2021 NCAA XC Men’s Individual Preview: Will Conner Mantz Become a Legend? Or Will Wesley Kiptoo Earn Redemption?
By Jonathan Gault
November 17, 2021
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Conner Mantz is chasing more than a win at the 2021 NCAA Cross Country Championships. He is chasing immortality.
Okay, “immortality” is a bit grandiose. Cross country, as a sport, is so unpopular amongst the general public that even sports trivia geeks would have a hard time producing his name.
But here on LetsRun.com, Mantz is 10,000 meters away from becoming a legend. A win on Saturday in Tallahassee would close out a perfect season and clinch a second straight national title. It would also make all sorts of history. With a win, Mantz would become:
-the thirteenth man to win multiple NCAA XC titles
-the twelfth man to repeat as NCAA XC champ (Bob Kennedy in ’88 and ’92 is the only man to win multiple titles without going back-to-back)
-the eighth man to finish in the top 10 at NCAA XC four times
-the sixth man to win two NCAA individual titles and a team title
-the first man to win two NCAA XC titles in the same calendar year
Mantz would not quite crack the Mount Rushmore of NCAA men’s cross country. Those spots go to Gerry Lindgren, Steve Prefontaine, Henry Rono, and Edward Cheserek, the four men to win three NCAA individual titles. Still, Mantz would go down as one the best the NCAA has ever seen, and it would be difficult for anyone to surpass him as the best NCAA XC runner of the 2020s.
The NCAA XC individual title, however, is the hardest race to win in collegiate distance running. It has earned that reputation — just ask Jenny Simpson in 2009 or Cheserek in 2016. It is a race where stars are humbled and the unbeatable are beaten. Anything can happen — and often does.
Can Mantz end his NCAA career with a victory? Or will Wesley Kiptoo, Adriaan Wildschutt, or Americans Cooper Teare and Nico Young have something to say about it? Let’s break it down.
Mantz Aiming for Repeat
Usually, when someone wins NCAA XC and returns the next fall, they enter the season as the clear favorite. And for good reason: eight of the last 13 NCAA individual champions were also the top finisher at the previous year’s championships.
That should have made Mantz the obvious pick ahead of the 2021 season, though there were a few complications. Mantz won the 2020 title (in March 2021), but he benefited from the fact that his top rival, Wesley Kiptoo of Iowa State, was running on tired legs. Just three days earlier, Kiptoo had blasted a meet-record 13:23.77 to win the NCAA Indoor 5,000 title (including a 59.79 first lap!). Another potential rival, Cooper Teare of Oregon (who would go on to win the NCAA outdoor 5,000 title and finish 4th at the Olympic Trials), didn’t run XC as he was 100% focused on indoor track. With both of those men returning, would Mantz retain his favorite status throughout the season?
100% yes. Mantz has ripped through an undefeated fall, and he’s done it by beating the best the NCAA has to offer. On September 24, he beat Kiptoo at Roy Griak. Three weeks later at Pre-Nats, he took down Florida State’s Adriaan Wildschutt on his own course. And last week at regionals, Mantz held off Northern Arizona’s Nico Young to win the Mountain Regional title.
If you’re keeping track, that’s the second (Wildschutt), third (Kiptoo), and fourth (Young) placers from last year’s national meet, all dispatched by Mantz. Taking them all down again to win the NCAA title on Saturday would complete a season for the ages.
The argument against Mantz is that all three of those races were close. He beat Kiptoo by 1.0 second, Wildschutt by 2.5, and Young by 1.2. He’s been the best in the NCAA this year, no doubt, but someone could beat him on Saturday.
They just might have to bleed to do it.
In NCAA cross country, they don’t come any tougher than Conner Mantz. He’s a throwback*, always grinding from the front, impossible to drop, and logging mega miles. His Strava account reveals Bruce Denton-like consistency: from the middle of July until the week before regionals, Mantz averaged 104.8 miles per week — all of it in six days a week, because, as a Mormon, he doesn’t run on Sundays.
*I swear that’s not meant as a dig at his age, but I should point out Mantz is a seventh-year senior who turns 25 in three weeks
His track credentials are impressive (13:24/27:41, 5th in Olympic Trials 10k), but he’s also one tough cookie who can absorb whatever punishment is thrown his way and still dish out some of his own. No race demonstrated this better than the last NCAA XC in March when Mantz followed Kiptoo through 1k in 2:31, hung on, and then put 22 seconds on the field over the final 2k of the toughest NCAA course in recent memory.
(LRC “It Will Be a Bloodbath” — Are You Ready for the Hardest NCAA XC Course in Recent Memory?)
So yeah, Mantz is your favorite on Saturday. But the last guy who won NCAA XC by 20+ seconds (Cheserek in 2015) wound up losing the following year. So let’s examine the other contenders.
The Two Biggest Challengers
Wesley Kiptoo, junior, Iowa State
2020 NCAA XC finish: 3rd
Track pbs: 13:21/27:37
Outside of his two races against Mantz, Kiptoo has run seven cross country races since enrolling at Iowa State last year. He’s won them all, by an average 15 seconds a pop. That includes some truly impressive beatdowns, like his 24-second stomping of OK State’s Isai Rodriguez (a two-time top-10 guy at NCAAs) at Big 12s this year, or his 22:48.8 at the FSU Winter XC Classic in February, in which he finished 15 seconds ahead of runner-up Eduardo Herrera (a 13:24 guy), 28 seconds ahead of third-placer Wildschutt, and broke the course record by 35 seconds. Mantz lowered that CR to 22:47.0 in October, but Kiptoo has experience running (and winning) on the nationals course.
Kiptoo is a total beast. He’s also utterly fearless, which is not always a good thing. He spent most of his first year in the NCAA starting absurdly fast and opening up enormous leads. That worked well enough early on, but it backfired at NCAA XC, where he ran out of gas and had nothing over the final 2k. By the end of the track season, a year of running races the hardest possible way had totally worn Kiptoo out, and he could manage only 13th and 11th in the 5k and 10k at NCAA outdoors.
This year, Kiptoo’s coach Jeremy Sudbury has preached a (slightly) more patient approach. Rather than flooring it from the gun, Kiptoo has waited a mile or two to push the pace. The early results are promising: Kiptoo came closer than anyone in the NCAA to beating Mantz in 2021 and won the rest of his races comfortably.
The real test comes on Saturday. Kiptoo might be able to win this race by dropping the hammer from a mile out, maybe two. But this field is too good for him to drop them in the first 5k. He needs to heed one of my favorite quotes from Adam Goucher in Running with the Buffaloes, who reminded himself to stay patient in the 1998 NCAA XC champs against a field featuring stars like Abdi Abdirahman and Bernard Lagat: “Good guys take a long time to die.” That advice led to a title for Goucher. Could it do the same for Kiptoo in Tallahassee?
Adriaan Wildschutt, junior, Florida State
Country: South Africa
2020 NCAA XC finish: 2nd
Track pbs: 13:28/27:48
At the 8k mark of the last NCAAs in March, Mantz, Kiptoo, and Wildschutt were running by themselves clear of the field. Not much seems to have changed in 2021. Wildschutt has basically been Kiptoo without the attention. He only has one loss this year, to Mantz at Pre-Nats, and has crushed everyone else he’s faced, including some really good guys like Stanford’s Charles Hicks and NAU’s Big Three. He also has the luxury of racing at home, where he’ll attempt to follow in the footsteps of Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald, who won NCAAs on his home course in 2018.
Cooper Teare, senior, Oregon
2020 NCAA XC finish: N/A
Track pbs: 3:50/13:12
It should tell you how stacked the NCAA is this year that a guy who has run 3:50 and 13:12 and was less than a second from making the US Olympic team at 5,000 meters in June might not finish in the top three at NCAA XC. Teare, the reigning NCAA 5,000 champ, is a monster talent, but through four races this season, he has yet to show he belongs in the Mantz/Kiptoo/Wildschutt tier in XC.
The argument for Teare is that he has yet to have his breakthrough race this season. At Nuttycombe, he was second behind Kiptoo — but he made a conscious decision to let Kiptoo go early in the race, something Teare may not have done at NCAAs where place truly matters. At Pac-12s, Teare was upset by Stanford’s Charles Hicks, who put almost 10 seconds on Teare in the final 400 — but that race was at 4,200 feet in Salt Lake City. Maybe Hicks is a better altitude responder? And at the West Regional, Teare was just behind Hicks and Washington’s Kieran Lumb, a 13:24 guy — but it’s regionals, so how much does it matter?
Is Teare a guy who is better at track than 10k XC or a complete stud who is about to run his best race of the season and win the whole thing? I lean toward the former, but we can’t rule out the latter. And even if the former is true, the course is fast and well suited to a “track guy.”
Nico Young, freshman, Northern Arizona
2020 NCAA XC finish: 4th
Track pbs: 13:24
Young has only finished as NAU’s top runner once this season. He could easily finish as the Lumberjacks’ third man on Saturday behind fellow stars Abdihamid Nur and Drew Bosley.
He’s also one of the top American distance prospects of the last decade. As a high school senior, Young won NXN and broke the course record. Indoors, he ran a high school record of 7:56 for 3000 before COVID shut down his outdoor season. Last year, Young was 4th at NCAA XC — the best finish by an American true freshman since Dathan Ritzenhein in 2001 — and ran 13:24 for 5k outdoors, breaking German Fernandez‘s US U20 record.
But Young is, well, young. He’s just 19, far younger than Teare (22), Wildschutt (23), or Mantz (24). That being said, he was 18 in March and finished 4th. His potential is enormous. If Mike Smith gives him the green light to chase the leaders on Saturday, he could be a contender.
Top-10 Guys Who Probably Won’t Win
Brit Charles Hicks of Stanford was 14th last season and has been even better this year, finishing 2nd at the FSU XC Open, 3rd at Nuttycombe, and 1st at Pac-12s. But he’s also lost to Wildschutt, Teare, and Kiptoo head-to-head and it’s hard to see him beating all three on Saturday…Isai Rodriguez of Oklahoma State was 4th at NCAAs in 2018 and 8th last year and may have had the single best performance by any athlete this season when he ran 23:05 to break the OSU course record at the Cowboy Jamboree, crushing guys like Eduardo Herrera, Abdihamid Nur, and Nico Young by 30+ seconds. But he’s also perennially banged up, lost to Kiptoo by 24 seconds at Big 12s, and finished as OSU’s sixth man at regionals…Athanas Kioko of Campbell is undefeated this year and has run 13:13 on the track. Why the hell haven’t I mentioned him yet? Because he hasn’t raced anyone. His three races consisted of the Elon Opener on September 3 (a 6k race), the Big South champs, and the Southeast Regional. We won’t know how he stacks up against the big boys until Saturday…Abdihamid Nur was NAU’s top man at the Cowboy Jamboree and Pre-Nats, was 7th last year, and has run 13:26/27:42. He has a good shot to finish in the top 10 again.
This will be likely be Mantz’s final NCAA race — he told me back in September his plan was to turn pro after the cross country season. I expect him to go out a champion.
I spent most of Monday trying to think of a reason to pick against Mantz and struggled to think of one. He’s the reigning champ, he’s been incredible in 2021, and he owns his biggest rival (he’s 3-0 lifetime against Kiptoo).
The best argument against Mantz is that Kiptoo ran like an idiot at NCAAs last year and should win this time around with a smarter race plan. But I’m not sure I buy that. Mantz was lights-out in Stillwater — he won by 22 seconds. He may just be better than Kiptoo, period.
1. Mantz 2. Kiptoo 3. Wildschutt
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