Editor’s note: To help fill the sports void, The Universe is taking a look at some of the more memorable moments of the 2019-20 season across all BYU sports in a series of stories.
The ultimate goal for any athletic program is to win a championship. It’s the reason teams put so much time, effort and resources into their respective sports. It’s what coaches and athletes alike dedicate their entire careers to achieving.
There is no greater team accomplishment in sports than beating out the rest of the field and capping off the season by hoisting a championship trophy.
For the BYU men’s cross country program, that pinnacle finally came at the 2019 NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana.
“It was just really the culmination of 20 years of hard work,” head coach Ed Eyestone told BYU Sports Nation. “These guys brought it together. They rose up and we got it done.”
Eyestone, who took over the program in 2000, became the first person in NCAA men’s cross country history to win as both a runner (1984) and as a head coach. Additionally, the national championship was BYU’s first since 2004, when the men’s volleyball team took home the title.
Outrunning the competition
The Cougars started off the 2019 campaign ranked No. 2 in the country, despite losing three All-Americans from the season before: Rory Linkletter, Connor McMillan and Clayson Shumway. BYU sat behind only No. 1 Northern Arizona in the preseason national rankings, a team that had narrowly edged the Cougars in the 2018 NCAA Championships to claim its third consecutive national title.
The women’s team, led by fourth-year head coach Diljeet Taylor, came in at No. 6 in the preseason rankings.
The men’s and women’s teams kicked off the season with a win at the BYU Autumn Classic. Sophomore standout Conner Mantz won the meet individually and would go on to lead the Cougar men throughout much of the season. BYU had an additional six runners place in the top-10 on the men’s side and seven on the women’s side.
The men’s team maintained its No. 2 ranking throughout most of the season, placing in the top-two in each of its following three meets. The women’s team won all but one of its following four meets prior to the championship race.
After the men took third and the women won the NCAA Mountain Region Championships on Nov. 15, the national championship stage was set. Both teams came in at No. 3 in the national rankings heading into their final race. Both were hungry to prove they belonged atop the NCAA cross country world and believed they had what it took to make it there.
“We weren’t the favorites,” Eyestone said on BYU Sports Nation. “We were ranked third going in, which I think was kind of to our favor. But we knew we had a chance. Our theme all year long was ‘naiveté:’ be dumb enough to believe that it’s possible.”
Day or night, rain or snow
The Cougars woke up on Nov. 23, 2019 in Terre Haute, Indiana to less-than-favorable weather conditions. The temperature was supposed to hover just above freezing throughout the day with rain in the forecast. Ten- to 15-mile-per-hour winds were also expected during race time.
Both teams, however, knew they still had a shot at the title and were not about to let the elements get in their way.
The men’s and women’s teams both got off to a quick start in their respective races. Both teams’ game plans were to start quick, maintain position then move up as many spots as possible during the last couple thousand meters.
The elements proved tougher to deal with than most Cougar runners could have imagined. The grass was slick, mud was everywhere and cold, hard pellets of rain battered the runners throughout.
“It felt like we were being waterboarded,” BYU men’s runner Brandon Garnica later told BYU Sports Nation.
BYU’s two teams held strong, however, and kept the goal in sight.
The women’s team raced first, and runners Courtney Wayment, Erica Birk-Jarvis and Whittni Orton all placed in the top-10 individually. Wayment and Birk-Jarvis finished one within one-hundredth of a second of each other, while Orton came in less than a second after.
“Our women believed,” Coach Diljeet Taylor said in a BYU press release following the race. “That’s a big part of this job that makes it so special as a coach when you have athletes that believe in what you’re trying to do.”
The men’s team raced next, with Connor Mantz leading the way. The Smithfield, Utah native placed third individually and was the only underclassman to finish in the top-10.
Seniors Daniel Carney and Jacob Heslington finished 17th and 21st, respectively, while Garnica and Matt Owens also placed in the top 50.
“I’m proud of the way the guys fought through the elements,” Eyestone said following the race. “I think our guys proved that they are ‘mudders.’ These guys are tough. They overcome adversity and can compete through anything.”
Although the team was elated immediately following the race, and had a pretty good sense of what they had just accomplished, it wasn’t until the official results were announced before they could really start celebrating.
National champions and teams of the year
Once the results were finally made official, however, the Cougars were flooded with emotion.
“I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high at first, because even though it looked like we had won we still didn’t know for sure,” Mantz told BYU Sports Nation. “More and more people though were like, ‘No, you guys dominated.’ It was unreal. It was a super surreal experience.”
Eyestone had finally reached the top of the NCAA cross country world as a coach, and had finally come away with the championship trophy that remained just out of reach for so many years.
“It was a huge day for us and for the program,” Eyestone said following the race. “We knew it could be a great day for BYU.”
The women’s team came within six points of defeating No. 1 Arkansas and joining the men as co-national champions. The team, however, could not have been more excited about the result.
“Our women ran amazingly,” Taylor said. “Getting NCAA runner-ups after finishing so close is a little bit bittersweet when you’re a competitor. (But) no one expected this out of us before the season. We fought for that crazy dream and I’m unbelievably proud of our women and how hard they worked.”
Not only did the the 2019 BYU cross country campaign culminate with one of the most dramatic and defining moments across all BYU sports during the 2019-20 season, but it will also go down as one of the most successful seasons in school history. Both teams were also recently named men’s and women’s teams of the year at BYU’s annual Y Awards show.
So what do you do after years of blood, sweat and tears finally results in reaching your sport’s pinnacle of success? According to Eyestone, who went on to be named the 2019 National Coach of the Year, you plan on doing it all over again.
“It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to win a national championship,” Eyestone said. “And I have a great village here (at BYU) to be a part of.”