Conner Mantz Ends The American Drought, NAU Men Reassert Themselves As Kings At 2020 NCAA Cross Country Championships
By Jonathan Gault
March 15, 2021
With three straight NCAA cross country titles from 2016-2018, the Northern Arizona men cemented themselves as a dynasty a couple of years ago. But today at the 2020 NCAA Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the men from Flagstaff unveiled their Mona Lisa.
On a sunny (59 degrees), windy (18 mph) day on a brutal Oklahoma State course that left would-be rivals and #1-ranked BYU grasping for air, Northern Arizona won its fourth national title in five years with the finest performance in school history. The Lumberjacks, led by true freshman Nico Young (4th overall), placed four men in the top nine finishers to tally 60 points, the lowest since Jerry Schumacher’s Wisconsin Badgers in 2005. And NAU had to go low, as #9 Notre Dame ran out of their minds and scored 87 — the lowest non-winning score at NCAAs since 1997.
Individually, sixth-year BYU junior Conner Mantz took down Iowa State’s Wesley Kiptoo — who ran 13:23 to win the NCAA indoor 5,000-meter title just three days ago — to become the first American champion since Oregon’s Galen Rupp in 2008. Kiptoo, as always, took out the race hard — he hit one kilometer in 2:31.5 — and though Mantz was initially right with him, he decided to back off as Kiptoo passed three kilometers in 8:14.6 (27:28 pace). Mantz trailed by as much as 5.3 seconds at 4k, but worked with Florida State’s Adriaan Wildschutt (4th in the NCAA indoor 5k) to close the gap, and by 8k those three were clear of the field.
With around 1300 meters to run, Mantz, without realizing it, opened a small gap up front. When a voice from the crowd informed him he had 1.5 seconds on Kiptoo, Mantz decided to commit from the move, and spent the final kilometer administering pain on the rest of the field, winning by over 20 seconds with a final time of 29:26.1 for the 10k course (Wildschutt took second in 29:48.2, with Kiptoo third in 29:54.9).
Mantz, who was third at this meet in 2019, has developed a reputation as one of the NCAA’s toughest runners, and today’s race was the perfect example of why.
“There are plenty of doubts in that race,” said Mantz. “Early on, around 3k, I thought I was going to have to fight to take third place again. However, those hills were just as hard for everybody else, the wind was just as hard for everybody else as it was for me…You can’t coast on that course. You have to grind.”
In the team race, the NAU quartet of Young, Blaise Ferro, Abihamid Nur, and Luis Grijalva all established themselves in the top 10 by two kilometers and remained there at halfway, with NAU on pace for an incredible score of 44 points. With BYU’s #4/#5 runners struggling, only Notre Dame (80) was even in striking distance at 5k. And though NAU’s fifth man Drew Bosley faded badly, from 28th to 62nd over the final three kilometers, Brodey Hasty was there to pick the Lumberjacks up, finishing as NAU’s #5 in 44th place. Coupled with the incredible runs up front from Young (4th), Ferro (6th), Nur (7th), and Grijalva (9th), that was enough to secure the title for NAU despite Notre Dame putting five men in the top 23 and six in the top 36.
1 Conner Mantz JR Byu 29:26.1 1 2 Adriaan Wildschutt JR Florida State 29:48.2 3 Wesley Kiptoo JR Iowa State 29:54.9 2 4 Nico Young FR Northern Arizona 29:58.3 3 5 Patrick Dever SR Tulsa 29:59.9 4 6 Blaise Ferro SR Northern Arizona 30:02.0 5 7 Abdihamid Nur SO Northern Arizona 30:05.3 6 8 Isai Rodriguez JR Oklahoma State 30:08.3 7 9 Luis Grijalva SR Northern Arizona 30:10.2 8 10 Danny Kilrea JR Notre Dame 30:11.5 9
1 Northern Arizona 60 2 Notre Dame 87 3 Oklahoma State 142 4 Arkansas 181 5 Stanford 194 6 Tulsa 237 7 Byu 254 8 Iowa State 265 9 Southern Utah 270 10 Iona 311
NAU was incredible and is deservedly back on top
In both 2017 and 2018 NAU broke out a new singlet for the NCAA championships, and coach Mike Smith decided to do the same thing today as the Lumberjacks debuted a black uniform. Part of that was to make it harder for other teams to identify them — a tactic the victorious 1986 Texas women and 2008 Oregon men both used at this meet in the past. But part of it was a nod to the course that awaited them.
“I said [to my athletes], ‘What do you wear to a funeral?’” Smith said. “And they said black. We thought that was appropriate for a day of dying on this brutal course.”
But NAU’s runners, largely, did not die, in part because of what Smith saw in his last visit to this course. NAU only raced once last fall, at the OSU Invitational in October, and the course left an impression on Smith. He made significant alterations to his team’s training in order to ensure they would be prepared to race 10,000 meters on what has been universally described as the hardest course to host this meet in recent memory.
“I altered probably the whole 90 days leading into this race,” Smith said.
That Nico Young, Abihamid Nur, and Luis Grijalva finished in the top 10 today came as no surprise. All have shown that ability this year, even if, in the case of Young, that level of talent is remarkably rare for an 18-year-old (Young’s 4th-place finish was the best by an American true freshman since Dathan Ritzenhein was 4th for Colorado in 2001).
But it was Blaise Ferro’s 6th-place finish that put this team over the top. And he would not have been able to come through had the meet not been delayed from November because of COVID-19. After running a personal best of 13:39 for 5,000 meters in February 2020, Ferro developed a back injury that would not go away. Every few days, he’d try to get out the door and try to run a few miles, and the pain would return every time.
Blaise repeated that cycle for nine months, all the way until November 2020.
“Something hurt for nine months, so in my head, I was like, I won’t run,” Ferro said. “It hurts — no reason to run. Why would I run if it’s painful? And then after eight or nine months, I was like, I gotta do something. I’m being an idiot.”
He sought treatment from chiropractor AJ Gregg of Hypo2 in Flagstaff and mobility guru John Ball in Phoenix. They weren’t able to eliminate the pain entirely, but they got him back to training consistently. Finally, two weeks before NCAAs, his back stopped hurting. And today, he ran the best race of his NAU career.
“I was able to learn that pain doesn’t always mean injury,” Ferro said.
Ferro was also, to our knowledge, the only man in the field wearing earplugs on the start line (and the rest of the race).
“If you’re hearing the wind and it’s really loud and you’re also feeling it, it kind of gets in your head. Oh man, this is stressful, you know?” Ferro said. “So I figured, maybe if I wear earplugs, I won’t be able to hear the wind as bad.”
Putting NAU’s dominance in context
As mentioned above, NAU’s winning score of 60 points was the lowest score at NCAAs since 2005, when Wisconsin scored 37. And as if that was not impressive enough, they became just the sixth team to put four runners in the top 10. The full list:
Teams with 4+ finishers in top 10 at NCAA XC
1981 UTEP (five guys)
1956 Michigan State
The scary thing? NAU can bring its entire team back this fall. Remember, the NCAA isn’t counting the 2020-21 cross country season against anyone’s eligibility counter.
Conner Mantz slays the dragon, ends American drought
Mantz was en route to Oklahoma when he heard about Wesley Kiptoo’s 13:23 at the NCAA Indoor Championships on Friday. Later, he watched highlights of the race. His reaction to Kiptoo going out in 4:06?
“Holy crap. That’s insane.”
But Mantz knew, as good as Kiptoo was, that he was not unbeatable. For one, he had a championship race in his legs from three days earlier that Mantz did not have. And even if Kiptoo succeeded in his plan of breaking the field early, he would still have to work his ass off to maintain that lead, running alone into the wind on a hilly course.
Going into the race, BYU coach Ed Eyestone — himself an NCAA XC champ in 1984 — gave Mantz the green light to go out with Kiptoo, but advised that if he felt the pace was too quick, he should “weather the storm” and back off. That’s what happened when Mantz saw his 3k split of 8:16.6, and it proved to be the right choice as Kiptoo, inevitably, began to slow.
Over the final mile, as the hot early pace — and perhaps that 13:23 — took its toll on Kiptoo, there was no question that Mantz was the class of this field on this day.
Teamwise, #1-ranked BYU struggled. Their #3 man, Brandon Garnica, was 13th at 9k but wound up collapsing with heat exhaustion and dropping out. Had Garnica finished in that position, BYU would have finished on the podium in 4th, but they would not have challenged NAU; while Mantz and Casey Clinger (13th) ran well, their other runners did not step up as no one else was inside the top 80.
Mantz’s win was the first by an American man at these championships since Galen Rupp in 2008. The NCAA system draws some of the best young talent in the world, so for an American to top them all is a big deal.
“It’s huge because of the depth of talent that we have at the Division I level in NCAA cross country,” Eyestone said.
Last five American men to win NCAA XC
2020 Conner Mantz, BYU
2008 Galen Rupp, Oregon
2007 Josh McDougal, Liberty
2006 Josh Rohatinsky, BYU
2003 Dathan Ritzenhein, Colorado
From a 74-second 400 to national champion in four years
It is worth noting that Mantz, who turned 24 in December, is a sixth-year senior and has not one, but two more seasons of XC eligibility remaining. It’s also worth noting that he has that eligibility because he went on a two-year Mormon mission to Ghana, and getting back into shape after that trip was not easy.
Mantz went on the trip shortly after graduating high school in 2015 and gained 30 pounds, in part due to a habit of stress-eating. Running had been one of his top priorities in high school, but in Ghana, he was no longer able to train and it was hard on him mentally.
“Seeing a little chub everywhere, no definition anywhere, I don’t know why, it shouldn’t have worn on me, but it did,” Mantz said.
Upon his return to the States, Mantz went to the track and ran 400 meters, all-out.
His time? 74 seconds — or three-and-a half seconds slower than his average pace for 6.2 miles today. (He also ran a 5k in just under 18:00, hinting that his endurance had survived slightly better than his speed)
Even once he began training again, Mantz had doubts, despite following a well-worn path for BYU athletes returning from missions. As he struggled to build his fitness, Mantz felt as if he was taking a scholarship from better runners. He even pondered if he should continue with the sport.
“Is worth it to work so hard to be in the back of workouts and dying on all these easy runs?” Mantz wondered.
Eventually, the fitness returned, and after redshirting the 2017 XC season, Mantz finished 10th at NCAAs in 2018 and has been among the country’s best ever since.
How did Notre Dame get second?
We spent a lot of time at LetsRun.com previewing this meet last week and the words “Notre Dame” never came up. Why would they have? Yes, the Irish were 8th at NCAAs last year and won ACCs in October 2020. But their top guys only raced once in 2021 ahead of NCAAs, and that result was nothing to write home about: ND was 4th at the Silver State Collegiate Challenge on February 1 in Las Vegas, scoring 80 points and finishing behind BYU, NAU, and Washington.
So how do you go from 80 points at the Silver State Collegiate Challenge to 87 and a runner-up finish at NCAAs six weeks later?
Coach Sean Carlson told LetsRun he wasn’t overly concerned with the result in Vegas. At that point, he said, his team had barely touched race pace in workouts and knew his team would be a lot better on March 15. Last year, Notre Dame made a similar improvement, from 15th at the Nuttycombe Invite to 8th at NCAAs.
“We were in the thick of things from a fitness standpoint,” Carlson said. “And it’s pretty hard to run some big miles and big workouts and race really, really good teams all at the same time.”
As recently as 2017, Notre Dame was finishing 7th at ACCs and 9th at the Great Lakes Regional. The turnaround Carlson has been able to engineer in South Bend is phenomenal, but it doesn’t happen without talent. Notre Dame has brought in some of the best recruiting classes in the country over the last few years. Four of their top six today were top-3 finishers at Foot Lockers:
10. Danny Kilrea — 3rd 2017 Foot Locker
20. Dylan Jacobs — 1st 2017 Foot Locker
22. Jake Renfree — 2nd 2018 Foot Locker
36. Josh Methner — 1st 2019 Foot Locker
“Some pretty big dogs committed to a pretty bad program at the time and it says a lot about their belief in me and what we could do to come to a program that maybe wasn’t there at the time and really see it through and pull through on our word to each other,” Carlson said.
Also, NCAA 1500 champ Yared Nuguse deserves major props. Nuguse and ND made the decision to go all-in on XC even though, individually, Nuguse would have a much better chance to win an NCAA title in indoor track. The decision worked out, as Nuguse (23rd overall) finished as the fifth man on an NCAA runner-up team — the highest ND has finished at this meet since its 1957 title team. (Ironically, the Irish ran so well that they would still have finished second without him).
Only 30 teams ran in this championships
Astute observers will notice only 30 teams show up in the result. Normally there are 31. That’s because Virginia was was knocked out of the championships due to COVID-19 contact tracing protocols.
Two Cavaliers did race. Harry Monroe, who was 13th at ACCs, was just 223rd, while 14:33 man Peter Morris was 158th.
Arkansas returns to the podium for the first time since 2005; OK State for first time since 2013
In the 26 years from 1980 through 2005, Arkansas was the dominant power in NCAA men’s cross country under coach John McDonnell, winning 11 national titles and racking up 20 podium finishes.
Chris Bucknam succeeded McDonnell in 2008, and though he was won an NCAA title on the track, the Razorbacks had yet to finish on the podium at NCAA XC during his tenure. That drought ended today, and it was a surprise that this particular Arkansas team was the one to get it done, taking 4th place.
The talent was there — Arkansas entered the meet ranked #3 in the coaches’ poll — but the question was how Bucknam’s stars would perform as three of Arkansas’ top athletes ran at NCAAs on the track, including two (Amon Kemboi and Gilbert Boit) running their third NCAA final in four days. Very well, as it turns out. Kemboi was 11th after taking 13th in the 5k and 4th in the 3k, Boit (12th 5k, 11th 3k), was 40th, and Jacob McLeod (10th 5k) was 57th to clinch the Hogs’ spot on the podium.
Likewise, host Oklahoma State got big runs from Isai Rodriguez (8th) and Alex Maier (17th) to finish 3rd, its first podium appearance since 2013. Quite a turnaround from last season, in which the Cowboys missed the meet entirely for the first time since 2002.
One historic program that did not fare as well was Colorado. Pac-12 champ Eduardo Herrera had a horrible day, finishing 107th overall, as Colorado wound up 14th, its worst finish since 2010.
For full coverage, including that of the women’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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