Updated: Jan 13
With the possible exception of Northern Arizona, no team is losing more top-level talent from last year than BYU. After a fantastic season that would have resulted in a National title in most non-NAU years, the Cougars graduate their senior stars. Leaving are Rory Linkletter, Connor McMillan, and Clayton Young. Another loss is Dallin Farnsworth as he transfers to Utah State, although his impact held the most weight on the track. Losing three All-Americans is generally a crippling blow for any program, but for BYU it only slightly decreases their national title odds.
Throughout the preseason rankings we have talked a lot of about the depth of certain programs. Schools like Portland and Michigan have plenty of potential varsity scorers which should set them up well for this year. The Cougars, though, are on a different level when it comes to depth. They could have two (dare I say three?) top 25 teams if the NCAA forced them to split the team up.
BYU still returns four members from last year's 2nd place team which gives them plenty of options to fill out the remaining three spots. For this year’s team to get back on the podium, they will need their very talented, but inexperienced members to come up big when it matters most.
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BYU's 2018 season started with a dominant sweep at the BYU Autumn Classic where some of their top guys made their debut. It was at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational where BYU had their first competitive race. The field included top teams such as Wyoming and Notre Dame, but the Cougars easily cruised past those squads just like had in their home opener. The 2019 returners held their own as Daniel Carney finished 2nd overall while Conner Mantz and Clayson Shumway crossed the line right behind him in 5th and 6th. Other top finishers were Jacob Heslington (11th), Zac Jacklin (17th), and Garrett Marsing (21st). The team had a near-perfect score of 23 points.
So far, the season was going perfectly.
Their next big test would in the White race at Pre-Nationals. The win streak continued against a strong field in Madison, Wisconsin as the Cougars proved that they were in a class of their own. Senior Rory Linkletter won the race, but returners Mantz and Shumway were right on his heels finishing 4th and 5th overall. With two other seniors, McMillan and Young, finishing in the top 12, BYU scored an astonishing 29 points to beat 2nd place Washington by a whopping 77 points. To make matters even better, Jacob Heslington finished 20th overall at the team's #6 runner. If you had taken Linkletter out of the scoring and replaced him with Heslington, BYU would have still scored under 50 points.
Next up was the West Coast Conference Championships. Coach Ed Eyestone ran a hybrid lineup which, against an intentionally weakened Portland team, won handily. Behind a runner-up finish from senior Connor McMillan, Mantz and Brayden McLelland finished 3rd and 5th. Heslington and Shumway finished 7th and 8th as Jacklin earned a 15th place performance behind them to cap yet another dominant race.
Matched up with their rival NAU at the Mountain Regional Championships, BYU took care of business by qualifying for Nationals with a 2nd place finish. Coach Eyestone again held out a few of his top guys, but it didn’t matter when you consider the fact that the team was only focused on qualifying for the national meet. Mantz led the team in 6th while Shumway and Heslington were 15th and 18th, respectively. Jacklin, in his first regional race, performed well to earn a 24th place finish. Another freshman who got his first taste of the NCAA postseason was Brandon Garnica who crossed the line in 28th.
BYU’s second trip to Madison, Wisconsin was arguably just as impressive as their first. The Cougars had four All-Americans including Mantz and Shumway who finished 10th and 32nd, respectively. Hestlington and McLelland just missed the top 40, earning 50th and 62nd place finishes of their own.
Unfortunately for BYU, the Northern Arizona men had an unbelievable six All-Americans and edged out the Cougars for the team title. Still, after being upset for 2nd place in 2017, the men from Brigham Young were able to secure the runner-up position that they knew they were capable of.
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For as well as BYU ran last fall, their performance this past spring was awe-inspiring. The Cougars qualified six - I repeat, six - men to Nationals in the 10k while others earned spots to the national meet in the steeplechase. Everyone from that steeplechase crew - Shumway, Kenneth Rooks, Matt Owens, and Heslington - return for cross country in 2019. However, only two return from the 10k group, Mantz and Weaver, but both should help this fall.
With Mantz, Shumway, Heslington, and McLelland leading the team, there will be plenty of competition for those last three spots and even for the returner’s spots. Mantz had a breakout track season, qualifying for both indoor and outdoor Nationals in multiple events. He will be one of the best low-sticks in the country and he'll have a great shot at finishing top five.
Behind him will be Shumway who ran PR's in the steeple (8:36) and 10k (28:36) this past spring. He will look to inch into the top 25 this fall, a spot that seems more than reasonable. Heslington, like Shumway, ran PR's in the steeple and the 5k and has a great chance at earning an All-American finish of how. Together, these three men will have the opportunity to assemble one of the better scoring trio's in the NCAA this fall.
Behind those three, along with a quietly talented runner in Brayden McLelland, are a plethora of options. Rising sophomore Zac Jacklin, after a solid fall, ran 14:12 during the spring track season and should be in the mix to be on this squad as they attempt to return to Terre Haute.
Likewise, Connor Weaver and Daniel Carney ran well at Joe Piane, but didn’t compete afterwards. They both had very good track seasons as they each ran 14:00 in the 5k and close to 29:00 in the 10k. And how about the Brandon Garnica? He was 28th at the Mountain Regional Championships and ran 14:05 this past spring. And Michael Ottesen? Well, he ran 28:58 and 14:08. And don't worry, we didn't forget about top-tier steeplechasers Matt Owens and Kenneth Rooks.
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As you can see, the competition for varsity spots will be fierce. The future is also in good hands with this year’s top recruiting class. Grant Gardner won’t contribute this year as he is headed on his mission, but as an 8:58 3200 meter runner, he will help the team when he comes back. Twin brothers Garrett and Jacob Stanford have both run 4:13 or faster and both had decent performance at NXN this past fall. Additionally, Luke Grundvig and Zack Eriksen will add to the future depth of the team. Eriksen was 28th at Footlocker while Grundvig was 40th at NXN.
If it's not clear already, the potential lineup options that BYU has on their roster is jaw-dropping. In the eyes of many, they are the deepest team in the country. However, a lot of the questions and uncertainties surrounding their depth isn't about if they'll be good enough to have a competitive top seven. In this case, it's a matter of how good they can be. Can the team translate their success on the track to the cross country course? Will their youth and inexperience prove to be a liability? How much of last year's firepower can they replicate?
There is no doubt in my mind that the Cougars will be good, but these feel like fair questions to ask as we enter the next few months of competition.
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For BYU to reach the same heights that they did last year, they will need their top three to be the All-Americans that we know they can be. If only a few individuals make the expected steps up in fitness, then this team can easily get back on the podium.
This group is full veteran leaders and a coach who has experience guiding teams to the podium, don’t be surprised to see the Cougars challenging again for a National title.