Everyone would forgive BYU senior runner Whittni Orton if she felt a little bitterness about how her final year as part of the Cougar track team ended.
She was named a candidate for the 2020 Bowerman Award, presented by the USTFCCCA, had the fastest 3000-meter time in the country (8:49.6), was part of the fastest distance medley relay team in the country and set the BYU indoor records in the mile, 3000-meters, 5000-meters and was part of the distance medley relay team that set the school record.
And then everything ended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Talk about a tough blow.
But in BYU’s Athletics Annual Report that was released Monday, Orton said she has come to view things differently.
“I felt like I didn’t have anything to show for my whole year of working for hours every day and continually sacrificing,” Orton said in the annual report. “Then I looked back and realized that I had a ton to show for it. There have been a lot of hidden blessings. Working hard like that is never something you regret.”
Orton’s words probably resonate deeply with the hundreds of athletes who went through the unique series of events that ended all college athletics early and are still having a chaotic impact.
But BYU director of athletics Tom Holmoe said in his letter to Cougar Nation in the annual report that he hopes everyone realizes all of the great things that happened for the Cougars during the 2019-20 year:
“Athletically speaking, effects of the virus caused the shutdown of all sporting events throughout the WORLD!” Holmoe said in the letter. “Unfortunately, that meant winter and spring seasons in the NCAA were halted and our BYU Cougars competing at that point (Men’s Basketball, Women’s Basketball, Men’s Volleyball, Baseball, Softball, Gymnastics, Men’s and Women’s Golf, Men’s and Women’s Tennis, and Men’s and Women’s Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field) were over. I can’t imagine anyone reading this could ever have imagined such a surreal ending to a year in college sports.
“Regardless of the unprecedented ending, our Cougars had one of the best overall years in BYU Athletics history and were on track to finish the year in the Top 10 (at least!) in the Director’s Cup final standings. The final fall standings found BYU in 5th place, just 25 points out of 3rd with most of the remaining Cougar teams zeroed in on deep runs in their respective NCAA tournaments.
“I prefer not to look at this year and what it could have been; rather, I prefer to remember this unusual year as one in which most of our teams were competing with the best of the best programs in the country.”
The best moment for BYU sports came last November, when the Cougar men’s cross country team overcame the cold, muddy conditions at Terra Haute, Indiana, to win its first national championship.
“We knew it could be a great day for BYU,” Eyestone said in the report. “I’m so proud of the way the guys fought through the elements and finished the race. I think our guys proved that they are ‘mudders.’ These guys that we have on our team are tough. They overcome adversity and can compete through anything.”
Holmoe pointed out that it was the 11th national title in school history.
While that success was the pinnacle of the year, other Cougar sports also had phenomenal showings including the men’s volleyball team being ranked No. 1, the women’s cross country team coming in second at nationals, a No. 17-ranking for men’s golf, a quarterfinal run for women’s soccer and respect for the men’s basketball team that had them as a darkhorse Final Four candidate.
While the report looked back on all of the highs and lows of the last year in BYU sports, the most poignant elements were the personal quotes like Orton’s that came from athletes and coaches as they talked about dealing with the challenges they faced.
“It’s been incredible,” BYU senior men’s basketball guard Jake Toolson said in the report. “As sad as everyone is and as heartbreaking and as difficult as this situation is for everyone, we were all in this thing together. We all had so much on the line. I’ve felt the overwhelming support from the fans and have reflected on what was one of the best years ever for this program and for me personally, the best year of my life. This team was so special. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to come back and be a part of this.”
Holmoe concluded his letter by thanking Cougar fans everywhere for all of their support, saying:
“This certainly was a season to remember and not just for our student-athletes and coaches. Our beloved fans who make up the ever-growing and powerful Cougar Nation supported BYU Athletics in innumerable ways. BYU Cougar fans have earned much respect from our competitors far and wide as they continue to show up in droves anywhere in the country and especially at home contests. BYU’s home-field advantage is known by all these days and is constantly touted by visiting media. What a tribute to the best fan base in America!”
“Not only do our fans show up in support of our Cougs, they generously give the much-needed financial backing that paves the way for our teams’ success. I would hug y’all if I could (social distancing?), but in the meantime, please feel my deepest and most sincere thanks for all you do for BYU Athletics. We are not done. We will fight back from this forced “timeout” and return Loyal, Strong & True to our dear fans.