BYU head men’s cross country coach Ed Eyestone had a simple message for his runners as the Cougars prepared for the 2019 NCAA championships in Terre Haute, Indiana, on Nov. 23:

Win your race.

“If you can identify what race it is that you need to run and then run and win that race, then good things happen,” Eyestone said. “That’s a great analogy for life as well. Don’t worry about running someone else’s race but identify and run the race you are in and win it.”

He wanted to make it very clear to each of his runners — sophomore Conner Mantz, senior Danny Carney, senior Jacob Heslington, sophomore Brandon Garnica and junior Matt Owens — what their individual expectations were because that would give the team the best chance for overall success.

“We went specifically with our No. 1 through No. 5 runners what that race was,” Eyestone said in an interview last week. “Conner Mantz was 10th-place last year and he is a better athlete, so winning his race would be battling for a Top 3 spot. Our second man was 22nd, so for Jake or Danny, whichever it was, their race was to be battling for the top 12-to-15 spots. They weren’t concerned with Mantz’s race but just with their race, to beat those guys. Our No. 4 and No. 5 we felt like they could be in the Top 40 or 50. Rather than worrying about man-ing up with another team, we just did our own thing.”

His No. 3-seeded BYU athletes took that to heart as they got ready to compete against top opponents like No. 1-seed Northern Arizona (the three-time defending champs) and No. 2-seed Colorado.

“We were focused on doing our best because we knew we could do our best and win it — or we could do our best and take third,” Cougar senior Conner Mantz said. “We weren’t focusing so much on the result but instead we were focusing on the process.”

Starting out

Just a few months ago, being in position to compete again for a national title seemed like it might be asking a lot of the this BYU men’s cross country squad.

“We believed we could do it last year and we believed we could do it two years ago,” Mantz said. “This year we lost three cross-country All-Americans and a track national champion. To lose those guys made you wonder if it was even possible that we could come back and win. But we had a lot of guys step up big time. When you think about all the sacrifices that were made since last year, many people on our team believed it was possible if we had our best day.”

Eyestone realized early on, however, that 2019 wasn’t going to be just a rebuilding year.

“I had a special feeling all the way back at camp the week before school started,” he said. “The guys weren’t going to be content with that. We still had some really good guys, including our No. 1 runner in Conner Mantz and other guys who had been All-Americans in track. So why not re-tool and make the most out of this year. There was almost a naivete, being dumb enough to believe it was possible even though on paper it didn’t look like it was.”

Owens said that the team started coming together before the year even began. The Cougars had a tradition of growing mustaches for the NCAA championships but he decided to take it a step further.

“I put a long social media post together about how I was shaving, but not my mustache because I was committed to the team,” Owens said. “I feel like that kind of got the ball rolling where a lot of people did a lot of little things to show team unity and camaraderie in a way that hadn’t been done before. One of the things that I love about this team was that everyone was just trying to be the best they could be because a lot of guys didn’t have a big name. It was a group of guys trying to earn their stripes. Each of us were very individually motivated to be the best we could be.”

The first competitions, however, showed some room for growth.

“It was an interesting season because we didn’t start off that great,” Eyestone said. “We got beat by Oregon at their home invitational, a meet we kind of thought we would win. We went, well, maybe we aren’t that good. Maybe this is a rebuilding year.”

But the BYU runners just got stronger from that early setback, buying in to what the Cougar coaches wanted them to do and continuing to improve.

“We had the tools to work with,” Eyestone said. “It ultimately came down to trying to make the right calls late in the season in terms of who we ran at the conference meet, who we were going to put in at the regional meet which is just eight days prior to the national meet and then who we would put in fresh at nationals.”

Third is first

The regional meet at Rose Park in Salt Lake City on Nov. 15 turned out to be a defining moment — not because of the results but because of the Cougar execution.

“The regional meet is almost like the first round of the NCAA tournament, like a semifinal,” Eyestone said. “We intentionally made the decision to not win regionals but to rest two guys and then put them in at nationals. We gave orders to our top three guys to run within themselves, not strain anything and just advance.”

It might seem counterintuitive for a team of competitive athletes to not go for the top at regionals but BYU had the overall picture in mind.

“We said third is first,” Eyestone said. “We’ve tried this in the past but when we don’t win the regionals, then guys feel like maybe we are down. They needed to understand that getting third was winning, advancing was winning.”

Eyestone added that the results kept the Cougar runners humble and hungry.

“They actually kind of took a hit at the regional meet,” Eyestone said. “It was nearly at home, being in Salt Lake City. Near the end, the Northern Arizona guys just went off at a dead sprint. Mantz was looking around like, ‘oh, I want to do that but Coach told me to hold back.’ We just wanted to do what was necessary to advance and then keep some juice for the final. We fell one ranking from second to third and so we weren’t really talked about. We could go in under the radar a little bit.”

Owens ended up spending regionals watching from the sidelines.

“Garnica and I were held out of regionals the week before because No. 4 and No. 5 is where you can swing the most points,” Owens said. “Five seconds at No. 5 could be 10 spots. I was working to only run enough to make sure I could run while resting and tapering. I ran very little the week of nationals and it felt fantastic.”

Even so, he knew that the challenge would be a tough one when BYU took on the top teams in the country.

“I told a lot of people that there was an 80% chance that NAU would win and a 20% chance that we would win,” Owens said. “We knew the stars could align and we could end up winning nationals.”

Off and running

On the day of the race, Eyestone said he knew it was important for the Cougars to have a strong start.

“They rise to the occasion,” Eyestone said. “Our No. 1 thing was to get out well, especially when we knew it was going to be muddy. We were on the far, far right of the starting line. That’s not necessarily an advantage, especially if you get out poorly. It’s hard in slop to move up when you have guys slipping and sliding around. We managed that by putting Matt Owens, who is our fastest open guy, on the inside. His duty was to run hard. He is a bigger guy so he was going to muscle the guys to his inside and have the other guys follow him out to establish good position.”

Mantz said he was pleased with the beginning, but not the conditions of the course.

“Every national championship I’ve wanted to put myself in it and try to get the individual national championship,” Mantz said. “It hasn’t happened yet but I went out and I got in good position. I slowly moved up to right behind the leaders. The rain and the course conditions really took a toll on me early on and I wasn’t expecting that. I’m not great in the mud. I was in a pack of guys and there were points in the race when I was hurting earlier on than I usually do. I just wanted to stay in it as much as I could. I knew the team was looking at me to do well. A bad day wasn’t an option.”

Meanwhile Owens was trying to do his job for BYU as well.

“The race was crazy early on,” Owens said. “I got out well so I noted all of the guys who passed me. When the fourth or fifth NAU guy passed me, I knew I was our fifth guy. I had four teammates in front of me, so I had to stay with this guy. But I was kind of scared of the 10K because I’d never run it before. I was trying to be relaxed but not let the NAU guy go. My personal mission was to beat the NAU guy because then I did my part of making sure we were doing better than the NAU team.”

As Owens pounded out the kilometers, however, he found himself in trouble.

“At the 8K mark, which was the furthest I had ever raced before, I was hurting pretty bad and was in a pretty dark place,” Owens said. “I wasn’t confident I could keep that pace. But a couple of guys started yelling at me. They didn’t tell me that we were winning by a lot. They yelled, ‘If you beat that guy, we win!’ I stuck with the pack and caught another guy from their team. I’ve always been confident in my kick so with 500 or 600 meters left I picked it up. I feel like it is a different muscle group because I started feeling fresh sprinting in. I ended up catching their fourth-best runner down the stretch.”

Mantz may not have achieved his personal objective of winning individually but he wasn’t going to let himself fall very far.

“The goal on my locker was third place because my best finish had been fourth,” Mantz said. “I pushed so hard at the end because I wanted to accomplish that goal. I’ve never fought that hard in a race. I just really wanted to fight for every single spot and it turned out well.”

Eyestone said he was trying to keep track of how all the runners were doing.

“I got the readout at 3K that we were up by 40 points,” Eyestone said. “That’s always nice but it can also backfire if you went out too hard. But to the naked eye as I was running from point to point, I saw my guys before I saw the core of NAU or Colorado. It seemed like we were still in that position.”

But technology let Eyestone down as he tried to keep track of the live race results.

“It was so wet that I could no longer get updates on my phone,” Eyestone said. “I was kind of left in the dark. My director of operations, Isaac Wood, had some of the same issues but got his to work. I saw him after 8K and he said, ‘We’re 40 up. We’re going to win this thing!’ I wanted to make sure we got them in. It was so cold that I was nervous Mantz might go down with hypothermia.”

It turned out to be a valid concern, Mantz said.

“I was so cold,” Mantz said. “I wasn’t thinking when I was talking. I was shivering uncontrollably so they took me to the medical tent. They put a lot of blankets and heaters on me. I was just trying to warm back up but I was so cold at the awards that it felt like a dream. It was a good dream because we won but it was like I didn’t know what was going on.”

Mantz came in at 30:40.0, while Carney (31:05.7) and Heslington (31:10.5) both finished as All-Americans in 17th and 21st, respectively. Garnica finished 42nd (31:21.3) and Owens was 45th (31:25.4).

Title impact

It took a little time for the reality of the national title to set in.

“I almost felt like I couldn’t bask in the joy of it at all because I was so cold and exhausted,” Owens said. “Monday was the first day it set in that we had done something amazing.”

It was a similar experience for Eyestone.

“Initially it was a little surreal,” Eyestone said. “We got it and we were having fun. I checked my phone and there were like 145 texts. I thought was going to be up all night answering those things. I think it has set in now. It’s a nice feeling, a feeling of satisfaction.”

It might seem that a coach with Eyestone’s experience would see this as a pinnacle of his career but he doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

“It’s not that the other 18 or 19 years that I’ve done this have been any less rewarding,” Eyestone said. “You get to work with student-athletes. Sometimes the seasons end on a high because you exceeded expectations and sometimes they end up on a little bit of letdown. It’s nice that we exceeded expectations and finally climbed to the top of the mountain peak. But I’ll have seasons in the future where we aren’t going to finish as high but still accomplishing some of those things. Anytime you set a worthy goal, work hard and come close to achieving it, then you can hold your head high regardless.”

Eyestone — who was named the USTFCCCA 2019 National Coach of the Year — does have the distinction of being the first coach to have won an individual NCAA title (he won in 1984) and be the head coach of an NCAA champion team.

“That’s a pretty small pool in the first place,” Eyestone said. “I take that with a grain of salt but it is different. It was 35 years ago that I won it myself but in some ways I still feel like that 23-year-old that won it at Penn State University. Both as a runner and as a coach, I was representing BYU. Both times I had a great complement of coaches and trainers and support staff who helped. Both times I felt like it was a team win. This time all of the guys were able to win the national championship. Doing it as a coach allows you to see the joy in the faces of your athletes, realize that is something they can never take away from them.”

He said the 2019 Cougar squad taught him the value of chasing dreams, no matter what the odds are.

“I’m going to take the importance of belief and continuing to do hard work,” Eyestone said. “You have to give yourself a chance sometimes. You want to have realistic expectations but don’t limit them. I think we did a very good job of not limiting ourselves even though we didn’t have a firm history of cross country with these guys.”

Daily Herald sports reporter Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.

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