BYU Women Cap Weekend For The Ages With 1st NCAA XC Title Since 2002, Alabama’s Mercy Chelangat Wins Individual Crown

By Robert Johnson
March 15, 2021

Sixteen months after the NCAA Cross Country Championships were last held, the 2020 NCAA Cross Country Championships were finally held today in Stillwater, Okla., and the BYU women and Alabama’s Mercy Chelangat were both able to make amends for what happened at the last NCAA XC champs 478 days ago.

Chelangat, the Alabama junior from Kericho, Kenya, who didn’t even qualify for the 2019 championships after finishing 9th in her region, picked up the individual title today as she broke from Oklahoma State sophomore miler Taylor Roe with 500 meters remaining to win in 20:01.1. Roe ended up second in 20:06.7 as Chelangat’s teammate Amaris Tyynismaa, another sophomore miler, was the biggest surprise of the day in 3rd in 20:10.2.

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In the team battle, BYU, who came just six points short of Arkansas in 2019, moved up to the top spot and captured its first NCAA women’s cross team title since 2002 with 96 points, as the Cougars came from behind and put down a spirited challenge from #5 NC State, which finished second with 161. 

(Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

As late as 4k, NC State had the lead over BYU and at 5k, NC State was just six points down. But their upset bid ran out of steam late as four of their top five at 5k lost spots over the final km, with two of them losing massive places (24 and 188).

The Wolfpack’s upset bid was given a boost by freshman Katelyn Tuohy, who made her collegiate cross country debut. Tuohy, the greatest US girls high school cross country runner ever, who won NXN crowns in 2017, 2018, and 2019, ran with the top pack for the first half of the race even though she had failed to score at the ACC track meet a few weeks ago. In the end, she faded but still ended up as the top freshman in the race in 24th.

The team win capped an incredible weekend for BYU coach Diljeet Taylor. On Friday and Saturday, a totally different set of BYU distance runners racked up 29 points at NCAA indoors to place seventh, earning wins in the DMR and 3,000 along the way.

“They are running for something bigger than themselves and when you can get women to buy into that and step on to the line empowered and strong and really in their hearts feeling that they can win, that is when you have magic happen and that’s what you got this weekend with these women. It’s just a ton of magic,” said Taylor. “Last night I felt really good at the end of our team meeting. I felt like, ‘Something good is going to happen.’ I told them they need to be gold diggers and you saw them dig really deep today. I’m just really, really proud of them.”

Appropriately, given their prowess at two different championships over the last four days, BYU got the win with great team depth, as they just missed having their top five all earn All-American honors (top 40) as they went 11-15-17-33-41 to grab the win. For most of the race, they were led by Whittni Orton. Had these championships been held in the fall, Orton would have been the individual favorite, but she came into today’s race as a huge question mark as she hadn’t raced since October. Orton looked like the Orton of old for much of the race as she had the lead at 5k before her lack of training caught up to her big-time late and she faded to 17th over the final km.

“I had a little injury that kind of pushed me back. I only had 4ish – 6ish weeks to get here. It was very unreal. I don’t have any words [to describe what it means to win the team title],” said Orton. 

Her teammates weren’t surprised. “We have a nickname for Whittni. It’s Gritty Whitty. She was so gritty today, it was amazing,” said BYU senior Anna Camp, who improved from 60th in 2019 to 11th today to lead the BYU charge.

Top 10 Women                                                                  
  1 Mercy Chelangat           JR Alabama                20:01.1    1             
  2 Taylor Roe                SO Oklahoma State         20:06.6    2             
  3 Amaris Tyynismaa          SO Alabama                20:10.2    3             
  4 Mahala Norris             SR Air Force              20:11.8                  
  5 Hannah Steelman           SR NC State               20:14.9    4             
  6 Taryn O'Neill             JR Northern Arizona       20:22.9    5             
  7 Summer Allen              SR Weber State            20:23.3                  
  8 Bethany Hasz              SR Minnesota              20:25.2    6             
  9 Kelsey Chmiel             SO NC State               20:26.4    7             
 10 Ella Donaghu              SR Stanford               20:26.7    8
   Team   
   1 Byu                         96                                         
   2 NC State                    161                                            
   3 Stanford                    207                                            
   4 Michigan State              212                                             
   5 Minnesota                   239             
   6 New Mexico                  274                                             
   7 Colorado                    279                                              
   8 Alabama                     280                                              
   9 Boise State                 304                                              
  10 Arkansas                    316

*Full Results

Quick Take: What a weekend for BYU’s Diljeet Taylor

Diljeet Taylor talks to ESPN after the race

Since Taylor arrived at BYU in 2016, she has totally transformed the program. The year before she got to Provo, the BYU women were 23rd at NCAA XC. She quickly improved that to 10th. Then they were 11th, then 7th, then 2nd. 

The Cougars were getting good, but now they’ve arrived and are at least the co-#1 distance program in the country (Arkansas has had a great run in recent years as well). Coming into the weekend, Taylor had never coached any individual or team to a NCAA title. Now she’s done it three times as BYU won the DMR and 3k at indoors and XC today.

For more on Taylor’s rise, we highly recommend this profile on her by Doug Robinson in the Deseret News.

Quick Take: BYU and NC State both had some women go for it and fade

At 5k, BYU and NC State were virtually tied with BYU leading by six points, but BYU’s 5th runner was behind NC State’s 5th which means they were very vulnerable. Then up front Orton began to fade in a very visible way. She went from leading the race to being off the television screen. Were BYU’s title hopes slipping away?  No, because NC State’s #3, #4, and #5 were fading and the dirty secret in cross country is if you want a runner to fade over the final km, you’d much rather have it be your #1, than your #3, #4 or #5. Orton, who was leading at 5k, wound up 34.5 seconds behind winner Chelangat by the finish, but that only represented 13 team places. NC State’s #5 at 5k, Dominique Clairmonte, was in 39th place. She’d finish 13.7 seconds behind 39th place, but those 13.7 seconds represented 18 points in the team score. NC State’s Julia Zachgo completely lost it over the final km, dropping 188 spots. There were some other changes for both teams over the final km, but with BYU’s #5 McKenna Lee gaining ground over the final km, NC State would have had to maintain its spots the final km to win and their ##3, #4, and #5 all lost places.

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Recruiting is a key part of success for all coaches at the DI level, but so is coaching. BYU graduated three of its top four from the runner-up team in 2019. Two returning runners, however, got a lot better.

Sara Musselman improved from 160th to 33rd and Anna Camp as mentioned above improved from 60th to 11th.

Quick Take: What fantastic runs for Mercy Chelangat and Amaris Tyynismaa

Roll Tide – Tyynismaa (l) and Chelangat celebrate

Please don’t tell us you predicted Chelangat and Tyynismaa to go 1-3 in this one.

Yes, Chelangat won the SEC cross country meet, but that was on October 30 and she hadn’t run an XC meet since then. At the SEC meet in track at the end of February, she was 4th in the 3k and 3rd in the 5k. Now the SEC was loaded in those events as the three women she lost to in the 3k did quite well at NCAA indoors (Joyce Kimeli won the 5k, Katie Izzo was 4th in the 3k, and Lauren Gregory was 2nd in the 3k), but today’s win was a surprise (none of those three women ran today; Izzo didn’t have eligibility and Arkansas rested Gregory while Kimeli didn’t do XC this year). 

And Tyynismaa’s third-place showing was even more surprising.

At the SEC cross country championships, Tyynismaa was just 26th. 

Tyynismaa is a miler who has been having a great track season. She was the runner-up in the mile at SECs and anchored the Alabama DMR to SEC victory before putting up the fastest DMR anchor at NCAAs on Friday. Her 4:31.11 split didn’t get a lot of notice as her team was pretty far back and was DQed for not getting off the track on an earlier leg. But it was a pretty legendary leg as she got the baton in 10th and ended up crossing the line 4th after passing six people.

Today it was impossible to not witness Tyynismaa’s brilliance. And the back story to the Alabama legend (she won 31 state HS titles during her prep career) is amazing. Four-plus years ago, the Huffington Post wrote a feature on her and her battle against Tourette’s.

Amaris Tyynismaa: The Human Body Is A Miracle, The Human Body Is A Curse

Quick Take: Maybe you can do indoors and XC after all

Yes, we know the champions today in both the men’s and women’s team races were comprised of runners that didn’t do indoor track. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t do both.

The runner-up today was Oklahoma State sophomore Taylor Roe, who got a little revenge on Tyynismaa. At NCAA indoors on Friday, Roe also ran the DMR and she was the last of the women that Tyynismaa passed even though Roe split a very credible 4:33.65.

Does the fact that two milers who ran NCAA indoors three days ago officially kill the narrative that you can’t do well in the mid-d events and XC at the same time? Probably. But let’s hope the coaches are never put in this predicament again where you have two major championships within days of each other.

Quick Take: Not everyone had a great day

Pac-12 champ Haley Herberg was just 55th.

3-time Big 12 XC champ Cailie Logue was only 126th.


Chelangat wins

For full coverage, including that of the men’s race, check out our NCAA XC event page. Be a fan and talk about the meet on our message board / fan forum.

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