Conner Mantz & Erica Birk Lead BYU to Big Day at 2019 Pre-Nats

By Jonathan Gault
October 19, 2019

Editor’s Note: The 2019 Under Armour Pre-National Invitational was held today in Terre Haute, Indiana, the site of this year’s NCAA Cross Country Championships. The race featured 10 ranked men’s and women’s teams. Jonathan Gault analyzes it for you below.

Three points are all that stood between Brigham Young University and a perfect day at the 2019 Pre-National Invitational in Terre Haute, Ind. The Cougars claimed three of the four titles on offer on Saturday, as Conner Mantz (23:20.8) and Erica Birk (20:02.6) won the individual crowns and the #2 BYU men held off #3 Colorado, 81-83, to earn a narrow victory in the team race. Only the #2 BYU women fell short of their goal as #8 Washington nipped them, 84-87, for the team victory. The silver lining? BYU ran without Whittni Orton — their top runner at the Bill Dellinger Invitational three weeks ago (though it should be noted that Washington also ran without their top woman from their last race, Melany Smart). Saturday was a good day to be a Cougar.

The best hope for an end to the American drought at NCAAs?

Unlike yesterday’s Nuttycombe Invitational, where Edwin Kurgat and Alicia Monson made their winning moves well before the finish line, both Mantz and Birk waited until they were midway down the long finishing straightaway at the LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course to pull away for victory. Birk entered the final straight locked in a battle with Auburn’s Joyce Kimeli but turned the race into a rout by the finish as she finished almost seven seconds ahead of Kimeli (20:09.4).

The men’s race came down to a kick between a trio of top-10 finishers from last year’s NCAA XC meet, with Mantz duking it out against Campbell’s Amon Kemboi and Oklahoma State’s Isai Rodriguez. Mantz finally separated with just under 200 meters to go to edge Kemboi (23:22.5) by 1.7 seconds.

Quick takes and analysis below.

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*Full results

Men’s quick takes

Quick Take: BYU bounces back

BYU was surprisingly beaten by Oregon in its last race at the Bill Dellinger Invite, a loss that looked even worse after Oregon was just 10th at Nuttycombe yesterday. But the Cougars bounced back in a big way, getting strong runs from Mantz and Jacob Heslington (4th, 23:26.7) up front to beat a pair of top-5 teams in #3 Colorado and #4 Washington.

Though Colorado was beaten today, this race was also a good sign for the Buffaloes. We already knew Colorado had a strong top three in Joe KleckerJohn Dressel, and Eduardo Herrera, and coach Mark Wetmore seems to have found something in true freshman Kashon Harrison, who ran fearlessly today and finished as CU’s #3 man, 11th overall. Plus, Colorado got a solid run out of Alec Hornecker in 38th place. Going into the season, Colorado had serious question marks at the #4 and #5 spots, but today the Buffs had the best #4 and #5 men in the field.

Quick Take: Conner Mantz is the top American runner in the NCAA right now

Mantz is three-for-three so far this fall, with wins at BYU’s home meet, Bill Dellinger, and now Pre-Nats. Things can change over the next five weeks, and Mantz hasn’t faced Iowa State’s Edwin Kurgat, or the Alabama duo of Vincent Kiprop and Gilbert Kigen, but right now he has the best shot at ending the American drought at NCAAs.

Quick Take: Iona had the performance of the day, Indiana had the worse showing

Four of the top five teams today entered the day ranked in the top 10 in the country. The exception? #21 Iona, who beat #4 Washington and #8 Ole Miss to finish third overall. Last fall, in their first year without coach Ricardo Santos, the Gaels finished just 28th at NCAAs, their worst finish since the infamous food poisoning incident of 2012. Clearly, they’ve reloaded under Joe Pienta. The Gaels look like a top-10 team once again, led by Ehab El-Sandali (6th) and long-haired Englishman Johnjack Millar (11th).

#30 Florida State also exceeded expectations based on their ranking as they finished 6th overall. In terms of underperformance, #15 Indiana led the way as they were just 26th overall (Update: It should be noted Indiana ran its top group at Wisconsin yesterday).

In the table below, you’ll see how the 10 ranked teams did. We colored in the teams the led the way in terms of over or underachievement.

Seed Team Finish Difference
1 No. 2 BYU 1 Same
2 No. 3 Colorado 2 Same
3 No. 4 Washington 4 1 spot worse
4 No. 8 Ole Miss 5 1 spot worse
5 No. 14 Oklahoma State 11 6 spots worse
6 No. 15 Indiana 26 20 spots worse
7 No. 21 Iona 3 4 spots better
8 No. 27 Arkansas 13 5 spots worse
9 No. 29 Virginia Tech 7 2 spots better
10 No. 30 Florida State 6 4 spots better

Three unranked teams ended up in the top 10 as Villanova (who was receiving votes and would have been ranked 35th) was 8th, Weber State 9th and Iowa (who received 1 vote in the coaches poll) was 10th.

Women’s quick takes

Quick Take: Erica Birk looks better than ever

Birk was clear of the field by the time she hit the finish line

Last year, Birk finished 7th at NCAAs less than one year after giving birth to her son, Jack. And if you think Birk was satisfied with that performance, you’d be wrong — after the race today, she told FloTrack she was disappointed with her NCAA race because it felt as if she was barely moving by the end. No such worries today, as Birk was full of run, unleashing a big kick to win handily in the end. The problem for Birk is that she isn’t the only woman who has improved since NCAAs last year — Wisconsin’s Alicia Monson looked tremendous in winning Nuttycombe yesterday — which means that it won’t be easy to improve her finish when she returns to Terre Haute for nationals next month.

Quick Take: Washington improved mightily from its last race

Two weeks ago, Washington, ranked #3 nationally in the preseason, could only manage 5th at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invite. But Maurica Powell‘s teams have a history of coming on strong late in the season, and it looks like the Huskies may be starting their run as they ran far better today to win the race — and did so without Aussie freshman Melany Smart, their top finisher at ND.

Powell told LetsRun that Smart is healthy but she rested her today.

“She’s a freshman and I don’t want to use her too much,” Powell wrote in a text to “She’s run two high-level meets already. She saw the course (in Terre Haute) a month ago.”

Washington got improvement across the board, as all five of its scorers finished in the top 28 today, which was the difference between UW and a top-heavy BYU team (whose 5th woman crossed back in 52nd place). Powell also has one ace remaining up her sleeve in Haley Herberg, an Oklahoma transfer who was 78th at NCAAs last year as a true freshman but has not yet raced this fall (though Powell says she’s healthy). With Smart (and potentially Herberg) on board, Washington has a potential title team at NCAAs next month.

Quick Take: BYU is a genuine title contender, too

While BYU and Washington both held out their top runner from their most recent race, it hurt BYU more as their #5 was 52nd compared to 28th for UW. Should Whittni Orton — who won Dellinger three weeks ago — return in top form, BYU has a very formidable top three in Orton, Birk, and Courtney Wayment (4th) that matches up well with Arkansas. Right now, Arkansas is stronger at #4, which could be the difference, but if BYU can take a few places from Arkansas through #3 and get a better run out of their #5, they could take down the Razorbacks. It’s also worth pointing out that Aubrey Frentheway, BYU’s #4 at Dellinger, didn’t run today either.

Quick Take: Colorado could be in trouble

It would be foolish to write off the defending champs and one of the greatest distance coaches in NCAA history, but results don’t lie. Colorado was upset by Utah at Notre Dame two weeks ago and could only manage third today, even though Washington and BYU were holding out top runners. Though the Buffs got strong runs out of returning All-Americans Sage Hurta (3rd) and Tabor Scholl (10th), they took a beating at the #3/#4/#5 spots and couldn’t put anyone else in the top 30.

One issue for Colorado is health. Mark Wetmore said before the season that some of his athletes arrived on campus this fall “imperfect” and the obvious missing piece for the Buffs is Boise State transfer Emily Venters, who was 39th at NCAAs last year but has yet to race for CU this fall. Even if Venters can return this season, however, CU’s fourth and fifth scorers will need to pick it up if the Buffs are to repeat as national champions.

Quick Take: In terms of national rankings, Boise State had the worst day

In the table below, we show you how the 10 ranked teams did today. Compared to what was expected based on their ranking, Washington had the best day and Boise State the worst.

Seed Team Finish Difference
1 No. 2 BYU 2 1 spot worse
2 No. 3 Colorado 3 1 spot worse
3 No. 7 Michigan 4 1 spot worse
4 No. 8 Washington 1 3 spots better
5 No. 11 Boise State 12 7 spots worse
6 No. 11 Florida State 5 1 spot better
7 No. 17 Ole Miss 10 3 spots worse
8 No. 20 Illinois 6 2 spots better
9 No. 26 Boston College 9 same
10 No. 30 Oklahoma State 11 1 spot worse

Two unranked teams finished in the top 10 as Virginia Tech was 7th and Butler 8th. Both of those teams were getting votes in the coaches’ poll with Butler being 36th and Virginia Tech being 40th.

Discuss the races on our messageboard:

MB: 2019 Pre-Nats cross cross country Discussion 

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