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Having their season postponed from the fall to the following spring was surely challenging for the Aggies, but it was well worth their wait.

That’s because Utah State’s men’s cross country team is headed back to the NCAA Championships. The 21st-ranked Aggies found out Sunday they were one of 31 men’s teams selected for nationals, which will take place next Monday in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

This is the third time in the last four seasons USU’s men’s program has received a bid to the NCAA Championships. The Aggies finished 27th at this meet in 2017 and 16th in 2019.

“I am really thrilled because we have been thinking about this for about a year-and-a-half now,” Aggie junior Caleb Garnica said in a press release. “I remember last time we went to nationals. I was at dinner with coach (Artie) Gulden. It was just me and a few of the guys, and he told us, ‘Tomorrow is when we start training for going back again.’ Just thinking about how that was a long time ago and now we are back here again and have qualified, and heading to Oklahoma, it feels amazing.”

Air Force will also represent the Mountain West in the men’s field at nationals. The Falcons, ranked 19th nationally in the latest poll, edged the Aggies by four points, 29-33, at last Friday’s MW Championships. Garnica was the individual champion.

USU is one of three men’s teams from the Beehive State that will be in Stillwater next week. No. 1 BYU and No. 26 Southern Utah will be in action. The defending champion Cougars are led by former Sky View standout Conner Mantz. Mantz will be one of the favorites to win next Monday’s 10-kilometer race.

It was also a memorable Sunday for Aggie senior Katie Haviland, who found out she would be competing as an individual at nationals. Other individual qualifiers from the Mountain West are Air Force’s Mahala Norris — the women’s medalist at the conference meet — and New Mexico’s Abdirizak Ibrahhium.

Thirty-eight athletes on both the women’s and men’s side were selected to participate at nationals through an automatic qualifier and at-large selection process.

“I am absolutely overwhelmed with gratitude and it just means the world to me to go,” Haviland said in a press release. “I was so scared that I wouldn’t be selected and seeing my name up there was pure excitement. Knowing that I have this opportunity changes everything for me. I hope this paves the way for the team and I would love to be able to take everyone with me next year.”

Haviland was USU’s top performer at the MW meet as she placed eighth and helped the Lady Aggies finish fourth with 104 points — only 20 more than third-place Colorado State. The Lady Rams were chosen to compete at nationals, as were the New Mexico and Boise State women. UNM, which has captured 13 straight conference titles, is ranked third nationally, while BSU is 10th.

“I would have loved for the ladies to be there as a team, but we’re very young and hopefully this will get them even more hungry,” Gulden said. “... With the guys, it was more expected to qualify for nationals based on what we had done throughout the year. It was disappointing to get beat by Air Force on Friday, but it was a fantastic race, they ran great and they just beat us, and sometimes that happens.”

Haviland is the only senior who competed for the USU women at the MW Championships. Likewise, the Aggies only had one senior who ran at the conference meet on the men’s side.

No. 2 BYU will also represent the Beehive State in the women’s field at nationals.

USU GYMNASTS

The No. 20 Aggies shined in a tri-meet at No. 13 Denver on Sunday. The Pioneers prevailed with a very impressive score of 197.650, but USU easily outpointed No. 15 Southern Utah by a 196.775 to 195.125 scoreline. It was the Aggies’ third-best score in program history.

USU posted a score of 49 or better on each event for the second straight meet. The Aggies recorded a 49.400 on beam, which ranks third in the program record books.

“It was a great day for the Aggies,” USU head coach Amy Smith said in a press release. “We had a few little hiccups here and there, but the team just kept battling through. Our vault warmup was a little wonky, so for them to flip the switch and deliver like that was so awesome to watch. I am proud of the team, and the coolest thing about today is we’ve got more. I feel like we are peaking at the right time, which is very exciting.”

The Aggies were led by Leighton Varnadore, who finished second in the all-around with a season-high score of 39.325. The graduate student was credited with a score of 9.80 or better in all four events.

Varnadore and teammate Rebecca Wells tied for the No. 4 position on the vault with scores of 9.875. Brianna Brooks led the Aggies on bars with a 9.825, while Wells led the team on beam with a 9.90 and Autumn DeHarde on floor with a 9.90. DeHarde finished fourth on floor.

USU’s final apparatus was beam, where the Aggies eclipsed the 49 barrier for the seventh consecutive meet, extending their own school record.

On Monday, Varnadore and Wells found out they were honored as the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference co-vault specialists of the week. Varnadore was also tabbed the MRGC Gymnast of the Week.

The Aggies will return to action this Friday at No. 4 Utah. This will be USU’s fourth road meet in a row.

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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