BOZEMAN, Mont. - The defending national champion Colorado ski team has its collective backs against the wall, slipping from third into fourth place here Friday, and with just two events remaining in the 59th Annual NCAA Ski Championships, the Buffaloes might be fighting for bride's maid honors.
No. 3 Vermont has the inside track on the title, which would be the school's sixth and first since 1994. The Catamounts enjoyed a win and four top five efforts Friday to pile up 218 points, the highest total for any school in the three days here, to run their overall total to 614. That's good for a 92-point lead over top-ranked Utah (522), the third largest lead any team has taken into the final day since 1992 and the highest since the Utes held a 99.5 advantage back in 2003.
No. 4 Dartmouth overtook No. 2 Colorado for third place, as the Big Green ended the day with 510 points, with the Buffaloes ending with 495. Host Montana State is a distant fifth at this point with 405.5, with Denver sixth (378.5). Thus at present, it appears to be a dogfight for second though the Buffs aren't throwing in the towel just yet.
The school in the lead after six of the eight events has gone on to win the title in 15 of the last 17 years, but on those two occasions, the difference that had to be made up were just 17.5 points (2008, Colorado over Denver; the Pioneers rallied) and two (2009, the only other third day lead by UVM since '92 before also succumbing to a DU comeback).
"All we can do is take all the chances we can and see if we can make it or break it," CU head coach Richard Rokos said of Saturday's often treacherous slalom races and what Colorado has to do to have any chance of repeating as champion. "We just have to ski fast and be careful - two things that don't go together very well."
It was one of the warmer days in recent NCAA history; by the end of the women's race, the temperature reached the mid-50s. More warm weather is expected for Saturday's final event, the slalom.
Colorado's incredible run of 14 straight meets with its Nordic teams scoring 400-plus points, which had included an NCAA Championships record 451 last year and 418 in 2010, came to an end. The Buffs had been the Nordic point champions five of the last eight years coming in, but had to settle for fifth this time around, scoring 290; Dartmouth's 427 points topped the cross country skiers here, edging UVM (401).
Freshman Rune Oedegaard again had Colorado's top finish on Friday as he did in Wednesday's freestyle (fifth), battling some asthmatic problems in the middle of the race but still gutted out a seventh place finish in 57:32.3; he was in fifth after each of the first three laps. Utah's Miles Havlick, a Boulder native, won the sprint for the finish against the hometown favorite, Montana State's David Norris. Havlick crossed the finish line in 56:24.3, just a second-and-a-half ahead of Norris.
"(I felt) we had good skis; it was all on us, there were just some guys faster than me today," Oedegaard said. "I've been in such good shape all year - it stunk not being in great shape for NCAAs. I have to sit down and look at what I've done, but right now I don't have any answers. I did everything I knew to do to be in top shape right now. I came here to get on the podium. Going out without podiums, it's tough right now.
"There will be a lot of training for next year," he continued. "It hopefully will be a good year, I think I'll like the formats better, having long mass start skates and interval start classic races, that may work out better for me anyway."
Oedegaard did snare second-team All-America honors to go with the first-team accolade he picked up earlier in the week.
"For the guys, the feedback I got from them, it was just them, and they had no complaints about the skis," CU Nordic coach Bruce Cranmer said. "Rune had an asthma attack about half way through the race; he just couldn't get air in his lungs. For him, that's just some bad luck that can happen. The other guys, they're a little bit sick. I hate to use excuses, but they're not 100 percent. I'm guessing we're not on peak form, I felt like we were great here 10 days ago, to go that far backwards, it's hard to explain.
"I felt like for the guys, we nailed the skis on a tricky day that were close enough to put them in there. Talking to other coaches, there's so many factors, but we were in the same ball park as a lot of the other teams, we weren't out of it by any means."
Sophomore Andreas Hoye was 15th, timed in 58:53.4; he was 12th after the first lap and had dropped to 18th after both the second and third before rallying to make up three spots, the second largest gain over the final 5K in the men's field.
Senior Vegard Kjoelhamar completed his four-year Buff career with a 21st place finish in 59:28.7, as he got sick after Wednesday's race and wasn't all the way back at full strength, likely knocking him down at least 10-to-12 spots of where he expected to finish. He was 15th after the initial 5k, was hanging on to 16th after laps two and three, but being a bit weak caught up to him in the end.
"It's been a great time, I had two very good seasons, one mediocre and one bad one, unfortunately the last one is the bad one," Kjoelhamar said. "It's been a hard year, going to graduate school I wasn't able to concentrate on skiing as much as before. I've been sick quite a bit this season, I got sick after the race on Wednesday and that didn't make it any better. That's how it goes sometimes.
"Coming into this race, other than this race, he had some great results," Cranmer said of Kjoelhamar. "Not a great championship for him, you like to see guys go out on top, and for that part I'm sad for him, but I think he just had some bad luck this year. He broke his arm in preseason training - I don't know how much that affected him. Then he got sick and missed four races in Alaska. He'll be around next year and help us out while he finishes his graduate degree."
The Norwegian intends to keep skiing competitively. "For sure I will keep skiing and racing," he said. "I have another year in grad school, so I will train with the team and hopefully even do some of the races as an independent."
Vermont's Amy Glen was declared the champion in the women's 15-kilometer classic after an extended review that included computer enhancement. Dartmouth's Sophie Caldwell, who led after each of the first two laps, was second - two inches behind Glen as the winner is determined by which skier's tip of a boot reached the finish line first. Both essentially finished in 53 minutes and 32.1 seconds.
Junior Eliska Hajkova posted CU's best time, completing the course in 55:15.2, while fellow juniors Joanne Reid finished 19th in 57:12.1 and Mary Rose in 34th in 1:01:05.8.
"The girls skis were very slick, we went with no wax, Zero skis," Cranmer said. "Why we were slicker I don't know. All the Dartmouth girls were on Zero's, there was probably a mix between those and Clysters. We usually do very well on Zero skis but you have to be careful with them. I'm still scratching my head a little bit. Eliska's legs have been bothering her a bit, you can explain some of it but not all of it. There are some unknowns you just can't explain why we were where we were.
"The east girls skied great, what else you can say?" he continued. "I don't have any clear understanding, it would be easy if you could put your finger on it and say 'that's why.' The skis weren't the best choice for the girls. The Zero's I think were right, but you can mess with them a lot, but by the time they told me they were slick, there wasn't enough time to rough them up some more."
Hajkova was fifth after the first 5-kilometer split, dipped to 11th after 10k and then rallied to grab the 10th and final spot that earned second-team All-America honors. Reid was 19th after the first lap and had risen to 16th through two circuits, while Rose was 38th, which was next to last, at both the 5K and 10K checkpoints before making up the fourth most spots (four) over the last lap of the race.
"I'm not in the best shape this season and I felt it," Hajkova said. "The competition is very high in this race, and I don't think I picked the right skis either. I didn't get through the hills very well. The first lap I tried to keep up and couldn't do anything, it was taking everything out of me to keep up. The second lap I had a hard time, even mentally, you already have one lap behind you and still another lap to go and your thought processes are hard, the skis didn't support me on top of that. Then the third lap things started to work and I was able to move up. The coaches always do awesome with the skis; I know they did everything they thought they should. That's ski racing.
"I'm really looking forward to racing at sea level next year for NCAAs; that obviously works better for me," she added, referring the extra year of eligibility she was recently granted. "It's going to be different with a long skate race, but I know I have to work harder next season."
With Vermont (1-3-5 finishes) and Dartmouth (2-4-6) "hogging" the top six spots in the race, it marks the first time since 1989, when the NCAA first sponsored two individual Nordic races (in lieu of one being a relay), that two only two schools filled those top spots in either a men's or women's event. And even more impressive is that since 1996, schools could only qualify a maximum of three skiers.
The slalom races will finish off the NCAA meet on Saturday: the women's first run is at 9:30 a.m., followed by the men's first run at 10:30; second runs follow at 11:45 (women) and 1:00 (men).
NCAA Championship Team Scores (6 of 8 events)- 1. Vermont 614; 2. Utah 522; 3. Dartmouth 510; 4. Colorado 495; 5. Montana State 405.5; 6. Denver 378.5; 7. Alaska-Anchorage 360; 8. New Mexico 327.5; 9. Middlebury 249; 10. Northern Michigan 227; 11. New Hampshire 193.5; 12. Williams 120; 13. Bates 98.5; 14. Alaska-Fairbanks 81; 15. St. Lawrence 80; 16. St. Scholastica 75; 17. Harvard 68; 18. Colby 49.5; 19. Michigan Tech 22; 20. St. Michael's 14; 21. Colby-Sawyer 11.
Men's 20K Freestyle (38 collegiate finishers)- 1. Miles Havlick, Utah, 56:24.3; 2. David Norris, MSU, 56:25.8; 3. Franz Bernstein, UVM, 56:40.8; 4. Eric Packer, Dart., 57:05.2; 5. Patrick Johnson, Midd., 57:07.1; 6. Didrick Smith, Utah, 57:05.5; 3:53.6; 7. Rune Oedegaard, CU, 57:32.3; 8. Andrew Daugherty, DU, 57:34.3; 9. Sam Tarling, Dart., 57:41.8; 10. Sjur Prestseater, UNM, 58:00.4. Other CU Finishers: 15. Andreas Hoye, 58:53.4; 21. Vegard Kjoelhamar, 59:28.7.
Women's 15K Freestyle (39 collegiate finishers)- 1. Amy Glen, UVM, 53:32.1; 2. Sophie Caldwell, Dart., 53:32.2; 3. Lucy Garrec, UVM, 53:48.7; 4. Annie Hart, Dart., 53:58.3; 5. Caitlin Patterson, UVM, 54:10.1; 6. Erika Flowers, Dart., 54:33.2; 7. Maria Graefnings, Utah, 54:34:0; 8. Makalya Cappel, DU, 54:37.5; 9. Annie Pokorny, Midd., 54:45.8; 10. Eliska Hajkova, CU, 55:15.2. Other CU Finishers: 19. Joanne Reid, 57;12.1; 33. Mary Rose, 1:01:10.8.
(Associate SID Curtis Snyder contributed to this report.)