By Jonathan Gault
October 15, 2020
Listen to BYU coach Ed Eyestone list the number of people who had to sign off on the Cougars’ first cross country meet of the 2020 season and it’s a wonder he can keep track of them all. On August 13, the West Coast Conference (WCC), of which BYU is a member, made the decision to postpone all fall sports. That same day, the NCAA announced its fall championships would be postponed as well. It seemed unlikely that the Cougars, coming off the first men’s national title in program history, would compete at all this fall.
A month later, the door creaked open. On September 22, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors confirmed a plan to stage the NCAA Cross Country Championships on March 15. And that plan included two key points. First, unlike in years past, there would be no automatic qualifiers for NCAAs. And second, any races held this fall would be considered for qualifying purposes.
That ruling spurred Eyestone into motion.
“Once we heard from the NCAA that they were going to take into account fall races, then it gave me an opportunity to talk with my administrator to say it puts us at a competitive disadvantage if we don’t have a chance to race in the fall, furthered by the fact that if we don’t have a chance to race on the national cross country course, it would put us at a competitive disadvantage,” Eyestone says.
From there, Eyestone likens the process to a set of tumbling dominoes. After making his case to the BYU athletic department, Eyestone spoke with his fellow WCC coaches, who agreed fall racing should be possible. From there, the decision went to the WCC athletic directors, who also gave the go-ahead. Next, Eyestone had to go back to BYU and get approval from not just the athletic department, but the university itself. Finally, the WCC Presidents’ Council had to sign off — and they did. On Saturday, BYU will compete in its first (and at the moment, only) race of the 2020 fall season at the OSU Invitational at Oklahoma State.
In order to compete, BYU athletes had to pass a COVID test last week and two more this week prior to their departure on Thursday. Barring any last-minute hiccups, the Cougars will race on Saturday for the first time since winning the national championship on a wet day in Terre Haute 47 weeks ago.
BYU is just one of several top men’s programs making the trip to Stillwater in what should be the best NCAA cross country meet of 2020. Northern Arizona and Colorado, who finished second and third at NCAAs last fall, are also entered, though Colorado’s athletes will be competing unattached. Host Oklahoma State, currently ranked #2 in the Boost Treadmills national poll, should be competitive too. The women’s race isn’t quite as strong, but still features three of the top 15 finishers at 2019 NCAA XC in BYU (2nd), Colorado (10th), and NAU (14th).
While Eyestone is pleased his athletes will have a competition opportunity after a fall that has so far consisted of intrasquad time trialing, that’s not the primary purpose of the trip.
“This is a reconnaissance mission, really,” Eyestone says. “We’re going out to go look at the course.”
It’s important because Oklahoma State is hosting NCAAs for the first time in March, meaning most athletes and coaches haven’t seen the course before. And considering OK State coach Dave Smith says he is leaning against hosting any meets this winter — he wants the course in its best possible condition for NCAAs — Saturday may represent the last chance for anyone to race on it until March.
As a result, Eyestone is bringing his full squad, even though he doesn’t expect the Cougars to be operating at full capacity. One of BYU’s top runners had COVID earlier in the season; another is on the mend from a tonsillectomy. A third, 2018 All-American Clayson Shumway, is driving 18 hours to run unattached because he isn’t taking classes this fall (Shumway detailed his itinerary for us here: LRC How (and Why) BYU All-American Clayson Shumway Is Driving 16 Hours to Race at OK State This Weekend). All will race this weekend because Eyestone believes it’s important for them to get in a dry run ahead of the Big Dance.
“When we add everybody in in March, I think it will be a different meet,” Eyestone says. “And I’m sure NAU and everybody else has their own circumstances as well.”
Indeed, Colorado’s Kashon Harrison (90th at 2019 NCAAs as a true freshman) isn’t entered, and NAU’s entries for the meet do not include Blaise Ferro or Theo Quax, each of whom ran for NAU at NCAAs last year, or freshman Nico Young, the 2019 NXN champion who set a US high school 3,000m record of 7:56.97 at the Millrose Games in February. Northern Arizona coach Mike Smith did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Despite those absences, there will still be plenty of talent in Stillwater. NAU’s top guns include Drew Bosley (22nd at NCAAs as a true frosh in 2019) and 13:29 man Luis Grijalva. Colorado has John Dressel (7th at 2019 NCAA XC, though he’s out of XC eligibility). And BYU has the top returner from NCAAs last year in Conner Mantz, buttressed by a pair of NXN champions returning from missions in Casey Clinger and Aidan Troutner.
Clinger, in particular, bears watching: he is the only man to win two NXN titles and was 17th at NCAA XC as a true freshman in 2017. He returned from a two-year mission to Sapporo, Japan, in December and Eyestone has been impressed with the progress he’s made. Saturday will be his first race in almost three years.
“You can imagine how excited [Clinger] is to have a chance to race,” Eyestone says. “Mantz, I think a lot of people have him pegged as the top returner and somebody who can do great things. Clinger’s not too far back from that — like shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Meanwhile Oklahoma State has a monster talent of its own in Isai Rodriguez. The redshirt junior was 4th at NCAAs in 2018, and looks to be healthy again after spending most of the second half of the 2019 season in the pool and on the bike rehabbing a leg injury.
“The last five or six weeks [of the 2019 season], he wasn’t running much and you could see it kind of slipping, getting a little bit tougher each week,” Smith says. “His run at conference just blew my mind. To finish second at our conference and push [2019 NCAA champ] Edwin Kurgat all the way through to the finish, based on what he had not done the last four weeks, I was shocked.”
On the women’s side, BYU’s Whittni Orton, who ran an NCAA-leading 8:49 in the 3,000 indoors, will be favored. Taylor Somers, who was 18th at NCAAs for OK State last year, is also entered.
Teamwise, BYU will be favored to win the women’s race, but the winner of the men’s race is anyone’s guess with neither BYU nor NAU at 100%. Smith is hoping that his squad will be able to mix it up with the big boys. Though OK State claimed three national titles from 2009 to 2012, the Cowboys haven’t finished in the top 10 at NCAAs since 2014. Last year, they missed the meet entirely, snapping a streak of 16 straight appearances. But after defeating Iowa State — a podium team at NCAAs last year — at the Cowboy Jamboree on October 3, OK State is off to a strong start in 2020.
“They’re excited and want a chance to prove that two weeks ago wasn’t a fluke and that we are back from a three-year hiatus of being the program we want to be,” Smith says.
There are decidedly fewer teams here than in a normal year. Smith capped the meet at 14 teams, and after a string of cancellations, only eight (plus Colorado’s unattached athletes) will compete, each separated by three boxes on the start line in an attempt at social distancing. But the OSU Invitational will also offer something we wouldn’t usually get to see: a regular-season matchup between the sport’s top two men’s programs. Traditionally, NAU would head to Nuttycombe this weekend and BYU to Pre-Nats, forcing fans to wait until the postseason for a head-to-head showdown. This time, they’ll be in the same race — perhaps the schools’ only race of the fall.
Unfortunately, the meet won’t be streamed — ESPN, by virtue of its contract with the Big 12, holds the rights but has no plans to broadcast it. Spectators, however, will be allowed (anyone not racing must wear a mask), and Dave Smith counts himself lucky to be among them. Watching the Cowboy Jamboree two weeks ago provided him with a newfound appreciation for the sport he loves. He is hoping for more of the same on Saturday.
“We’re out here on the cross country course, doing what we always do in the way we always do it,” Smith says. “The athletes are running hard, we’re running back and forth across the course to cheer ’em on, and at least for an hour, you can pretend like nothing’s going on. For me, it was refreshing, exciting, and kind of uplifting to be in that scenario, and I’m looking forward to being back out there and those same feelings.”
Talk about the race on the LRC messageboard. MB: BYU vs. NAU This Weekend!