BOZEMAN, Mont. - The defending national champion Colorado ski team expected several top 10 finishes and a couple of spots on the podium here Wednesday, but instead found itself in a tie for fifth place after the first two events in the 59th Annual NCAA Ski Championships.
No. 4 ranked Dartmouth was the surprise leader after the Nordic freestyle races, the Big Green amassing 214 points with a balanced gender attack (110 women's, 104 men's) on the strength of five top 10 finishes. Vermont, ranked No. 3, is in second with 183, buoyed by all three of its women finishing in the top eight.
Utah, ranked No. 1 in the nation, holds third with 179 points, followed by host Montana State in fourth (176) and then Colorado and Northern Michigan tied for fifth with 154.
It's the first time since the sport went coed in 1983 that two eastern schools rank 1-2 in the standings, not only after the first day, but at any point in the NCAA title meet. Western schools have placed three in the top four in every NCAA championship dating back to 1993, and in all but one of the 29 previous coed meets - the lone exception came in 1992, when UVM won and Dartmouth placed fourth.
Colorado, in pursuit of its 19th national title in skiing, has come from behind before to win all the marbles; in 2006, CU was in sixth place after the first day of competition and rallied to win, the largest jump from the field to the spot in race history. The Buffs were 52 points back after day one and worked back to take the lead heading into the final day - and did it one short of a full 12-skier team, which CU does have here in Bozeman.
Freshman Rune Oedegaard had Colorado's top finish Wednesday, as he finished fifth in the men's 10-kilometer freestyle race in 25:57.6. He did earn first-team All-American honors for his effort. He had claimed the regional title in the same event on the same course 12 days ago, but skied it some 25 seconds faster; on this day, Northern Michigan's Erik Soderman won the title in a 25:20.2 time.
"It was a hard race. I felt like I started like I had to, but I had to go harder to keep the speed up," Oedegaard said. "I don't know what's happened since regionals, I'm supposed to be better today, but I'll fight back for Friday. I like mass starts better, I like classical better. I won't think of anything else for the next 48 hours.
He wasn't caught up in his All-America honor. "It means I had a good season, and I didn't have a good season," he said. "Today didn't go just as I planned, but that's how it goes, skiing is up and down. I'll be back strong on Friday."
Senior Vegard Kjoelhamar finished 14th in 26:34.4, though posting the fastest time of the first 26 skiers out of the gate in the interval start format. Sophomore Andreas Hoye was 23rd in 27:02.6 to round out the CU's men's contingent.
"When you look back at your expectations, not to have anybody on the podium is tough" said Bruce Cranmer, CU Nordic Coordinator. "Definitely a couple of people had a tough day out there. Rune was in the mix in the men's race, maybe he a fraction off of his top form. You're never 100 percent sure if you had the best skis out there today. I think we were in the ballpark, but just being a little off can be 5-7 seconds that you don't really see it."
"Rune wasn't that far behind," Cranmer continued. "Just trying to time everything and be exactly right in top form. He gave a lot when he was here for regionals, maybe he's not quite recovered from that yet."
In the women's 5k version that opened the championship, junior Joanne Reid had the top finish by a Buffalo, as she was sixth in 14:48.4, garnering second-team All-American honors. It was her fifth top 10 finish in as many NCAA career races.
"I tried not to go out too fast so I could hammer the second part of the course," Reid said. "But my legs are really tired; I guess that's what happens up here at altitude. You try to stay even and then hammer. I think my hammering turned into just staying strong and staying on my feet and getting to the finish."
Utah's Maria Graefnings posted a nearly 20-second win in 14:05.9, but CU senior Eliska Hajkova, who dueled all winter with Graefnings for the top spot in the west, was 14th in 15:24.6, almost 55 seconds slower than her runner-up time here in the regional meet. Colorado's other performer, junior Mary Rose was 31st in a 16:08.9 time.
Reid, too, wasn't overly concerned with her All-America status at this point in time. "I just try and do my best, I'm bummed out that Eliska didn't have a good day. If she has a good day and I have a bad day, I'm pretty happy, but we always work as a team so that's a bummer but hopefully we'll bounce back from Friday."
"It happens only once in a while, it's just too bad it had to happen today," CU head coach Richard Rokos said of the Nordic performance not up to their own expectations. "We are not out of this with three more days of competition, all it does is change a bit of our strategy. In (Thursday's) giant slalom, we lose the luxury of not taking any risks and to just ski consistent; now we'll have to crank it up and take some chances. So we'll ski fast and hope we don't have any problems and then watch the Nordics come back strong on Friday."
"Hopefully Eliska can stay with the top pack, and hopefully I can just work my way up throughout the race," Reid said in looking ahead to Friday's 15K classical. "I seem to be stuck at about 10th in classic races lately, I work my way there and top out for some reason, so hopefully I can get there and keep on going."
The Buffalo cross country skiers have scored 400 plus points in 14 straight meets, the dominant program in the west if not the country over the past four seasons. Thus the disappointment with Wednesday's results, but the team remains optimistic and is set on redeeming itself in the classic.
"We get a day off, sometimes when you're doing really well an extra day doesn't do that much good, but after a day like today, I think we'll take full advantage of it," Cranmer said.
"I think we're psyched - Friday will be a whole different world," he continued. "The temperatures will be warmer (mid-50s) and it's a long race. There are different tactics and a lot of things play into it, but I think with the weather that's forecast, skis will play a huge part in the race. Today wasn't so much a wax race. You want good skis, but it's not like you can miss the wax today. Some skis could've been better, but looking forward to Friday, it will be a different game."
In the meantime, attention will turn to the first alpine races of these championships, as the giant slalom takes center stage on Thursday. The women's first run is set for 9:30 a.m. MST, with the second run to follow; the men's first will be at 1 p.m., followed by its second run as both races will be run to completion. On Friday, the classical cross country races are on tap, with the men's 20-kilometer up first at 9 a.m., and the women's 15k to follow at 11 a.m. 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 (2 of 8 events)- 1. Dartmouth 214; 2. Vermont 183; 3. Utah 179; 4. Montana State 176; T5. Colorado 154; T5. Northern Michigan 154; 7. Denver 118; 8. Alaska-Anchorage 112; 9. New Mexico 74; 10.Middlebury 60; 11. St. Scholastica 49; 12. Bates 40; 13. Alaska-Fairbanks 34; 14. St. Lawrence 24; 15. Williams 20; 16. New Hampshire 19; 17. Harvard 13; 18. Michigan Tech 13; 19. Colby 8.
Women's 5K Freestyle (39 collegiate finishers)- 1. Maria Graefnings, Utah, 14:05:9; 2. Caitlin Patterson, UVM, 14:25.8; 3. Sophie Caldwell, Dart., 14:31.0; 4. Lucy Garrec, UVM, 14:31.8; 5. Jaime Bronga, UAA, 14:40.8; 6. Joanne Reid, CU, 14:48:4. 7. Erika Flowers, Dart., 14:50:9; 8. Amy Glen, UVM, 15:02.8; Annie Hart, Dart., 15:08.1; 10. Marie-helen Soderman, NMU, 15:10.5. Other CU Finishers: 14. Eliska Hajkova, 15:24.6; 31. Mary Rose, 16:08.9.
Men's 10K Freestyle (39 collegiate finishers)- 1. Erik Soderman, NMU, 25:20.2; 2. Miles Havlick, Utah, 25:45.2; 3. Sam Tarling, Dart., 25:53.6; 4. Michael Schallinger, MSU, 25:53.8; 5. Rune Oedegaard, CU, 25:57.6; 6. Didrik Smith, Utah, 26:03.1; 7. David Norris, MSU, 26:03.9; 8. Eric Packer, Dart., 26:09.9; 9. Kjell-christian Markset, NMU, 26:10.9; 10. Tyler Reinking, MSU, 26:12.3. Other CU Finishers: 14. Vegard Kjoelhamar, 26:34.4; 23. Andreas Hoye, 27:02.6.
(Associate SID Curtis Snyder contributed to this report.)