PROVO — When the NCAA canceled the conclusion of the winter sports seasons and halted the spring sports seasons to slow the spread of COVID-19, it was a devastating blow for thousands of college athletes around the country.
For 12 members of BYU’s men’s and women’s track and field teams, it was a double whammy.
When the NCAA canceled March Madness on March 12, a dozen BYU athletes were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, getting ready to compete in the 2020 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. Those same runners, throwers, jumpers and vaulters were also planning to compete for the Cougars in the outdoor season, which was canceled altogether.
“Obviously, it was very disappointing,” said head coach Ed Eyestone, recalling that gut-wrenching day. “It felt like it was unfinished business. But it was the tip of the iceberg as far as other things that were going to be occurring.”
Eyestone, the 2019 National Coach of the Year after leading BYU to its first national men’s cross country championship last fall, said the news that came when he was having lunch with some distance runners on his team that afternoon didn’t come as a total surprise.
Coaches figured the meet was in jeopardy the day before when Harvard’s president pulled three Crimson athletes who had qualified from the airport in Boston. Their fears were heightened when the Big Ten and ACC canceled their conference basketball tournaments midstream the next morning and said their athletes would not compete in the indoor nationals, either.
“We just kept telling our athletes to ‘control the controllable,’ which is our mantra,” said Eyestone, who was named the state’s collegiate coach of the year by the Utah Sports Commission as part of the Governor’s State of Sport Awards program.
A former national champion (1984) himself, Eyestone became the first person in NCAA history to win an individual championship and coach a team to a title when the BYU men’s cross country team won the 2019 NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships.
By now, thousands of fans have watched a tear-jerking video of Diljeet Taylor, BYU’s associate director of cross country and track and field, delivering the news to six women who were preparing to race and were suddenly told that they wouldn’t get the chance.
“Just know that it’s a special year; No one can take this,” Taylor said while hugging and consoling members of the distance medley relay team. “And something good is going to come out of this. Don’t give up on those dreams. They’re just delayed a little bit.”
At least until next fall.
At the team hotel, Eyestone let his athletes know via text message shortly before 3 p.m. When they gathered in the lobby for a predetermined 3 p.m. meeting, they were all wearing their team jerseys. They subsequently went on a 13-mile run along the Rio Grande River trail, just to blow off steam and as a show of team unity.
The reactions from both teams “encapsulates the feeling of both disappointment but also perseverance that our student-athletes have, and the attitude they have,” Eyestone said.
Through it all, the coach said a women’s team that was poised to post a top-10 finish and a men’s team that likely would have been among the top 15 teams handled the setback with class and maturity.
“They realized the whole world is going through a difficult time. We had a hard time wrapping our brains around the extent of it, that it would go almost two weeks later now with no sign of (ending). But I am impressed with how they have persevered.”
It was especially difficult for the women’s distance medley relay team of Whittni Orton, Alena Ellsworth, Lauren Ellsworth-Barnes (Alena’s sister) and Anna Camp-Bennett because they were ranked No. 1 and favored to claim the title. Orton was ranked No. 1 in the women’s 3,000-meter, having broken the school record last month with a time of 8 minutes, 49.63 seconds.
Pole-vaulter Elise Romney, who is married to BYU quarterback Baylor Romney, “had a chance to score some points,” Eyestone said, after she broke the school record with a height of 4.3 meters (14 feet, 1.75 inches) in January.
On the men’s side, the DMR team of Matt Owens, Michael Bluth, Colten Yardley and Garrett Marsing qualified with a time of 9:30.28 and was poised to make some noise.
Eyestone said seniors Jacob Heslington and Talem Franco were threats in the 5,000-meter and the mile, respectively. Both now face the excruciating decision of whether to return next year, with the NCAA expected to announce March 30 that it will allow spring sports athletes an extra year of eligibility.
Heslington and Franco are both married, and Heslington has a child. An engineering major, he also has a job lined up in Portland with Under Armour.
Franco is graduating in microbiology.
Another senior who has to make that decision is Brian Matthews, who finished 11th in the decathlon last year at nationals.
Erica Birk-Jarvis, the BYU All-American who interrupted her career to have a son, Jack, in 2017 and returned to dominate in distance events, was going to compete in steeplechase this spring but is now likely facing the end of her brilliant career.
“They are all having to make tough decisions and are currently weighing everything and deciding the pros and cons of sticking around, going for another year and picking up an additional minor or doing post-graduate work,” Eyestone said. “It’s a difficult decision.”
Amid very difficult times.
Correction: The story originally stated Whittni Orton broke the school record in the women’s 3,000-meter last month with a time of 10:53.95. Orton set the record with a time of 8:49.63.