How BYU’s Women Navigated A Tough NCAA Champs Double

BYU coach Diljeet Taylor’s bold split-squad strategy reaped three NCAA women’s crowns in two sports on a busy long weekend. (JAREN WILKEY/BYU PHOTO)

DILJEET TAYLOR couldn’t be sure her plan would work, but as a coach she trusted her athletes.

In January the BYU women’s coach chose a remarkably bold and courageous path that led to crowning team and individual achievements in March.

Last September the NCAA postponed the ’20 XC Championships from November to March, leaving collegiate distance coaches facing a choice: how to navigate a single 5-day stretch that featured both that meet and the ’21 Indoor Championships.

Do you choose to attend one championship? Do you gamble by asking your best athletes to do both? In which meet could your athletes do best? If your program is distance-oriented, do you skip indoors to spotlight cross country? Or are your distance runners a vital cog in your overall Indoor team score?

Late in the fall, Taylor chose an ambitious strategy: BYU would win at both championships. But her plan took an even more audacious step: win at both, but with a different group of athletes in each meet. Not only did that mean overseeing two groups in the weeks and months leading up to the championship weekend, it also meant navigating two notable meets on the same weekend.

Wednesday, March 10: Taylor and 8 Cougar women travel to the NCAA Indoor in Fayetteville, Arkansas. They rest that night, and then go through a premeet routine on Thursday, in the Tyson Track Center.

In January, Taylor (BYU’s Associate Director of Cross Country and Track & Field, and the Head Coach of Women’s Cross Country), prepared to share her plan.

“We had a team meeting and I actually just put the entire team in the stands,” she recalls. “And I called them one by one by name, and I put our indoor team on one side of the bleachers, and I put our cross country team on the other side of the bleachers.

She did this for two reasons. First, she realized that some athletes had eligibility in only one of those seasons. Second, “It’s a daunting task to simultaneously coach two different seasons that have different aerobic needs and different preparation. But to have a strong team showing in both events, we needed to have clarity for the athletes and for myself as a coach as to what the end goal was.”

Beyond clarity, Taylor also needed depth, and BYU’s women have distance depth for days. Now in her fifth year in Provo, Taylor has recruited successfully, and the women’s XC team has risen nationally, placing 11th, 7th, 10th, and a runner-up 2nd in the four years prior.

But really? Two separate groups: one going after individual track event titles like the 800, mile, 3000 and distance medley and the other going after the team title in cross country? On the same weekend?

Like many things pandemic-related, it was unprecedented, but to Taylor it made sense:

“Here’s the cross country team… These are the women you’re training with… These are the days you were practicing… Here’s the indoor track team…. These are your teammates, the group you’re working out in… We also didn’t train together because of COVID. We wanted to keep the bubbles pretty exclusive.

“It actually worked out really well for us, and the two teams fed off each other with the success that they were having. They really were able to cheer each other on, and we had good momentum going into that weekend in March.”

Friday: 9 runners and a trainer — but not Taylor — travel to the ’21 NCAA Cross Country in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“I had some milers that probably could have helped us in cross country, but I knew they had a shot to qualify for indoor Nationals in the mile. And so, I just was true to what was in the best interest of those athletes and just focused on the mile for those kids,” says Taylor.

“I didn’t really allow input. I think it was pretty clear-cut and everybody bought into what they were doing early on in January, and then it didn’t leave doubt in a kid’s mind or heart when a group is traveling to Seattle and you’re running cross country. You’re not thinking like, ‘Oh, I wish I could go run the mile.’ It’s like, ‘Well, no, I’m in cross country season. I’ve got this Vegas meet coming up, so that’s what I’m focusing on.’ So, it was really good to be clear-cut.”

Friday, 7:00pm: In the mile heats, Heather Hanson takes 3rd (4:41.74) and Kate Hunter 4th (4:41.78) to qualify to the finals, while Simone Plourde finishes a non-qualifying 8th (4:47.49).

7:55pm: In the 800 prelims Claire Seymour wins heat 2 in 2:03.97 to record the fastest qualifying time.

As January and February flew by, Taylor oversaw the workouts of each group, and scheduled a handful of key workouts that each group was going to do. Formerly the coach at Cal State Stanislaus, Taylor credits the BYU seniors with helping to build an atmosphere in which teammates were happy with each other’s successes. Teammates built each other up. Teammates showed up for each other’s workouts. Teammates were friends outside of practice.

Taylor speaks glowingly, lovingly of the BYU sisterhood:

“We incorporated a big sister/little sister program that just, you know, got women together. It wasn’t easy. I would be very dishonest if I told you that I did that one meeting back in January, and then everything was great, and everyone was happy.

“I always tell my women I have the vision of what I want this team to look like and who I want you to be as women, but you have to bring that vision to life. I can have the best workouts. I can have the best team culture… philosophy. I could create memorable experiences and provide you with optimal opportunities to be successful. But if don’t have the right women in your program to take advantage of that, it’s not going to work.”

NCAA Indoor racing, with a 3000 title for Courtney Wayment and a win for the BYU DMR, was the first order of business. (MIKE SCOTT)

Friday, 8:45pm: In the distance medley final, BYU wins in 10:52.96, setting a school record and becoming the sixth-fastest school in NCAA history. Seniors comprise the entire quartet: Olivia Hoj Simister (3:21.92), Alena Ellsworth (52.41), Lauren Ellsworth-Barnes (2:05.74), and anchor Courtney Wayment (4:32.90).

Beyond the Indoor group and the XC group, Taylor also identified a third bunch that BYU calls The Locker Room. “They’re the women who, right now, aren’t in a position to travel,” explains Taylor. “They’re the women who are staying home when both of these teams are on the road. They’re the women who are maybe coming back from an injury, or have just been diagnosed with an injury. Those women are an integral part of our team and they also need to be happy, but sometimes when you’re going through something hard, it’s tough to be happy for other people.

“And so, we have these three different groups that we were trying to just keep cohesive. But, also, they’re in different parts of their season and parts of their training. There were challenges there. When you have 30 women that are competitive — that have all come from being the best of where they’re at — you’re going to have some of those challenges. I’m a big believer in not sweeping anything under the rug, being brutally honest with the end goal of ‘I want us to be happy for each other’s success.’ It does not take away anything from your own success if you’re happy for someone else’s. When one wins, we all win. And so, everybody had to kind of buy into that.

“And [we were] coming off of a pandemic where athletes had opportunities taken from them. We had women that were about to line up to try to win a title in indoors last year. The same women who probably were chasing Outdoor titles. The same women who qualified for the Olympic Trials and got that taken away from them. The same women who then had cross country season postponed.

And so, these were women who were just navigating grief, and figuring out what that looked like and what their journey was going to be like. I think sometimes it’s hard to be a teammate when you’re just trying to figure out your own path and trying to grieve what you lost.”

Saturday, 5:00pm: in the mile final Hunter finishes 5th (4:37.65), and Hanson takes 10th (4:48.97).

6:40pm: in the 800 final, Seymour earns 5th (2:02.25).

7:00pm: in the 3000 final, Wayment wins (9:01.47), while Hoj Simister takes 7th (9:06.77).

In Fayetteville, BYU’s finished 7th with 29 points — all from distance women. After winning event titles in the DMR and the 3K, the group flew home the next day. “There must have been somebody that flew home with them,” recalls Taylor. “Or maybe they just… yeah I can’t even tell you how they got to the airport to be honest, but we had somebody fly home with them, I know that. But Saturday night we had some Torchy’s Tacos. They knew there was no conclusion to my weekend. They were very excited for our cross country women.

“They knew I was going on Sunday to Stillwater, and they knew that I had all that set-up and stuff to do for that cross country group because they’ve been on that cross country team, and they knew I was going to honor the same traditions that they’ve gotten, and so they were just really supportive and understanding, but also very excited. I mean, they knew they knew we had a shot to do something really magical, and they went from the athletes that I just coached at Indoors to becoming super-supportive athletes that were very excited for their teammates, and it was a very natural progression for them to say ‘OK, indoors is over, coach! You’re off! Good luck!’”

As Taylor coached the Indoor group, the Cross Country squad was in Oklahoma — but not without a version of her. In the days before leaving, knowing that the XC team would be traveling without her, Taylor made a cardboard cutout of herself. “I sent it with the women. So, I thought that I’d at least be a part of some of the stuff they were doing. It wasn’t really like I wasn’t there. They actually made a video of that little cardboard cutout. I traveled on the plane, and I was sitting at breakfast with them, and so, yeah, we just kind of had fun with it.”

Sunday, 6am: In front of the team’s hotel in Fayetteville, Taylor climbs in the back seat of a vehicle driven by a BYU trainer to whisk her westward to Stillwater to join the XC team. The 175M (c280km) drive takes 3 hours along U.S. Route 412.

Taylor wanted to arrive just as the harrier team was gathering for breakfast: “I just slept in the back seat. See, I was exhausted. I mean, I don’t even think it was just the Indoor Championships. It was just the leading up to it. We have a ton of team traditions and rituals that we do here at BYU, and I wanted to make sure that we honored all of those traditions to make it exactly what it would have been if there was no pandemic and not two championships in one weekend.”

As Taylor got to the hotel in Stillwater, the cross country team welcomed her with gifts: a facemask, and an energy drink in a Wonder Woman mug. Since the team had previewed the race course the day prior, Taylor took them to a nearby dirt road and drove the van alongside as the team ran. With the pandemic eliminating traditional championship events like the prerace banquet, Taylor had to improvise:

“We have a tradition that we wear black dresses for the cross country banquet. There was no banquet, but we’ve been doing that for years, so we still got really dressed up and wore our black dresses and went to Texas Roadhouse for dinner Sunday night. So yeah, just kind of a smooth transition into cross country mode…”

Monday, 11:50am: On the starting line of the NCAA Women’s XC 6000m race, BYU’s No. 2-rated team is in box 31: Anna Camp (senior), Aubrey Frentheway (soph), Whittni Orton (senior), Sara Musselman (senior), McKenna Lee (junior), Haley Johnston (soph), & Lexy Halladay (frosh). The starting gun fires, sending 31 teams surging forward over Oklahoma State’s rugged course.

“We had a team meeting the night before and I felt pretty good after that team meeting,” says Taylor. “We always do this at Nationals. I feel like it’s inspiring and motivational, but as I was talking I could see in their eyes just that they had it. And we know that, right? As coaches, you can see your athletes before a race and once you know your kid really well you feel like, ‘OK, this is going to be good!’ I knew we were prepared, and I felt that same sense of calmness after the meeting concluded on Sunday night.

Cougar senior Whittni Orton pushed at the front for half of the harrier title race. (JAREN WILKEY/BYU PHOTO)

“Again, I really don’t try to focus on outcome-driven measures, right? Because the outcome doesn’t always tell the whole story. And I can’t control what any other team has, or is doing. And this year was so different with cross country because you didn’t see teams compete like a normal season. Some competed in the fall; you don’t know who’s healthy; you don’t know who is where. And so, I had coaches that were calling me just asking about my own team, you know, and it’s like, wow! they’re really concerned about what BYU is doing: ‘How many of those women are you running in Indoors that are going to be running [XC]?’ Like, none, with two separate teams!

“But I wasn’t really concerned with what anyone else had; I was just focusing on the women that I had that I was putting on the line on Monday, and I felt very confident in those women — not that they were going to win — confident that they were going to give everything they had on that day. And I didn’t know if that was going to mean a win because you don’t know that, but all I can ask for as a coach is to give your best and be competitive, and that was reassuring.

“And then again, like right before the race went off, I had some good feelings about it. So, I was very confident that they were going to run to the best of their ability.”

Monday: 2000m into the XC race, BYU is in 3rd behind NC State and Northern Arizona. Orton soon assumes control of the race and leads from 3K through 5K. At 4K, BYU is still in 2nd, a mere 7 points behind NC State. BYU takes the lead at 5K, and roars home for a dominating team victory. BYU’s scorers are Camp (11th), Frentheway (15th), Orton (17th), Musselman (33rd) & Lee (41st).

“There was a lot of carnage in the last 300–400m of that race,” recalls Taylor. “If you look at the finishline of that women’s race, there were bodies left and right — more so than any other year, I feel like. But we raced really well, and the women just gave it everything they had. They were so committed and so composed. I was most impressed with the composure we showed on the course. When you’re running a really difficult course like that — and it’s the hardest course I’ve ever seen as a cross country coach — it can be very hard to stay composed. There’s a level of panic that can set in when you are seeing hill after hill after hill.

“I was really impressed by the level of composure these women showed. We have a lot of inexperienced athletes where maybe this is their first time at NCAAs, and we had one [’19] All-American only and that was Whittni Orton, who only had four weeks of preparation for this race, so we didn’t have a ton of experience on the front end, but we walked away with 4 All-Americans and the fifth getting 41st, so it was just a really good showing for the BYU women.”

Tuesday, 12 noon: On the drive back from the airport, after passing digital billboards touting the win, BYU’s harrier team returns to campus, with the bus stopping amid a welcoming horde of BYU supporters, including the football coach, the entire volleyball team, multiple administrators, and the Indoor squad that had had so much success Friday & Saturday.

Taylor’s goal back in January was to win at both championships, running different teams. With 3 titles from two championships in a single, memorable weekend, the two groups achieved Taylor’s aspiration in a magical way that likely will never happen again.

“Our program is built on things like faith, love and trust,” Taylor points out. “I think those are really important parts of the BYU sisterhood, and so I had a lot of faith in these women. I’ve watched [replays of] the race now probably too many times. There was a lot of grit and resilience and tenacity and dedication given to that race, and there was no other option for those women other than to give their best. They never gave themselves another option.

“What’s so neat about cross country is the team gives the guts, right? Those seven women gave their guts, and everybody gets the glory. That is the great thing about cross country. It’s not the same with track, and so I think that they were excited about that, like, ‘We’re going to give everything we have so that everyone gets the glory — our whole team our whole school, our whole community, our families.’

“And so, it was just women that were running for something bigger than themselves, and I think when you could get women to buy into that — and obviously they have to be talented, and they have to have good training — but that self-faith and that believing, even when they doubt their own abilities, that they’re able to turn around and believe in their teammates and build their teammates up.

“I think that’s what you’re seeing here at BYU, you’re seeing women that have just become very strong believers in themselves and in their teammates. I’m a big believer in them, and I think when you have that, that’s when magic happens.” ◻︎

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