(20-Nov) -- On a sunny Florida day at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee, the women of North Carolina State and the men of Northern Arizona handily won the team titles at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships. The NC State Wolfpack scored 84 points, comfortably ahead of defending champions Brigham Young University (122) and the University of New Mexico (130). The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, the men's defending champions, scored 92 points, well ahead of Iowa State's 137 and Oklahoma State's 186.
PHOTO: Whittni Orton and Conner Mantz of Brigham Young University show off their individual NCAA Cross Country Championships trophies (photo courtesy of Brigham Young Track & Field / Cross Country)
Student-athletes from Brigham Young won both individual titles: Whittni Orton on the women's side and Conner Mantz on the men's. Mantz successfully defended his title, and since the 2020 Championships were postponed to March, 2021 due to the pandemic, Mantz became the first student-athlete in the 84-year history of these championships to win two national cross country titles in the same year.
Orton A Different Athlete From Eight Months Ago
Orton, who finished 17th at the last edition of these championships, got herself to the front of the lead pack after the 600-meter sprint from the start then settled in behind Florida State's Lauren Ryan who was the early leader. Ryan remained on the front through 2 km (6:31) and was joined by Northern Arizona's Taryn O'Neill --one of the favorites for the individual title-- Florida's Valby Parker, Notre Dame's Maddy Denner, and West Virginia's Ceili McCabe. Mercy Chelangat of Alabama, the defending champion, was close behind.
Just past 3000m (9:54) when Parker was the nominal leader, Denner put in a little surge on the right side of the pack, but was quickly caught. Valby got clipped from behind and stumbled, but regained her footing. Ryan drifted back, and by the 4 km mark she was running in 33rd place and out of contention. O'Neill also fell back slightly, and would struggle in the last third of the race and would only finish 42nd.
With 14:48 showing on the race clock, Taylor Roe of Oklahoma State put in a surge which Orton, McCabe, Chelangat and Southern Utah's Alison Pray covered. The lead group went through 5 km in 16:25. Orton assessed her position and thought about her performance at the last edition of these championships where she led at 5 km only to fade to 17th by the finish. She had come off an injury, only had six weeks to prepare, and was short on endurance.
"That definitely fueled me a lot," Orton said in her post-race broadcast interview on ESPNU. "I did think of that many, many times, not just today but throughout the whole year. So, I always think that the setback helps with the comeback."
Orton would not fade today. With every stride she was gaining time, and by the finish of the 6-kilometer race she had a four-second cushion on Chelangat, 19:25.4 to 19:29.3. McCabe held on for third in 19:29.5, Iowa State's Cailie Logue got fourth (19:29.8), and Roe fifth (19:33.5). Among the early leaders, Ryan finished 26th, and Florida's Valby was 27th.
Today's race was Orton's last as a collegian. She said she had imagined winning for several days, but was afraid to really believe it until now.
"I've visualized it for days now, and I kind of stopped myself," Orton said. "'You can't think about that,'" she told herself. "'You have to focus on where you are right now, or else bad things are going to happen and you're going to be sad.'"
Although none of NC State's women were a factor in the individual race, they put four student-athletes in the top-25 (top-20 scoring positions). They were led by sixth place Kelsey Chmiel, the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeast Region individual champion. Katelyn Tuohy finished 16th, Alexandra Hayes was 22nd, and Hannah Steelman was 24th. Today's win was the first team title for NC State (men or women) in the history of these championships.
"We just talked all year about being consistent and just giving the same consistent effort in practice and races," said NC State coach Laurie Henes. "They've been able to do that and really delivered on that today."
Northern Arizona And Mantz Both Repeat
Northern Arizona head coach Mike Smith had his eyes on the team title all season, despite losing top stars Luis Grijalva and Blaise Ferro to graduation last spring. He still had returners Nico Young (4th at the 2020 championship), Abdihamid Nur (7th), Brodey Hasty (44th), and Drew Bosley (62nd). Smith said that he focused on keeping his team humble and didn't allow them to get ahead of themselves as they went through the season.
"I think defending is a completely different energy," he said.
The Northern Arizona men ran cautiously in the early kilometers of the 10-K race. While Mantz, Iowa State's Wesley Kiptoo, and Florida State's Adriaan Wildschutt battled it out at the front, the Lumberjacks ran slightly behind. Their interim score of 83 points at the 5-K mark already put them well ahead of second place Notre Dame (158), and in the second half of the race they just needed to hold their positions.
"They understand how to execute in a range of outcomes," Coach Smith told ESPNU. "And they also know what can't save them."
In the second half, Northern Arizona indeed stayed consistent. While Mantz, Kioko and Kiptoo were still fighting it out for the individual title, Young, Nur, and Bosley stayed safely in the top-12 with one kilometer to go. In the end they kept three men in the top-13 (top-11 scoring positions) and that was good enough. Smith said that quiet confidence was the key today.
"We don't pay attention to what other people say," he said. "We just make sure what the real thing is inside."
Mantz ran a masterful final kilometer. At the top of the course's final hill, Kioko dropped the hammer. Mantz chased him, carefully metering his effort. Kioko began to falter; he looked to his left and Mantz went past him. Mantz did not let up until the line, and won by a comfortable six seconds over Kiptoo (who had overtaken Kioko) and another two seconds on Kioko. Kiptoo and Kioko were timed in 28:38.7 and 28:40.9, respectively. Stanford's Charles Hicks got fourth in 28:47.2 and Michigan State's Morgan Beadlescomb got fifth in 28:50.6.
"I knew it was going to be quick; this is probably the best start I ever got in a cross country race," Mantz said. He continued: "Kioko at around 9-K came up and passed us all. So, I knew if I went with him I could just keep fighting."
Mantz, 24, was excited to retain his title, but hadn't given much thought to the fact that he had won twice in the same calendar year.
"That's kind of fun," Mantz said. "COVID definitely put last year's on hold. So, it was kind of fun to come back and compete again on the grass at a national championships. It's kind of interesting. Sorry, that's all I have."
Cooper Teare of the University of Oregon, the reigning NCAA 5000m champion, had run with the leaders early in the race. But he fell back to 23rd by halfway, and with a kilometer to go he was in 40th position and still slowing. About 10 meters from the finish line, he collapsed. Teare made multiple attempts to regain his feet, crawled towards the finish for a few meters, then rose to his feet and walked over the finish line in 247th place before crumpling to the grass. He was immediately attended to by medical personnel. There was no word on his condition.