(15-Mar) -- At today's pandemic-delayed NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the women of Brigham Young and the men of Northern Arizona were decisive winners in the team competition with 96 and 60 points, respectively, while the individual titles went to Mercy Chelangat of Alabama and Connor Mantz of Brigham Young. These championships --held in warm, sunny and windy weather just two days after the completion of the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas-- were originally scheduled for November 21, 2020, and had never before been held in the winter. A total of 253 women and 237 men finished today's races.
BYU WOMEN HAD SUPERIOR DEPTH
PHOTO: The BYU Cougars accept their trophy for winning the 41st NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships for women (photo courtesy of BYU Track & XC)
With the unprecedented back-to-back scheduling of the indoor and cross country championships in the first quarter of 2021, BYU coach Diljeet Taylor divided her distance squad between those student-athletes who would focus on indoors and those who would focus on cross. At the indoor meet, Courtney Wayment anchored the Cougar women to victory in the distance medley relay on Friday, then took the individual title in the 3000m on Saturday. She, nor 800m runner Claire Seymour (5th place), milers Kate Hunter and Heather Hanson (6th and 10th place), and 3000m runner Olivia Hoj (7th place/also lead-off leg in the DMR), ran in Stillwater today.
Instead, the BYU women who competed today came out on fresh legs, led by senior Whittni Orton who finished seventh at the last edition of these championships in 2019. Orton, who only had about six weeks to prepare due to an injury, went straight to the front today, making a statement that BYU came to win. She was the overall race leader at 3-kilometers (10:06.2), part of a big lead pack of 26 women which also included Alabama's Chelangat and Amaris Tyynismaa, Oklahoma State's Taylor Roe, Northern Arizona's Taryn O'Neill, and North Carolina State's Hannah Steelman and Katelyn Tuohy. Tuohy, a freshman, was making her NCAA Cross Country Championships debut.
Running on the golden Bermuda grass of the Oklahoma State cross country course, Orton looked strong and held the lead through 4-K (13:21.4) and 5-K (16:43.2), but she was actually hurting. In the last kilometer of the 6-kilometer race she began to struggle. Despite pushing herself, she fell 16 places and finished 17th.
"They're running for something bigger than themselves," Coach Taylor pointed out in her post-race interview on ESPNU. "When you can get women to buy into that and step on the line empowered and strong, really in their hearts feeling like they can win, that is when you see magic happen."
Chelangat, who won the SEC Cross Country Championships last fall, pounced when Orton faltered, and quickly broke away from the field. Tyynismaa gave chase, as did Stanford's Ella Donaghu, Oklahoma State's Roe, the Air Force Academy's Mahala Norris, who had finished fourth in the 5000m at the indoor championships last Thursday. Chelangat, who did not run in the indoor meet, was a clear winner in 20:01.1. Roe got second in 20:06.7, Tyynismaa third in 20:10.2, Norris fourth in 20:11.8, and Steelman fifth in 20:14.9. Stanford's Donaghu, who finished second at the Pac-12 Conference Championships on March 5, finished tenth.
Chelangat had qualified for the indoor championships in both the 3000m and the 5000m, but Alabama distance coach Will Palmer asked her if she would skip the indoor meet and instead focus on cross country. She was happy to do it and became the first-ever woman from Alabama to win the individual NCAA title.
"When they asked me I was just like yeah, I'm going to go with cross country because I personally love cross country," Chelangat said. "I think that was the right decision that I made."
Behind the top five, BYU's Anna Camp and Aubrey Frentheway actually passed Orton to finish 11th and 15th, respectively. Behind Orton, Sara Musselman finished 33rd and McKenna Lee in 41st. The BYU quintet beat runner-up North Carolina State by 65 points. Stanford finished third with 207 points.
"It was such an unknown year of what was even going on," said Anna Camp, a senior. "We had two different teams, one competed in indoors and one in cross. It's just amazing. These girls are the best."
The BYU women are no strangers to the winner's circle. The Cougars also won in 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2002, and they were the runners-up to the Arkansas Razorbacks in 2019. Arkansas finished tenth today, exhausted after winning the team title at the indoor championships.
NORTHERN ARIZONA MEN GET BACK ON TOP
PHOTO: The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks accept their trophy for winning the 83rd NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships for men (photo courtesy of NAU Track & XC)
At the last edition of these championships in 2019, the Lumberjacks of the University of Northern Arizona finished second to Brigham Young, 109 to 163. Since then head coach Mike Smith and his team have been thinking of little else than getting back on top. His team had won in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and it hurt to have that streak broken.
"Man, I've been sick to my stomach for a year now," senior Blaise Ferro said. "Like, seeing that title go home with someone other than us last year was really heartbreaking. It's got a way of literally making you sick."
With the team title their only goal, the NAU men used a disciplined approach and ran together for most of the 10-kilometer race. When Wesley Kiptoo of Iowa State took off from the gun taking BYU's Conner Mantz with him, the Lumberjacks stuck together and remained patient. At the 3-K point they had four men in the top-10: Luis Grijalva, Abdihamid Nur, Nico Young and Blaise Ferro. Their fifth man, Drew Bosley, was in 47th place (40th scoring). Smith's plan was working.
"There was a lot of poise in their execution," Coach Smith said after the race. "They didn't get out particularly well (that was part of the game plan), but they corrected the position really well. We wanted to get the job done at halfway."
Kiptoo had hammered the first kilometer in 2:31.5, and that fast early pace, perhaps combined with some fatigue from winning the 5000m indoor title last Thursday, started to weigh on the Kenyan from Marakwet. Although he was still at the front of the four-man led pack with Mantz, Alex Masai of Hofstra and Adrian Wildschutt of Florida State through 6-K (17:24.1), he no longer showed the powerful stride he had in the early going. Kiptoo and Mantz ran up the steep hill to the 8-K mark together (23:27.6), then Mantz sensed some weakness in his opponent and saw a chance to pull away. He built a four-second led in the ninth kilometer, then ran away in the tenth to become the first American to win these championships since Galen Rupp of the University of Oregon in 2008. His winning time was 29:26.1.
"At about eight and a half 'K' somebody yelled at me," Mantz said. "I went down the hill. I had about a second and a half on the field. I was like, well, this wasn't where I was going to make move, but it looks like the best time now."
Wildschutt, a South African who had helped Mantz bridge up to Kiptoo mid-race, got second 29:48.2 and Kiptoo finished third in 29:54.9. Masai would fade to 32nd place.
Meanwhile, the NAU men stuck together and with their plan. Their athletes finished fourth (Young), sixth (Ferro), seventh (Nur), ninth (Grijalva) and 44th (Brodey Hasty). Their 60-point total put them 27 ahead of second place Notre Dame, while host team Oklahoma State finished third with 142. Defending champions BYU finished seventh.
"Our back half really held it down for us, and that's team running," said Smith.
The next edition of the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships will be held in Tallahassee, Fla., on November 20. This will be the first time that two editions of these championships will be held in the same year.