Courtesy BYU Photo
BYU captain Rory Linkletter and some teammates.
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If we could put together a Utah all-star team, we’d probably win the national championship regularly. —BYU cross country head coach Ed Eyestone

SALT LAKE CITY — If we needed further proof of Utah’s rise in the world of distance running, there was last weekend’s NCAA cross-country championships in Louisville, Kentucky. Here’s the way things shaped up at the finish line:

Men: BYU 3rd, Southern Utah 11th, Utah State 27th. Individual: Dillion Maggard, Utah State, 6th; Casey Clinger, BYU, 24th; Connor McMillan, BYU, 30th.

Women: BYU 11th, Utah State 14th. Individual: Grayson Murphy, Utah, 8th; Alyssa Snyder, Utah State, 25th.

It’s worth noting that there are more than 300 Div. I cross-country teams.

Sign of the times: BYU’s men’s team placed third — and was unhappy about it. The Cougars considered it an off day.

“We were hoping to win the whole thing,” said coach Ed Eyestone.

Eyestone and women’s coach Diljeet Taylor barely left their ZIP code to recruit their teams. Five of the men’s top seven runners — and four of the five scoring runners at nationals — are native Utahns, including Clinger (American Fork), Connor McMillan (American Fork), Rory Linkletter (Herriman), Kramer Morton (Alta) and Clayton Young (American Fork). Six of the women’s top seven runners are from Utah, including Courtney Wayment (Layton), Laura Young (South Jordan), Ashleigh Warner (Orem) and Whittni Orton (Panguitch).

We should’ve seen this coming. Since 2013, three Utahns — Ben Saarel, Sarah Feeny and Patrick Parker — have won the Adidas Dream Mile in New York City against the top prep milers in the country. American Fork set the national record for the 4 x 1 mile relay last spring. Clinger won two Nike national high school cross-country championships. Linkletter placed second in the 10,000-meter run at the NCAA track and field championships last spring, as a freshman. Jared Ward placed sixth in the Olympic marathon, and two other Utahns placed in the top eight of the U.S. Olympic marathon trials. Utah teams regularly appear in the top 10 of the high school rankings and now they are starting to show up in collegiate competition.

“If we could get the best kids out of Utah every year we’d be a powerhouse,” said Eyestone. “But other schools have recognized that and started to recruit here. And the other Utah schools are doing a good job, too. We’re dividing the talent. If we could put together a Utah all-star team, we’d probably win the national championship regularly … Per capita, Utah would rank ahead of the curve for producing distance runners.”

How does he account for this? “There’s probably some natural selection,” he says, laughing. “It’s pretty tough to walk across the plains (a la the Mormon pioneers). Plus, it’s a culture of goal setting, working hard, living a clean lifestyle. Also, we live and train at altitude and there are good prep coaches to develop talent. Those things all contribute to it.”

Southern Utah also has mixed in local talent while quietly becoming one of the big boys in running circles under coach Eric Houle. Their 11th-place finish put them ahead of schools such as Syracuse, Alabama, UCLA, Washington, Michigan State, Texas, etc. Josh Collins and Matt Wright, from tiny Midway and Enoch, were the team’s top finishers, 50th and 76th, respectively.

"To finish as a small mid-major team as high as we did is pretty cool," Houle said per the school's website. "We're considered a powerhouse. You have to feel good about that."

BYU, meanwhile, is built for the long run. The men’s team will return five of its top seven runners next season and will add two Utah prep stars, Conner Mantz and Aidan Troutner, next season. Troutner, a senior at Timpview High, recently won the Nike regional championships, and Mantz, a three-time prep All-American, will rejoin the team after serving a church mission this year. The women lose two seniors and return All-American Erica Birk, who redshirted the season.

“We’re in a position to be a consistent podium team (top three) at nationals,” says Eyestone.