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‘It was a great day for BYU’: How the Cougar women finished first at NCAA Cross-Country Championships and Conner Mantz won an individual title

During a windy day and over a hilly course, BYU runners turned in a stellar performance Monday, highlighted by the women’s team victory and an individual title for Conner Mantz

Members of the BYU women’s cross-country team and coach Diljeet Taylor pose with their hardware after winning the NCAA Cross-Country Championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma, Monday, March 15, 2021.
BYU Photo

On a windy day and a hilly course in Stillwater, Oklahoma, BYU produced one of the most memorable days in its rich history of distance running. After dropping off the early pace, Conner Mantz rallied to win the men’s individual title at the NCAA Cross-Country Championships, and the women, with a gritty performance from Whittni Orton, won the team championship.

The day was not without disappointment for the Cougars. The men’s team, ranked No. 1 in the country and the defending champion, finished only seventh with 254 points. One of its top runners collapsed about 200 meters from the finish, which cost BYU about 100 points. Northern Arizona won its fourth title in five years, with four runners in the top eight and five in the top 40, for a point total of 60.

BYU’s women didn’t just win the team competition; they routed the field. It was more lopsided than the Super Bowl. The Cougars won by 65 points — the biggest margin since 2012. Score it BYU 96, North Carolina State 161, Stanford 207. BYU also scored 96 points in the 2019 championships but finished second, just six points behind Arkansas.

In Monday’s women’s race, the Cougars didn’t have a single runner finish in the top 10, but five finished in the top 41 — Anna Camp 11th, Aubrey Frentheway 15th, Whittni Orton 17th, Sara Musselman 33rd and McKenna Lee 41st. Only two of those runners scored for BYU in 2019.

“It’s a different team,” said coach Diljeet Taylor. “It was a total team effort. I’m speechless. I’ve been waiting for Anna Camp to run like that for five years. She always had it. She finally put it together. I texted her last night and said, ‘I believe in you.’ And she replied, ‘I trust you.’ That’s a good combination. She was willing to push when it got hard and it was hard. It was hard for everyone on that (hilly) course.”

For the BYU women, ranked No. 2 heading into the meet, the cross-country championships came just two days after they finished seventh in the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. In that meet Courtney Wayment won the 3,000-meter race and teamed with Alena and Lauren Ellsworth and Olivia Simister to win the distance medley relay with the second fastest time in collegiate history. All 29 of the team’s points came from the distance and middle-distance events. The Cougars’ depth is impressive. The team that Taylor sent to the track championships was completely different than the team she sent to the cross-country championships.

Monday was a big day for other Utah schools, as well. In the men’s race, Southern Utah finished ninth, two places behind BYU, and Utah State was 11th. Mantz and teammates Casey Clinger (13th), Utah State’s Caleb Garnica (28th) and Southern Utah’s Christian Ricketts (31st) earned All-America honors. On the women’s side, Weber’s Summer Allen (7th) and Utah’s Poppy Tank (27th) joined BYU’s Camp, Frentheway, Orton and Musselman to earn All-American honors. According to the U.S. Track Coaches and Cross Country Coaches Association, Utah qualified more native runners for these championships than all but three states — California 40, Colorado 40, Michigan 39, Utah 35, North Carolina 33, Texas 32, Washington 30. Seven of the state’s 10 All-Americans are Utah natives.

Nobody turned in a grittier performance Monday than Orton. A foot injury sidelined her throughout the season. She didn’t start running until 30 days ago and did only four high-quality workouts. Most of her training was on a stationary bike or in the pool, which normally isn’t specific enough to allow runners to step right back into high-quality competition, but Orton did just that. This was her first race of the year. Taylor had urged her to be patient and not to push the early pace, but, as the coach would later say, “That’s who she is. She doesn’t know how to be patient. She’s going to leave 100% on the course.”

Orton ran with the front pack, and at the halfway mark she actually took the lead. She was still leading at 4,000 meters, and she was still leading at 5,000 meters, showing why her teammates nicknamed her “Gritty Whitti.” But Orton, the school record holder in four races on the track and the seventh-place finisher in the 2019 cross-country championships, finally began to fade as she climbed the hills late in the race. She dropped from first to 17th over the final 1,000 meters.

“She’s not at her best; we know that,” said Taylor. “Maybe on a flatter course she would’ve been able to maintain that pace. But on a hilly course like today, the demands are great on the body. She just hasn’t done the anaerobic training. But she was able to create enough of a gap that she didn’t give up a gob of points when she was passed.”

The past few days confirmed Taylor’s impact on the women’s program in just five years, as she has restored the team’s prominence in collegiate distance running. The Cougars won NCAA cross-country championships in 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2002, but then went into steep decline. During the six years before Taylor arrived, the Cougars failed even to qualify for the championships three times and finished 28th, 28th and 23rd the other years. Taylor’s teams have finished, in order, 11th, seventh, 10th, second and first.

“This is what I came for,” said Taylor. “To build something great. Sometimes the outcome doesn’t show what you’ve built, but today it did.”

BYU’s Ed Eyestone has built a powerhouse on the men’s team, as well. The Cougars entered these championships ranked No. 1 and had finished seventh, third, second and first in the four previous championships. They were in good position to stand on the podium again until disaster struck late in the race.

Brandon Garnica, whose identical twin brother Caleb finished 28th for Utah State, was BYU’s No. 2 runner late in the race and seemed likely to place in the top 15, but with about 200 meters to go he collapsed. The top five runners from each team count toward scoring; since Garnica didn’t finish the race that meant BYU’s fifth scoring runner was sixth-man Elijah Armstrong in 118th place — about a 100-point swing.

BYU distance runner Conner Mantz competes in the NCAA Cross-Country Championships Monday, March 15, 2021, in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Mantz finished first in the men’s race.
BYU Photo

Mantz, a junior from Smithfield, of course knew none of this during the race. Known for his aggressive style of running, he followed Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo, another aggressive runner, from the beginning. Kiptoo, who won the 5,000-meter race in the indoor track championships three days earlier, pushed a blistering early pace and Mantz followed, leaving the rest of the field behind. But when he saw the split time on a digital screen at 3,000 meters, Mantz backed off the pace, eventually falling to fourth place, as Kiptoo forged ahead in the fierce winds.

“It was way too quick,” said Mantz. “I knew I couldn’t hang onto that pace.”

“That was a very smart decision, very savvy,” said Eyestone.

Mantz still reached 5,000 meters — the halfway mark — in a quick 14:12. Eventually, Adriaan Wildschutt of Florida State pulled up alongside Mantz. “Hey, man, we can catch those guys,” he told Mantz. Mantz replied, “I don’t know, man,” and then asked Wildschutt to lead him through the wind while he gathered himself. Thereafter, they took turns leading the other, much as cyclists do, and together they battled their way back to the small group of frontrunners at about 6,000 meters.

“Once Mantz got with (Wildschutt) they were able to bridge the gap,” said Eyestone.

Just after 7,000 meters, Mantz pulled up on Kiptoo’s shoulder. The latter threw in a brief surge, but Mantz hung on. With 1,000 meters to go, Mantz made a big move and gapped Kiptoo, who began to pay for his fast early pace (he would finish third, behind Wildschutt). Someone yelled at Mantz that he had one and a half seconds on the second runner. Mantz decided it was time to make another surge and his lead widened. It soon became clear no one would catch him, but he wasn’t sure. About 300 meters from the finish, Mantz took a long look over his left shoulder to gauge the competition.

“I’ve seen 100-meter leads fade before, and I was hurting so bad,” he would say.

Mantz finished with a time of 29:26.1, with Wildschutt second in 29:48.2.

“When Kiptoo made his move (early in the race) I thought I was going to have to fight for fifth place,” Mantz said afterward. “I was very fortunate to have a second wind.”

Mantz is BYU’s first NCAA cross-country champion since Josh Rohatinsky won it in 2006. Eyestone, Mantz’s coach, won the championship in 1984.

“I’m excited for Mantz,” said Eyestone. “That was huge. It was a great day for BYU, for coach Taylor and Mantz.” Disappointed by his team’s showing, he said, “The course won today. Losing our third guy, that hurt. Suddenly, we added a lot of points.”


Women’s 6K individual results, Utah schools

Place Name School Time
Place Name School Time
7 Summer Allen Weber State 20:23.3
11 Anna Camp BYU 20:28.3
14 Aubrey Frentheway BYU 20:34.9
17 Whittni Orton BYU 20:35.6
27 Poppy Tank Utah 20:45.9
33 Sara Musselman BYU 20:51.3
41 McKenna Lee BYU 20:59.9
43 Katie Struthers Utah State 21:01.6
50 Alison Pray Southern Utah 21:04.4
115 Haley Johnston BYU 21:38.0
136 Maddie Empey Utah Valley 21:45.6
184 Lexy Halladay BYU 22:14.6

Men’s 10K individual results, Utah schools

Place Name School Time
Place Name School Time
1 Connor Mantz BYU 29:26.1
13 Casey Clinger BYU 30:19.8
28 Caleb Garnica Utah State 30:31.2
31 Christian Ricketts Southern Utah 30:37.9
42 Camren Todd Utah State 30:50.2
48 Nate Osterstock Southern Utah 31:00.3
52 Stefen Rasmuson Southern Utah 31:02.1
83 Ethan Cannon BYU 31:22.0
84 Clayson Shumway BYU 31:23.7
88 Aidan Reed Southern Utah 31:24.5
92 Haydon Cooper Utah State 31:28.5
97 Isaiah Labra Southern Utah 31:32.1
108 Bridger Altice Utah State 31:35.6
115 Travis Feeny Southern Utah 31:39.4
118 Elijah Armstrong BYU 31:40.3
125 Aidan Troutner BYU 31:54.1
137 Taylor Dillon Weber State 32:04.3
138 Spencer Nelson Utah State 32:05.5
140 Santiago Gaitan Southern Utah 32:06.4
156 Britan Reynolds Utah Valley 32:18.2
161 Darren Harman Utah State 32:20.6
176 Mark Crandall Utah State 32:29.6
DNF Brandon Garnica BYU