.81m).
Claire Seymour of Modesto, California, ran a 2:03.01 to make it in the 800 meters.
The aforementioned Folsom-Walker, from Medford, Oregon, posted a personal-best score of 5,699 in the heptathlon in April, the 14th-best score nationally this season. Folsom-Walker, whose brother Ryan Folsom played football for BYU and tragically died in a head-on crash near Redding, California, in 2018, is back after serving a mission in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
“Folsom-Walker should be in the top 10 in the heptathlon,” Robison said. “She’s having a great season.”
Having fun at Hayward Field
Whatever happens, Robison said the 22 athletes and six coaches from BYU and the seven contestants from the state’s other Division I schools will never forget competing in one of the premier track and field venues in the world. Hayward Field was reconstructed in 2018 and is state-of-the-art in every way.
“It is an amazing place, a phenomenal facility, by far the best there is, especially with the seating,” Robison said. “Most of the athletes have already competed there, but those that haven’t are in for a big treat.”
When BYU competed there in early May, temperatures never got out of the 50s and it was windy and rainy as well. More of the same is expected this week, with slightly higher temperatures.
“For us, that kind of weather is not a big deal,” Robison said. “If you are from the southern schools and places that have great weather all the time, it is a factor. Some people almost freeze to death when they get to Eugene.”
The horseshoe-shaped stadium can get “interesting” if the wind is blowing in a certain direction, he said.
“Pole vaulting can be an absolute nightmare,” Robison said. “Every single vault, it is a different wind. You have just gotta make adjustments. Man, it is a crazy, wonderful place.”
Track events will be televised on ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPN (Saturday afternoon only), while field events will be streamed on ESPN3.
BYU’s 22 athletes at NCAA Track and Field Nationals
Men’s event qualifiers
• Dallin Vorkink, decathlon.
• Zach McWhorter, pole vault.
• Caleb Witsken, pole vault.
• Garrett Marsing, 3000-meter steeplechase.
• Kenneth Rooks, 3000-meter steeplechase.
• Michael Whittaker, javelin.
• Sebastian Fernandez, 800 meters.
• Colten Yardley, 400-meter hurdles.
• Casey Clinger, 10,000 meters.
• Brandon Garnica, 10,000 meters.
• Men’s 4x100 relay: Easton Bianchi, Jared Davis, Dallin Draper, Colten Yardley.
Women’s event qualifiers
• Halley Folsom-Walker, heptathlon
• Lexy Halladay, 3000-meter steeplechase.
• Courtney Wayment, 3000-meter steeplechase.
• Alex McAllister, javelin.
• Ashton Riner, javelin.
• Claire Seymour, 800 meters.
• Aubrey Frentheway, 10,000 meters.
• Cierra Tidwell-Allphin, high jump.
• Sable Lohmeier-Bakri, discus.