BYU athletes claim stack of national champion trophies in track, cross country events

Someone in Brigham Young University’s athletic department is likely shopping for a bigger trophy case.

Cougar athletes claimed several national championships over the past week. The Church-owned school has long enjoyed a reputation for producing elite track and cross-country athletes — but 2021 already will surely be a year never forgotten by BYU, or its rivals.

Cougar runners atop the podium

On Monday, March 15, BYU’s women’s cross country team won the 2021 NCAA championship in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Their victory marked the fifth all-time national title for the Cougar women runners, and the first since 2003.

Monday’s championship required several strong performances. Five BYU runners would finish in the top 50, with three (Anna Camp-Bennett, Aubrey Frentheway and Whittni Orton) numbered among the top 17.

The depth of the Cougar squad made the difference Monday. The Cougars finished more than 60 points ahead of second-place North Carolina State.

BYU associate director of cross country/track and field Diljeet Taylor said she was both proud and humbled to coach the national champs.

“They’re running for something bigger than themselves,” she said in a BYU release. “When you can get women that step on the line empowered, strong and really feeling in their hearts they can win, that’s when you see magic happen. That’s what we witnessed today.”

Under Taylor’s leadership, the women’s cross country team has finished in the top 10 four times, including a second-place finish last year.

On the eve of the championship race, the coach was certain good things were going to happen for the Cougars. 

“I told them to be gold diggers — and you saw them dig really deep.”

On the men’s side Monday, All-American distance runner/returned missionary Conner Mantz etched his name even deeper in Cougar lore by winning the 2021 NCAA men’s cross country individual title. 

As a team, the Cougar men finished seventh in the cross country team competition. The squad won the 2019 national championship.

When he spoke to the Church News a couple of days after his winning race, Mantz was still settling into the title: “National Champ.”

“It still feels a little surreal,” he said “This is something I’ve worked towards for so long — but between COVID-19 and injuries and other setbacks, I wondered if this was a goal that might not happen.”

Don’t forget, Mantz and the rest of his teammates are student-athletes. Classroom demands remain the same, even for elite distance runners.

“It has been kind of hard getting back to studying,” said the mechanical engineering major, laughing. “This is all awesome — but I’ve still got so much schoolwork to do.”

Monday’s hilly road course proved ideal for Mantz’s racing skill set. He also drew upon his preparation, prayer and his coaching to decide how to best race the 10-kilometer event. He was running with the lead pack for much of the race before accelerating past his rivals. In the end, he crossed the finish line in 29:26.1, nearly 22 seconds ahead of the second runner.

“Conner’s performance was otherworldly,” BYU coach Ed Eyestone said in a school release. “It’s been since 2008 since the last American won the individual title. Once Conner realized he could use his uphill running talent, he pulled away. He crushed them at the end and it was one of the gutsiest individual performances I’ve seen on the cross country turf before.”

Mantz, who stepped away from distance running to serve a mission in Ghana, said he relied upon the promptings of the Spirit throughout his race. He believes the Lord is invested in the details of one’s life, including athletics.

“I feel like all aspects of our lives are integrated into one,” he said.

Looking ahead, Mantz is hoping to make the U.S. Olympic team this year and in 2024.

His teammate, sophomore Casey Clinger claimed All-American honors in Monday’s race after finishing 13th. 

Title haul for Wayment, BYU mates

After competing in last week’s 2021 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, senior Courtney Wayment returns to BYU with a couple of national titles to augment her already impressive athletic resume.

On Friday, March 12, Wayment ran the victory-sealing anchor leg for the Cougars in the distance medley relay race. She was joined atop the podium by her medley teammates — senior Olivia Hoj Simister, senior Alena Ellsworth and senior Lauren Ellsworth-Barnes. Each athlete secured All-American honors. The Ellsworths are sisters.

Once again, women’s coach Diljeet Taylor could relish the title-winning success of her athletes.

“I am extremely proud of how all four women battled for this title,” she said. “The confidence displayed, the trust in each other, and the dominating fashion they won in is a testament to the years of hard work, faith, and dedication.

“It was a great day for the women of BYU.”

Immediately after the race, the four medley teammates gathered off the track for a group hug.

“And then Lauren suggested we all say a quick prayer,” Wayment told the Church News. “We took a moment to pray and thank our Heavenly Father for all He had blessed us with during our collegiate careers, and especially at that moment. It was very tender.”

Wayment only had a few hours to revel in Friday’s national championship before shifting her focus to the next day’s 3000-meter individual race. The Layton, Utah, native hung with the lead pack for most of the race before surging ahead at the end. 

She would cross the finish line in just over nine minutes, winning the first women’s 3000-meter individual title in BYU history. Teammate Hoj Simister also claimed All-American honors in the event after finishing seventh.

Like Mantz, Wayment is quick to recognize her BYU teammates and coaches for helping her realize peak performance.

“Coach Taylor has worked so hard over the past five years here to create a culture of being more than just athletes,” she said. “She teaches us about empowering ourselves. … Instead of just being individual athletes, we’ve become a sisterhood.”

Several other BYU athletes performed at elite levels at the indoor national championships.

Junior Claire Seymour earned a spot on the All-American first team after placing fifth in the women’s 800-meter race.

Also claiming All-American honors was senior Kate Hunter for her sixth-place finish in the women’s mile. Junior Heather Hanson placed 10th in the mile, earning second team All-America.

All-American Halley Folsom Walker finished 14th in the pentathlon for the Cougars.

On the men’s side, sophomore Zach McWhorter finished second in the pole vault competition, more than enough to secure an All-America designation. His teammate Caleb Witsken finished sixth in pole vaulting.

Freshman Lucas Bon finished ninth in the men’s mile, making him a second team All-American.