PARK CITY, Utah — The University of Colorado placed three skiers in the top 10 of the giant slalom, as the Buffaloes began their national title defense here Wednesday in the 61st annual NCAA Skiing Championships.
            Host Utah claimed the second largest first-day lead since the sport went coed in 1983, as the Utes amassed 165 points thanks to a strong alpine performance, the better of their two disciplines.  Denver and New Mexico are tied for second with 130, while the Buffs are on their heels in fourth with 127.5.  Vermont is a distance fifth at this juncture (101), and Alaska-Anchorage is sixth, over 100 points behind (62).
             This marks just the third time the host school has led after day one at the NCAA meet in the last 25 years.   Vermont is the other team to do so when it hosted in Stowe, leading by 30 points in 2005 and by 23 points in 1997, both times over Utah.
              “It wasn’t bad for us for the giant slalom, which lately hasn’t been our strongest event,” CU head coach Richard Rokos said.  “Given the conditions were changing throughout the day.  It got soft the latter part of the women’s second run; in the end, there was a hard surface underneath for the guys.  On their first run, the first few guys had some trouble, but after the first several skiers it was a wide open race.”
               “We are not leading but we are not losing,” Rokos added.  “You can lose it on the first day and we didn’t do that.”
               The women’s giant slalom opened the championships, with Denver sophomore Kristine Haugen repeating as individual champion.  She had the fastest first run and coupled that with the second speediest for a two-run time of 1:56.39; that was good enough to top a pair of Utah skiers on their home course, Kristiina Rove (1:56.95) and Chloe Fausa (1:56.98).  The 2012 GS champ Rebecca Nadler was sixth.
               Colorado was led by sophomore Brooke Wales, who completed her two runs down what would become a slippery track as the temperatures warmed in 1:58.86, good for fifth place and about where she figured to finish as the No. 7 seed in the discipline.  She skied her second run after watching the three skiers before her all suffer falls and post DNFs (did not finish), as did the skier right after her; she had the sixth fastest first run and the 10th for the second.
               "I wanted to be on the podium, but conditions were pretty tough,” Wales said.  “It was better today than earlier this week in training.  We were on the hill Monday, and it was really bad, and yesterday was better, but it's just spring skiing, you have to ski smart."
                "I was in the start gate and I knew the two girls that went right ahead of me went out, so I thought it may be pretty peely down there,” Wales continued.  “That means there was no support from the snow, the sun has been melting it.  I had that in mind out of the start gate, but I was also trying to make up some time and get on the podium.  It didn't work out, I had a little mistake on the second run, but I finished."
                "I was happy I crossed the finish line and I held my position but I was pretty sure it wasn't good enough to move up.  Finishing fifth is solid, but I was looking for the podium."
                Sophomore Jessica Honkonen captured ninth in 1:59.97.  In 18th after the first run, she was able to zoom up nine spots in the standings thanks to posting the sixth fastest run her second time down.   Thea Grosvold, yet another sophomore, rounded out the CU women for the morning as she finished 22nd in 2:01.53; she moved up a couple of spots after her second run.
                "I was pretty far back after the first run and I knew I had nothing to lose,” Honkonen said on her approach for the second run.  “I knew as a team we needed to make a step forward to be where we wanted to be.  I had some good runs in training, I knew I could do it so I was happy with the second run."
                "I don't ever go into a race overconfident.  I know if I do what I've done all year, we'll just see what happens.  Winning a slalom and being the top college finisher three times this season doesn't really mean much, you still have to start at the top and finish at the finish line."
                "As a team, we had a good (team) result, it's important that everybody finishes, it's the best way to start,” she added.  “I know Brooke wanted to be on the podium, but knowing how risky it was to go for a win today, it may not have been her best run but it was best for the team."
                Wales earned first-team All-America honors with her finish, her team-leading seventh top five effort as well as her 10th top 10 finish this winter, while Honkonen snared second-team accolades.  Utah won the women’s race with 87 team points, topping New Mexico (68), Denver (61), CU (60) and Vermont (39).  The CU women fare a bit better in the slalom overall, with Honkonen earned the No. 1 seed out of the west.
                “Brooke had a good first run and maintained her position despite a mistake at the bottom of the second, and that’s what decided on the podium or not but she maintained and fifth is great,” Rokos said.  “Jessica is my hero today, she went from pretty deep seeding position to ninth place.  GS isn’t her strongest event and looking back we didn’t have a lot of great GS training this year, so that was fantastic.”
                 Utah freshman Mark Engel, a former member of the U.S. Ski Team, cruised to the men’s giant slalom, performing a rarity in doing so in a 1:58.56 time: he skied both the fastest first and second runs, often hard to do when starting well down the line (30th) for the second time down the hill.  That translated into a victory by more than a second over New Mexico’s Armin Triendl (1:59.70); Alaska-Anchorage’s Niko Harmanen grabbed the third spot on the podium with a 2:00.09 clocking.  The defending men’s GS champ, Vermont’s Jonathon Nordbottenm was sixth (2:00.57).
                 CU’s men’s alpine team posted three top 12 finishes, despite starting in the 14th, 19th and 21st positions.  That enabled Colorado to finish third in the race with 67.5 points, not too far behind Utah (78) and DU (69) and nearly double what those starting positions figured to score. 
                  Sophomore Henrik Gunnarsson finished fifth in 2:00.41; he had a spectacular first run that jumped him from the 21st starting slot into fourth.  It was his season best finish in any race and a career best in the giant slalom, as he had two previous 10th place efforts; Wednesday’s accomplishment earned him first-team All-America honors.
                  “I think I put down two solid runs, I didn’t really expect this coming here today, maybe this snow was a little to my advantage,” Gunnarsson said.  “I haven’t been this good in GS all season, so it was really fun and being an All-American is awesome.”
                  “I’ve always been better in slalom, so I hope I can put something down Friday as well,” he continued.  “This really helps the confidence.  We skied solid, the girls did great this morning … it was a really good day for the Buffaloes today.”
                  Senior Andreas Haug finished 11th in 2:01.25, one one-hundredth of a second out of 10th thus missing All-America honors by the slimmest of margins; it was his best GS finish in his four NCAA meets.  Sophomore Kasper Hietanen was right behind him in 12th in a 2:01.56 clocking, as he moved up nine spots from his starting position and improved eight notches from his 20th place finish as a frosh.
                  "We skied as hard as we could,” said Haug.  “The conditions were really tough up here, it was really hard and you had to take a lot of risks to be the top guy.  Henrik is a really strong skier, he’s always really balanced, and he kept his speed up despite the big ruts and put together two really good runs. 
                  “It was almost so bumpy you couldn’t see where you were going, but that’s ski racing,” he added.  “I wish we (he and Kit) were a little bit faster, a little closer to that top eight, but in the end we are still in this thing and that is what’s important.”
                   “I was hoping we could go home after the men’s first run,” Rokos half-joked.  “We lost a little bit in our positions after the second run, but it’s a great way to end the first day.  This was a very demanding hill, and how much training on it decides how well you will do, so there was a home advantage for Utah, no question, and they capitalized on it.”
                Colorado fans have no need to fret; the Buffaloes have led after the first day of the NCAA’s just three times since the sport went coed in 1983.  Of CU’s seven national crowns in this time frame, only in 1991 and 1999 did the Buffs lead after day one; the other occasion was in 2008, when Nordic competition opened the meet and CU’s dominant teams staked it the lead.  Thus, Rokos’ skiers have rallied five times from first day deficits – and four times after trailing at the midway point – to claim the national championship.
               Wales is looking forward to Friday’s alpine action.  "I'm in a really good place mentally with slalom right now, probably even more than GS,” she said.  “I don't put as much pressure on myself and we've had a lot of good slalom training this year.  Overall, that's a stronger event for the team, especially after getting this first race out of the way."
               “We are in it, we are better in slalom and I think we are a little better than Utah in slalom,” Haug added.  “We will be out cheering on the Nordics (Thursday), I’ll be pushing them up the hills if I have to.”
               The Nordic skiers take the stage Thursday with the classical events: the women’s 5-kilometer race at 10:00 a.m. MST, with the men’s 10k version to follow at 10:20; there will be 15-second intervals between when the racers start.  The men originally were going to start at Noon, but with fairly warm temperatures, the course has become sloppy in places according to CU Nordic coach Bruce Cranmer; race officials decided to stack the races one on top of each other and decrease the time between starts from 30 to 15 seconds. 
                “We will do a little training tomorrow and then go out and cheer for the Nordic teams, we need them,” Rokos said.
               The slalom races are set for Friday, 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, with as of now, the men’s 20-kilometer mass start set for 10:00 a.m. and the women’s 15k race to follow at Noon.
(Associate SID Curtis Snyder contributed to this report.)
NCAA Championship Team Scores (2 of 8 events)—1. Utah 165;  2. Denver and New Mexico 130;  4. Colorado 127.5;  5. Vermont 101;  6. Alaska-Anchorage 62;  7. Middlebury 58;  8. Dartmouth 54;  9. Montana State 48.5;  10. New Hampshire 45;  11. Colby 29;  12. Harvard 27;  13. Williams 15;  14. St. Michael’s 4;  15. Plymouth State 1;  16. St. Lawrence 0.
Women’s Giant Slalom (29 finishers)—1. Kristine Haugen, DU, 1:56.39;  2. Kristiina Rove, Utah, 1:56.95;  3. Chloe Fausa, Utah, 1:56.98; 4. Kate Ryley, UVM, 1:57.25;  5. Brooke Wales, CU, 1:58.86;  6. Rebecca Nadler, Harvard, 1:59.03;  7. Karoline Myklebust, UNM, 1:59.03;  8 Courtney Altringer, UNM, 1:59.66;  9. Jessica Honkonen, CU, 1:59.97; 10. Randa Teschner, UNH, 2:00.10.  Other CU Finisher: 22. Thea Grosvold, 2:01.53.
Men’s Giant Slalom (31 finishers)— 1. Mark Engel, Utah, 1:58.56;  2. Armin Triendl, UNM, 1:59.70;  3. Niko Harmanen, UAA, 2:00.09;  4. Trevor Philp, DU, 2:00.25;  5. Henrik Gunnarsson, CU, 2:00.41;  6. Jonathon Nordbotten, UVM, 2:00.57;  7. Sean Horner, UNM, 2:00.66;  8. Espen Lysdahl, DU, 2:00.84;  9. Kevin Drury, UVM, 2:01.22;  10. Jorgen Brath, Utah, 2:01.24.  Other CU Finishers: 11. Andreas Haug, 2:01.25;  12. Kasper Hietanen, 2:01.56.