A combination of naivete and grit outpaced raw talent as BYU’s cross country teams ran to first- and second-place finishes at nationals.
By Michael R. Walker (BA ’90) in the Winter 2020 Issue
Photography by Nathaniel Edwards
“Family hug! Family hug! FAMILY HUG! Woo-hoo-hoooo!” Completely wrecked, mud-spattered, and nearly hypothermic, the new national champs find enough energy to jump and cheer in unison—a joyful tradition they borrowed from Coach Eyestone’s family to wrap dramatic finishes.
No one expected this BYU men’s cross country team to go down in history. After all, if last year’s squad—with four All-Americans—couldn’t quite knock off the Northern Arizona University (NAU) dynasty, what could be expected of BYU in a “rebuilding year”?
But a rebuilding year would mean writing off 2019. That didn’t sit well with the seniors, like Jacob L. Heslington (’20). “Jake and the team captains didn’t want any part of that,” says head coach Edward D. Eyestone (BS ’85, MS ’90), so Eyestone and the team worked on a plan to enjoy success this year.
It didn’t come easy. Coming up short at an early-season meet in Oregon left runners questioning their abilities; grueling 100-mile weeks and physical setbacks took their toll; and then, 10 minutes before the final NCAA 10K in Terre Haute, Indiana, “it just let loose with this hypothermic sideways rain,” says Eyestone.
Shivering at the starting line, 255 athletes sunk their cleats into the rain-drenched turf, ready to muscle their way through the throng of runners to the course’s optimal merge point.
BYU’s team of seven were in box 42, a tough spot at the far right. “We had Matt Owens on the left side of our box because he’s a bigger guy and nobody’s going to shove him,” says Conner B. Mantz (’21). “Even though the start is really muddy—everything is just mud—we got out really well.”
The next goal, according to Eyestone, was “maintain and move up in the middle portion.” At about 3K in, when the electronic pads reported that BYU was ahead by 40 or 50 points over NAU, Eyestone was cautiously hopeful: “We were in position, but anything can happen at that point.” Mantz was sticking with the top pack but struggling with the mud and terrain: “My quads and calves were already feeling sore, and I was getting really nervous, because I’d never been sore this early in a race.”
In the final 2K, the plan was to “dominate your space and win the race that you’re in,” Eyestone says, each man fighting to hold or improve his position relative to the runners around him.
At the finish, five mud-streaked, soggy-cleated, completely wrecked Cougars finished in the top 45, earning BYU its first-ever men’s cross country championship and its first NCAA title in any sport in 15 years. Mantz finished third, Daniel S. Carney (BS ’19) 17th, and Heslington 21st, each earning All-America honors. Brandon J. Garnica (’22) took 42nd place; Matthew W. Owens (’21), who had never before raced in a collegiate 10K, placed 45th.
Following the win Eyestone said, “One of our themes this year was naivete, just being dumb enough to believe that great things can happen,” an attitude adopted from comedian and actor Steve Martin—who wrote, “Perseverance is a great substitute for talent.”
With the win Eyestone became the first in NCAA cross country history to earn both an individual national title (back in 1984) and then to coach a championship team. The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association named him the 2019 National Coach of the Year.
Tough > Talented
BYU women’s cross country coach Diljeet Taylor made a promise to the freshmen on her team four years ago: “Before you’re done here, we’ll be fighting for the podium.” It was a pretty bold statement, she admits: “BYU hadn’t been top 10 in over a decade.”
In Taylor’s first year, the team leapt from 23rd to 10th. Now, only three years later, they took second at nationals, finishing just six painful points behind Arkansas. It was the BYU women’s best result since 2003. In true team style, Courtney Wayment Smith (’20), Erica Birk-Jarvis (’20), and Whittni Orton (’21) converged at the finish of the championship 6K to take fifth, sixth, and seventh place, earning All-America status.
Recognizing that other programs had, on paper, more talent than BYU, Taylor started the season with a team goal of being tougher. Her mantra: “I don’t want to have the most talented team in November. I want to have the toughest team.”
Taylor reiterated the message in multiple ways: with personal notes, “TaYlor-made” beanies, and toughness-themed pens to go along with the team’s intense training, one-on-one meetings, and pre-meet dinners. But the relationship went beyond food and gear, says Orton: “She’s honest and blunt; she’ll only tell you something if she believes you can do it. If she says I can do something, it takes off some stress.”
Even before this year’s success, California-native Taylor had been offered coaching jobs at the high-profile Oregon and Stanford programs. Still, after the NCAAs, she sent texts to her incoming freshmen recruits: “I promise you we’ll get back here.” She begins another cycle of living up to her first name—Diljeet in Punjabi means “winner of hearts.”
Taylor says the relationships and impact she can make at BYU are what matter to her. “More than the records and medals and trophies, I think the long-term impact of what I’m doing for these women reaches pretty far. I’m empowered to empower these women,” she says. “We’ve found a way to do it here.”
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