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‘All in’: BYU men, women target top spots in NCAA cross-country championships

Talented Cougars teams will run for podium finishes in Monday’s national title race.

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BYU distance runner Conner Mantz poses at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.

BYU distance runner Conner Mantz poses at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. Mantz will be among the BYU contingent competing in Monday’s NCAA Cross-Country Championships, and could contend for the title.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Ed Eyestone, the longtime BYU cross-country coach, has a photo on his phone screen showing the celebration at the 2019 NCAA championships — a shot of himself and women’s coach Diljeet Taylor holding trophies. BYU placed first in the men’s race that day and second in the women’s race. It was a rare feat.

“It was a good day for us,” said Eyestone. “And we could swap places this year. I’ll be on the front row cheering for them.”

The men’s team is ranked No. 1 and the women’s team No. 2 heading into Monday’s “2020” NCAA championships, which were postponed last fall. The race will be televised nationally live from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and only BYU and Arkansas are listed among the contenders for national titles in both races.

XC sider 1

NCAA cross-country rankings


1. BYU

2. Northern Arizona

3. Arkansas

4. Tulsa

5. Stanford

19. Utah State

33. Southern Utah

34. Weber State


1. Arkansas

2. BYU

3. North Carolina State

4. Stanford

5. New Mexico

26. Utah

35. Weber State

The Cougars have, in Eyestone’s words, gone “all in” for these championships. Because the NCAA rescheduled the cross-country championships just two days after the NCAA indoor track championships, many top distance runners are skipping the indoor meet because there is not enough recovery time between the competitions. BYU’s Conner Mantz, Casey Clinger and Brandon Garnica have the three fastest times in the world in the track this year in the 5,000-meter run, but will contest only the cross-country meet (Mantz also has the nation’s third fastest time in the 3,000-meter run). They’ll have fresh legs for the hilly, 10,000-meter race in Stillwater.

It is a measure of the depth of the BYU men’s program that Eyestone returns only two runners from the seven-man team that won the 2019 national championship, and yet his team is ranked No. 1 again. His top three runners are Utah natives. BYU’s lineup:

• Conner Mantz — He placed third in the 2019 race and has had a brilliant season so far, setting a school record in the 5,000-meter run at a school that has a rich tradition of distance running.

• Casey Clinger — He was only a step behind Mantz during his record 5,000-meter run. He was serving a church mission when the Cougars won the 2019 championship.

• Brandon Garnica — He was 42nd in the 2019 championships, narrowly missing All-America honors, and he was only a step behind Mantz and Clinger in that record 5,000-meter run. His identical twin brother Caleb won the Mountain West cross-country championships recently for Utah State.

• Elijah Armstrong had a sensational high school career and originally signed with Boise State. He transferred to BYU and, in Eyestone’s words, “he’s trending upward.”

• Clayson Shuman — He earned All-America honors in track and cross-country early in his career, but has struggled to regain form this season after an injury. He’s the team’s X-factor. If he were to regain his form, the Cougars would be difficult to beat.

• Aiden Troutner — Only a freshman, he was the 2017 Nike national cross-country champion and returned from a church mission last year.

• Ethan Cannon — He earned his way on the team after walking on and competing for the program’s “farm team” the last couple of years.

BYU is ranked No. 1, but according to Eyestone many insiders believe the favorite is Northern Arizona, which lost the Big Sky Conference championship to Southern Utah while holding out some of its top runners. BYU has split two meetings with NAU — winning one while the NAU’s top runner, Luis Grijalva, skipped the race, and losing the other while BYU held out some of its top runners.

xc sider 2

BYU’s lineups for the NCAA cross-country championships


Conner Mantz, Jr., Smithfield

Casey Clinger, So., American Fork

Brandon Garnica, Jr., Springville

Elijah Armstrong, Sr., Pocatello, Idaho

Clayson Shumway, Sr., Colorado Springs, Colorado

Aidan Troutner, Fr., Provo

Ethan Cannon, So., Medford, Oregon

Alternate: Zack Ericksen, So., Cedar Hills


Whittni Orton, Sr., Panguitch

Anna Camp, Sr., Fillmore

Aubrey Frentheway, Jr., Cheyenne, Wyoming

Lexie Halladay, Fr., Boise, Idaho

Sarah Musselman, Sr., American Fork

Mckenna Lee, Jr., North Ogden

Haley Johnston, Jr., Elk Ridge

Alternate: Anna Martin, Fr., Lehi

“We’re in a good place,” said Eyestone. “We realize we might be underdogs, but we always run best when we’re underdogs.” His team’s theme this year: “DOT” — defend our title.

Mantz’s two chief rivals for the individual title are expected to be Grijalva, a senior from Guatemala, and Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo, a junior from Kenya. Mantz and several of his teammates beat Grijalva in the 2019 championships, but the latter has been on a tear this season. NAU also has freshman Nico Young, who has run well after a sensational high school career, but Mantz beat him this season.

“We are going to need five All-Americans (top 40) to win, because NAU will do that,” said Eyestone. “Mantz might be able to beat Grijalva and Young, but then if they’re second and third. …”

BYU’s women’s team is expected to mount a serious challenge to top-ranked Arkansas in the 6,000-meter championship race. The X-factor is Whittni Orton, a senior from Panguitch. She’s been injured this season and hasn’t competed in a single race, but she is going to enter the NCAA race nonetheless.

Orton is the most talented runner on a talented team, but injuries have dogged her throughout her collegiate career. She was hampered by injuries in each of her first three seasons at BYU with four different stress reactions in her bones (defined as precursors to stress fractures in which the bone is in the process of breaking down). There was one in her left foot, one in her right foot, one in her left tibia and one in her right femur. Each required her to quit running for six to eight weeks.

Then last season she managed to remain healthy and produced a dream indoor season on the track — four school records, in the mile, 3,000, 5,000 and distance medley relay, plus the fastest time in the nation in the 3,000, the second fastest in the mile and fourth fastest in the 5,000. She was a favorite to win a national championship, but never got the chance. The NCAA championships were canceled because of the pandemic.

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

As fate would have it, this season she has had another stress reaction in her foot. Until recently, she was forced to do her training in a pool and on a stationary bicycle and elliptical machine. For most runners, specificity of training is critical before stepping on the track for training, but Eyestone says she has a rare ability to perform at a high level with alternate forms of training. Orton was seventh in the 2019 cross-country championships, just behind teammates Courtney Wayment and Erica Birk. The three of them finished within two-tenths of a second of each other. 

“She has been back training (running) for a couple of weeks,” Taylor said of Orton. “She’s not a full strength. We know that. She’s not at her best. She will give her best, though, and her best effort is dang good.”

It is quite an undertaking, though, for Orton to attempt her first race of the season at the national championships. Orton has eligibility remaining in track, but it’s possible she will turn to the pro ranks before she uses all of it.

The BYU women have risen to national prominence since Diljeet Taylor was hired as coach in 2016. During the six previous years before Taylor arrived, the Cougars failed to qualify for cross-country nationals three times and finished 28th, 28th and 23rd the other years. During Taylor’s first four years they finished 11th, seventh, 10th and second. On Monday they are expected to challenge Arkansas again for the national title.

“We are very young,” said Taylor. “We don’t have a lot of kids who have had national championship experience. I’m very impressed with how they have stepped into these new roles.”  

Five of BYU’s seven entries are from Utah, and three of those are from tiny towns. Monday’s lineup:  

• Whittni Orton — As noted, she’s been injured and her fitness is a complete mystery. Monday’s championship will be her first race of the season.

• Anna Camp — She was 60th out of 254 entries in the 2019 race. She has good speed, as attested by her 2:03.65 800-meter time on the track.

• Aubrey Frentheway — She has risen to become one of the top performers and finished second in the West Coast Conference championships last month.

• Lexy Halladay — A 5-foot-11 freshman, she is new to the collegiate championships but she did place fourth in the 2018 Nike nationals.

• Sarah Musselman — She has national championship experience. She was the team’s seventh finisher in the 2019 race and has improved since then. She was 22nd in the tough NCAA Mountain Region championships.

• Mckenna Lee — She was seventh in the conference championships. 

• Haley Johnston — Taylor waited until the middle of the week to decide whether Johnston or freshman Anna Martin would be given the seventh spot on the team. Martin is the alternate.

It’s an inexperienced but formidable lineup. “We haven’t seen what we can do,” said Taylor.