PARK CITY, Utah — The 61st Annual NCAA Skiing Championships are set to begin here Wednesday, and the University of Colorado ski team is out to defend its national title claimed back east in Middlebury, Vt., a year ago.
                It was an interesting year in the west, as no school really dominated; the four usual powers, CU, Denver, Utah and New Mexico, were never all at full strength at the same time so the NCAA meet will be the first true measure of who really is the best.  Denver and Utah won events and New Mexico one; the Buffs started slow with barely any Nordic competitors but finished second their last two times out.
               The second runner-up finish came in the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Association Championships at Winter Park and Beaver Creek, where Utah edged the Buffaloes by three points in a meet that also doubled as the NCAA West Regional.
                “I think we are very ready, I can make that observation just going through training every day and we are peaking at the right time,” CU head coach Richard Rokos said.  “The kids are all healthy and are on top of things.  Academics are a big part of it, they play a part of the mental approach and comfort as well.  Eleven kids making the All-Academic Ski Team, most of who are going to the NCAA’s, that’s a big part of the overall preparation.  We have no injuries and no sickness we’ve had to deal with, everyone is in good spirit and shape.”
                The Buffaloes are again among the usual favorites, one of at least four from the west who will make a run at the crown, along with 2012 champion Vermont, which won all six eastern carnivals and led for the first three days last winter until CU orchestrated the largest final day rally in NCAA history, entering the last two events 54 points out of the lead but would go on to win by 43 points over Utah as UVM slipped to third.
                For the second straight year, all six western schools have a full complement of performers as Alaska-Anchorage and Montana State are also fielding full units in addition to CU, DU, UNM and Utah; only UVM and Dartmouth qualified the full dozen in the east, with New Hampshire sending 10.
Colorado is seeking its 20th title in skiing, as it has won seven coed including two of the last three, 11 men’s and one women’s (an AIAW crown in 1982).  The school has won 26 overall national championships representing four sports (four men’s cross country, two women’s cross country and one football in addition to the ski titles) and is thus seeking its 27th national title.
               In addition, CU is looking to win a second national championship in an athletic year for just the third time in its history.  In 1990-91, the Buffaloes claimed the consensus national football title and won the ski crown, and in 2004, the Buffaloes won both the NCAA men’s and women’s cross country championships.
               Rokos conceded that this has been one of his more challenging seasons coaching.
               “It was in many ways because we split the team in different directions at the beginning of the season,” CU’s 24th-year head coach said.  “Some members of the team went to the University games, many of the Nordics went to their national championships and missed the first couple of intercollegiate meets.  For that reason, our early results were fairly deceiving because we were lacking many of our top skiers.  It wasn’t until New Mexico when we really felt like we had our full team together and were able to be at full speed, and that was the next to last meet of the regular season.
               “It’s really wide open for NCAA’s, as other teams had skiers miss meets here for Sochi,” he added.  “So it was very challenging for several of us, not just CU.  It really feels like the first meet this year we’ll all be at full strength will be the NCAA’s.” 
                Colorado won the 2013 NCAA crown with its youngest team it ever brought to the NCAA’s, a team that included seven freshmen.  This time around, the Buffs are bringing five rookies, including all freshmen on the women’s Nordic unit.
The Buffaloes will be taking the same six Alpine skiers to Utah that competed a year ago in Middlebury, which is kind of unusual but five were wide-eyed freshmen in 2013. 
                The lone senior representing CU will be Andreas Haug, who will be competing in his fourth NCAA meet.  He’ll be joined by sophomores Henrik Gunnarsson and Kit Hietanen on the men’s unit.  They were a steady trio, all seeded between Nos. 9 and 11 out of the west; Haug was the regional champ in the giant slalom.
                Sophomores Thea Grosvold, Jessica Honkonen and Brooke Wales comprise the women’s alpine unit, with Honkonen the No. 1 seed in the west with Wales No. 7 and Grosvold No. 12.   The trio combined for 24 top 10 finishes this winter, with Wales leading the way with nine (including tying a for a team-best six top five efforts).
                “Experience plays a role, but you never know how much until it is over,” Rokos said.  “Last year, we had seven freshmen and they all performed well.  You never know if it is going to be better for someone going for the first time since they don’t know much or once you do know what to expect, if there’s more anxiety going the second time.  But they’re all familiar with the NCAA format and will know how to react to it.”
                CU women’s Nordic team was the most dominant unit in the nation last year; this year, the Buffs only had three members on the squad and they all didn’t race in the same meet until midseason.  But history shows that Nordic coach Bruce Cranmer will have the three, Camilla Brautaset, Lucy Newman and Maja Solbakken, more than amply prepared for what lies ahead.  Brautaset is the highest seeded of the three at No. 9 and have five top 10 efforts, while Solbakken has three top seven finishes in her last four races as she came on toward the end of the season.
                The only veteran Nordic skier is junior Rune Oedegaard, the No. 1 seed and defending NCAA champ in the classical who won four races this winter including a sweep at the RMISA Championships; his 13 career wins are tied for the most by a male in any discipline in CU history, as he caught Per Kare Jakobsen, who had 13 Nordic wins between 1988 and 1990. 
                 Joining Oedegaard will be junior Arnaud Du Pasquier and freshman Mads Stroem.  Du Pasquier enjoyed a consistent winter, usually skiing better in the classic (he was eighth at regionals), while Stroem emerged as one of the west’s top Nords, finish in the top three in five of six races including a win in the 20-kilometer freestyle at CU’s meet, the same distance that will be covered at the NCAA’s.
                 The Buffs had severe drops in overall top 10 (97 to 73) and top five (54 to 34) finishes from a year ago, but Rokos isn’t concerned that some think CU might just be a shadow of what it was in 2013.
                 “Depth inside the team really is unbelievable,” he said.  “The results points to the fact that a lot of new people are here but we’re still taking a proven team to NCAA’s.  On paper, it might appear that we’ve fallen back a little bit, (but) I don’t believe that is the case.  Other than the women’s Nordic team, we’re taking a lot of experience to Utah.  Alpine is pretty much a carbon copy of last year, and in Nordic, we’re bringing back an NCAA champion in Rune and Mads has proven that he’s very capable and those two are a solid one-two combination.”
               The giant slalom races will open the NCAA Championships on Wednesday, March 5, with the women’s first up at 9:00 a.m. MST; the second run will follow and then the men’s race will commence at 12:30 p.m., with the second run to follow.  The classical races open the Nordic events on Thursday, March 6, with the women’s 5-kilometer race at 10:00 a.m. MST, and the men’s 10k version at Noon.  The slalom races are set for Friday, March 7, with the men’s first run at 9:00 a.m., followed by the women’s first run at 10:00 a.m.; the second runs will follow at Noon and 1:00 p.m., respectively.  The freestyle races will finish off the NCAA meet on Saturday, March 8: the men’s 20-kilometer mass start is set for 10:00 a.m., with the women’s 15k race following at Noon. 
               One thing that has changed along with the scoring base, which has been reduced from 50 points to 40, is that skiers will no longer be able to hike back to a previous gate to complete a run should they fall.  A maximum 30 skiers can score in the weighted format (40 for first, 37 for second, 34 for third and 31 for fourth, and then 29 for fifth, etc.); in the past, someone who fell could hike back, finish the run and still score points for their team.  But no more.
               “It’s a tough rule, but it just requires better focus and consistency,” Rokos said.  “We pretty much benefitted last year by being consistent and focused on finishing runs, so if it was in place last year, we would have been unaffected.  We didn’t have many high finishes, but we were consistent and everyone finished 24 runs in alpine skiing without one mistake or having to hike.  That was pretty much unprecedented to have that many runs without any falls or anyone having to hike.”
               As for CU’s overall goal here, it’s exactly the same since Rokos took over the program in 1991. 
               “It would be impossible to justify all (the) effort, sacrifices and injuries unless the ultimate goal is on your mind all the time,” he said.  “And that goal without question is to win the NCAA title.”