The BYU women’s cross country team was just barely missed winning the 2019 national championship, coming in second a mere six points behind Arkansas.
In 2021, the Cougars left no doubt.
BYU overpowered the women’s cross country field Monday in the 6-kilometer race at the 2020 NCAA Cross Country Championships at the OSU Cross Country Course in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
The Cougars had five runners finish between 9th and 34th, earning a final point total of 96. That was 65 points better than the second-place team, North Carolina State, which finished with 161 points.
“I’m extremely proud, proud of these women,” BYU head women’s cross country coach Diljeet Taylor told ESPN after the final tally was announced. “This is a different set of women but to do what we did in indoor (at the indoor national championships over the weekend) and then to race like they did today, I’m proud and humbled to be their coach.”
The top BYU finisher was senior Anna Camp, who finished 11th overall (ninth in the team competition) with a time of 20:28.3. She was followed by sophomore Aubrey Frentheway, who was 15th overall (12th in the team competition) at 20:34.9.
Cougar senior Whittni Orton rallied from an injury this season and was the pace-setter for much of the race and had a slight lead after five kilometers before dropping back. She ended up 17th overall (14th in the team competition) finishing at 20:35.6.
“This feels really good,” Orton told ESPN as the team celebrated the victory. “I can’t believe it.”
She said it had been a roller-coaster year as she attempted to rally from the injury.
“It’s been insane,” Orton said. “I had a little injury that pushed me back. I only had a few weeks to get ready to be here. It’s been very unreal.”
Camp told ESPN that Orton’s nickname is “Gritty Whitti” and that was shown by how Orton ran on Monday.
The other two Cougar runners who rounded out the top five were senior Sara Musselman (20:51.3, 33rd overall, 27th in the team competition) and junior McKenna Lee (20:59.9, 41st overall, 34th team).
Taylor told ESPN that the team mentality of the BYU squad was tremendously valuable and helped the Cougars to victory.
“You talk about how they are running for something than bigger than themselves and when they buy into that, then they feel like they can win,” Taylor told ESPN. “That’s when you see the magic happen. We’ve seen that happen this year.”
She said she had a good feeling about what the BYU athletes were capable of on Sunday night.
“I told them to be gold-diggers,” Taylor said with a grin. “They went out and dug deep. Now we’ve got a trophy. I’m so happy!”
The No. 1-ranked BYU team wasn’t able to defend its national title by Cougar junior Conner Mantz made history in the individual competition.
He exploded over the last 1,000 meters of the 10-kilometer race, opening up a huge gap between himself and the rest of the field.
He was able to cruise across the finish line, finishing in a time of 29:26.1. That was more than 22 seconds faster than the second-place finisher, Adriaan Wildschutt of Florida State.
He became the first American-born runner to win the NCAA men’s cross country title since 2008. He is also the first Cougar to win the title since Josh Rohatinsky won in 2006.
He said it took some strategy to get the job done.
“Early on I could tell that the pace was pretty quick, although I didn’t know how quick,” Mantz told ESPN. “I knew that it was way too quick on a hilly course. I held back a bit and made sure I could finish strong. Wildschutt came up next to me and said that we can catch these guys if we worked together. I had been dying in the wind, so he took the wind for a couple hundred meters and then I took it. We caught up and then it was a battle between the three of us.”
He said he ended up making his last push a little earlier than he intended to.
“At around the 8.5-kilometer mark someone yelled that I had a second lead,” Mantz told ESPN. “I decided that it was time and started to go. I looked back at the end because I’ve seen 100 meter leads disappear and I was hurting so bad. I was happy to hold on.”
That was the highlight for the Cougar men, who struggled to stay with the top teams and ended up in seventh place overall.
Only one other BYU runner, sophomore Casey Clinger, finished in the Top 75 overall. Clinger came in 13th overall in a time of 30:19.8.
Mantz said that the entire Cougar squad played a part in helping him get the individual title.
“We weren’t able to have our best day as a team, so I’m glad I was able to win the individual title,” Mantz told ESPN. “A win for one of us is a win for all of us. Having my team on my mind helped me fight through.”
UVU also had two participants in the championship races.
Maddie Bench Empey, a junior, became UVU’s first female runner to compete at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. She ended up in 136th place out of 256 competitors, finishing the 6K course in a time of 21:45.6.
Britain Reynolds, who is also a junior, was the four Wolverine to compete in the men’s 10K race. He finished 156th out of 251 runners with a time of 32:18.2.
“The meet went really well,” UVU head coach Scott Houle said in a press release. “I’m proud of both Maddie and Britain for getting out and racing smart and finishing right in the thick of things. I’m pleased with the places that they both finished in, and the best part is that they both will return for us next year.”