PROVO, Utah -- Before the 2012 cross country season, BYU head coach Ed Eyestone said he believed his team could be a contender for conference, regional and national success.
By season’s end, the Cougars had earned a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships, second-place finishes at conference and region championships and had two All-American athletes that proved Eyestone right.
“I think finishing sixth was an excellent performance for us,” Eyestone said. “Any time you have two All-Americans and finish in the top 10 at nationals, that’s a sign of a good season.”
The Cougars opened the season ranked No. 3 and maintained that spot for half of the season. They never ranked lower than No. 8 in the country throughout the entire season.
BYU was led by junior co-captain Jared Ward, who earned All-America honors by finishing 14th overall at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Ward finished first for the Cougars in every race he ran. At the West Coast Conference Championships, Ward finished first overall, helping the Cougars to a second-place finish. Ward took third overall at the NCAA Mountain Region Championships, finished second at the Bill Dellinger Invitational and took eighth overall at the Pre-Nationals meet. Ward was the WCC Player of the Month for October and earned All-Academic honors from the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA).
“We had a goal as a team from the beginning of the season to make it back to the podium,” Ward said. “Even though we fell a little short, we know that we ran as hard as we could. We were able to come home from nationals with our heads held high and proud to be a part of this team.”
Junior Tylor Thatcher was another standout performer for the Cougars in 2012. Thatcher earned All-America honors by finishing 34th at the NCAA Championships. Thatcher was BYU’s second man for most of the season, finishing second to Ward in five of his six races. He took fifth overall at the Bill Dellinger Invitational, 20th at Pre-Nationals, fourth at the WCC Championships and ninth at the NCAA regional meet. Thatcher also earned a spot on the USTFCCCA All-Academic team by finishing in the top 40 at nationals and having a grade point average above 3.25.
The Cougars were helped throughout the season by strong performances from its entire roster. Conner Peloquin, Steve Flint, Thomas Gruenewald, Jason Witt and Rex Shields all proved themselves over the course of the season, especially at the NCAA Championships.
“Our guys definitely rose to the occasion at nationals,” Eyestone said. “Conner and Tommy (Gruenewald) were back pretty far to start the race, and they just progressively moved their way through. Towards the end, Steve Flint must have passed 20 guys over the last mile or so and that made a big difference for us.”
Though the season was an overall success, it wasn’t without its hardships. Senior co-captain and All-American Rex Shields battled plantar fasciitis throughout the season and never regained the form he had in 2011 when he took 22nd at the NCAA Championships. Despite his injuries, Shields was able to take 15th overall at the NCAA Mountain Region meet, which qualified him as the third Cougar to receive USTFCCCA All-Academic honors in 2012.
At the NCAA Championships, Shields again struggled with pain in his foot while Witt battled a case of strep throat. Knowing that two of his key runners weren’t in top form, Eyestone was pleased to see the rest of the team step up and earn the sixth-place finish.
“It was a tough blow for us to have some sickness and injury going into nationals, but that happens,” Eyestone said. “I was very pleased, though, with the five scoring runners that we had because from very early on it looked like the guys who were sick or hurt weren’t going to be back, and so our five other runners really had to step up and they came through for us.”
The sixth-place finish marked the fourth time BYU has made the top 10 at the NCAA Championships with Eyestone as coach. With two All-Americans returning next season in Ward and Thatcher, Eyestone believes another top-10 finish is a possibility for next season.
“We have some very good runners returning next year, and we all have high expectations,” Eyestone said. “When you get a taste of finishing in the top-10 or on the podium at nationals, you want to do everything you can to get back there.”