Cougars aim for a podium finish at nationals

PROVO, Utah – After placing second in the Mountain Region Championships last weekend, the No. 8 BYU men's cross country team heads to the NCAA National Championships to try to make the podium for the second year in a row.

The race begins Saturday at 1:15 p.m. EST and will be held at E.P. "Tom" Sawyer State Park in Louisville, Kent. Earlier this year, the Cougars took second place behind Colorado at the Pre-Nationals meet held at the same venue.

"The guys are familiar with the course so there won't be any big surprises for them," head coach Ed Eyestone said. "It's always nice to have a little experience on a course."

The race will include the nation's top cross country programs, including BYU's West Coast Conference rival Portland, who ranked ninth in the latest national coaches' poll. Oklahoma State, Wisconsin and Colorado are among the other top-tier schools the Cougars will face this weekend.

"We're going to have to run a very good race because there are a lot of good teams out there," Eyestone said. "But I think if we do run our best race we have a nice chance to be a podium team again this year."

Despite missing two meets in the middle of the season due to illness and minor injury, senior All-American Rex Shields returned to lineup last weekend to finish 15th overall at the Mountain Region Championships, earning All-Region honors with fellow teammates Jared Ward, Tylor Thatcher, Jason Witt and Conner Peloquin. Eyestone said it makes a big difference to have one of his leaders back in action.

"It's good to have Rex back. He was able to run a very hard race last week on a sore foot and got a good workout out of it," Eyestone said. "It was just another great training stimulus for him."

As a co-captain with Shields, Ward has been BYU's top runner all season. Eyestone said Ward is used to running a more conservative pace early in races, but expects he'll need to get out front a little earlier in order to place as high as he can.

"We will come up with a strategy that will allow Jared to reach his potential," Eyestone said. "I don't think our team wants Jared to sacrifice any individual glory for the sake of running with the team. Ultimately, the thing that's best for the team is for Jared to have his best race and for the other runners to finish as fast as they can, with good compression between them."

Having placed fourth at last year's national meet, Eyestone said his team knows what it takes to make it to the podium and wants to hold up a trophy again this year.

"Our team's level of expectation is to get back to the podium," he said. "There are some top-notch teams that we'll be battling with, and we respect those teams, but we feel like our team can merit a top-four finish or better."

Results for the meet will be posted on the BYU men's cross country home page as soon as they are available.