Conner Mantz

Conner Mantz, shown here winning the West Coast Conference cross country meet this past spring for BYU, is now the two-time defending NCAA champion. Mantz is from Smithfield.

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The most decorated distance runner to ever come out of Cache Valley put together another performance for the ages at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, which were contested Saturday in Tallahassee, Florida.

Conner Mantz, a junior eligibility wise at BYU, defended his individual title and he broke the 10-kilometer record at the Apalachee Regional Park course, to boot. Mantz completed the race in 28 minutes, 33.1 seconds, which was more than five seconds faster than runner-up Wesley Kiptoo of Iowa State.

The Smithfield native is just the 11th men's D-I athlete to capture a second national title since the NCAA started sanctioning the sport 83 years ago. Mantz was also the medalist at the 2020 NCAA Championships, which were moved to March 15 of 2021 due to COVID-19.

Mantz won that race by 22 seconds, but was tested by long-rival rival Kiptoo and Campbell's Athana Kioko in his quest for a repeat. The three runners were credited with the same time at the 9,000-meter mark, but Mantz was ultimately able to gap his primary competitors. Kioko crossed the finish line nearly nine seconds after Mantz, the first repeat champion since Oregon's Edward Cheserek (2014-15), and was third overall.

“As soon as (Kioko) slowed down, I made a really hard surge and just kind of enjoyed the last 100 meters down the hill,” Mantz said in a press release.

Mantz was also in first place at the 2K, 4K, 5K, 6K, 7K and 8K check points on his way to winning his ninth straight meet spanning the 2020 (really spring of 2021) and 2021 seasons --- an incredible accomplishment in a sport where even elite athletes routinely have at least one occasional off-day.

“The race started out and I knew it was going to be quick,” said Mantz, who, this past spring, became the first American-born Division I champion in cross country since Galen Rupp in 2008. “This was probably the best start I’ve ever had in a cross country race.”

This was likely the son of Robert and Joanna Mantz's last collegiate cross country race, although he does have more more year of eligibility due to COVID. The former Sky View High School star is now a four-time All-American in the sport as he placed third at nationals in 2019 and 10th in 2018. Mantz, who helped propel the Cougars to the NCAA team title in '19, is also a three-time West Coast Conference champion, plus he was BYU's first medalist at the NCAA Mountain Regional Championships, held eight days before nationals, since 2011.

Last Saturday was a historic day for BYU as Panguitch native Whitney Orton was the women's individual champion. This is only the second time in NCAA history --- at least at the D-I level --- both medalists came from the same school. Orton covered the 6K course in 19:25.4, which was nearly five seconds faster than runner-up Mercy Chelangat of Alabama.

Orton and the fourth-ranked Lady Cougars left with the second-place trophy. Top-ranked North Carolina State rolled to the team title with 84 points, followed by BYU (122) and second-ranked New Mexico (130). Colorado State (455 points) placed 17th in the 31-team field, while Utah was 20th (483) and Utah State was 28th (638).

Top-ranked Northern Arizona dominated the men's competition as the Lumberjacks limited their point tally to 92 and claimed their fifth national crown in a six-season span. No. 6 Iowa State was second (137), followed by No. 3 Oklahoma State (186). BYU was seventh (246), Air Force was 17th (453) and Southern Utah 24th (573).

The Lady Aggies, ranked 27th heading into the meet, competed at nationals for the second time in program history. USU was one of five women's teams from an absolutely loaded Mountain Region to receive at-large bids.

Utah State was led by Katie Haviland, who competed at this meet as an individual this past spring. Haviland placed 81st out of 250 harriers and crossed the finish line in 20:23. Teammate Mica Rivera finished 135th and clocked in at 20:44.

Haviland and Rivera were the only seniors to represent the Aggies. USU's other competitors were Abby Jensen (185th, 21:00), Bailey Brinkerhoff (188th, 21:06), Morgan French (192nd, 21:08), Emma Thornley (218th, 21:23) and Abigail Gray (228th, 21:42).

“Our ladies ran tough,” said Utah State head coach Artie Gulden in a press release. “We didn’t get out well at the start, but they fought and kept moving up. We didn’t place like we had hoped, but the great effort was there.

“Hopefully, this can be a learning experience for them and we will be super motivated to get back here next year. The ladies had a tremendous season and should be incredibly proud of themselves."

Another local athlete who fared well was former Preston High standout Billie Hatch, who is currently a senior at Weber State. Hatch was a Division II All-American at Dixie State University before transferring to WSU prior to the spring season of '21. Hatch placed 59th with a time of 20:12.

Hatch needed to run 15 seconds faster to finish in the top 40 and thus secure All-America accolades. She was in the top 40 at the 2K and 3K marks. Hatch, the Big Sky Conference runner-up, qualified for nationals as an individual thanks to her impressive 12th-place performance at regionals.

Two of Hatch's teammates also showcased their talents at nationals and it was a memorable day for the husband-wife duo of Christian and Summer Allen as both earned All-America honors in cross country for the second time. Christian Allen was 16th in the men's race, while Summer Allen was 35th in the women's.

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.

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