BYU cross country athletes claim men’s and women’s national individual titles; women’s team is runner-up

There are a few things that can be chalked up as absolutes: Water is wet. The sun rises in the east. Taxes, of course. And, more and more, a growing certainty that if the NCAA hosts a cross country national championship, a Brigham Young University athlete (or two) will be on the winner’s podium.

The BYU women won the 2020 iteration of the national championship in the team competition. That same day, Cougar runner Conner Mantz, a returned missionary from Smithfield, Utah, claimed the men’s individual title.

On Saturday, Nov. 20, the NCAA hosted the 2021 national championship — and, once again, BYU athletes climbed atop the podium. Mantz and his Cougar teammate, Whittni Orton, won the men’s and women’s individual titles, respectively.

Their victories marked just the second time that both NCAA Division 1 cross country champions came from the same school. Robert O. Kennedy and Michelle Dekkers of Indiana did it the first time in 1988.

Last April, the Church News published a story on the remarkable success Latter-day Saints were enjoying in distance running. Saturday’s national competition added a new chapter to that success story.

Mantz secured his claim as one of U.S. college cross country running’s all-time greats by defending his national title. He broke the finish line tape with a personal best and course record 10K time of 28:22. 

He is just the 11th athlete in the 80-plus years of NCAA cross country competitions to claim a second national championship.

Conner Mantz, a BYU runner and returned missionary, won his second consecutive NCAA cross country title on Nov. 20, 2021, in Tallahassee, Florida.
Conner Mantz, a BYU runner and returned missionary, won his second consecutive NCAA cross country title on Nov. 20, 2021, in Tallahassee, Florida. Credit: BYU Photo

Mantz, who stepped away from distance running a few years ago to serve a mission in Ghana, ran in the lead or at the front of the pack for most of the race, which was held in Tallahassee, Florida.

“The race started out and I knew it was going to be quick,” Mantz told BYU news services. “This was probably the best start I’ve ever had in a cross country race.”

After several kilometers of getting bumped around the main pack, Mantz began to pull away along with Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo and Athanas Kioko of Campbell. Over the final 2K, Mantz gave one final surge and bolted for the finish.

“As soon as (Kioko of Campbell) slowed down, I made a really hard surge and just kind of enjoyed the last 100 meters down the hill,” he said.

As a team, the BYU men finished seventh Saturday in the national championship race. Mantz’s teammate and fellow returned missionary, Casey Clinger, also claimed All-America honors after finishing eighth. 

The Cougar men have finished in the top 10 at nationals in nine of the last 11 seasons.

All-American Christian Allen, a returned missionary from West Jordan, Utah, who competes for Weber State University, finished 16th on Saturday.

Orton builds on BYU women’s running legacy

A senior from Panguitch, Utah, Orton hung with the top four runners for the majority of Saturday’s women’s race before breaking off at the 5K mark.

She would defeat the reigning individual champion, Alabama’s Mercy Chelangat, in the 6K race — finishing with a winning time of 19:25.

After winning the 2020 team title, the BYU women claimed runner-up honors in Tallahassee. Orton’s teammates Anna Camp-Bennett and Aubrey Frentheway also raced to All-America honors after finishing 12th and 38th, respectively.

BYU women were not the only Latter-day Saint competitors to finish strong on Saturday. Oklahoma State’s Taylor Roe, who was the 2020 national championship runner-up, finished fifth. Weber State’s Summer Allen, a returned missionary and the wife and teammate of Christian Allen, secured All-America honors for the second time after finishing 35th.

After winning the 2020 NCAA cross country national team title, the BYU women's team claimed runner-up honors in the 2021 race on Nov. 20, 2021.
After winning the 2020 NCAA cross country national team title, the BYU women’s team claimed runner-up honors in the 2021 race on Nov. 20, 2021. Credit: BYU Photo

In the last national championship, Orton led the pack before dropping into 17th place toward the end of the race.

“That definitely fueled me a lot,” Orton told BYU news services. “I did think about it many, many times, not just today but throughout the whole year. I always think that the setback does help with the comeback.”

Married to Mason Morgan and an accomplished all-around athlete, Orton is the first BYU woman to win an individual NCAA cross country title.