RIPTON, Vt. - The plan worked to perfection.
In Friday's slalom, the University of Colorado ski team played it conservative, knowing its strong suit lay ahead in Saturday's Nordic freestyle races. And with a first place and two runner-up efforts, the Buffaloes rallied to comeback from a 54-point deficit to win its 19th national championship in skiing, its seventh coed to go with 11 men's and one women's.
The largest final day rally in NCAA championship history gave Colorado the school's 25th overall national title, when combining three in men's cross country, two in women's XC and one in football. It is CU's second ski crown in three years, having won in 2011 in Stowe, and of the 19 total, nine have now been won in the east.
Since the sport went coed in 1983, this marked just the fifth time the third day or six-event leader did not hold on for the win, but the third time in the last six years. Vermont rallied from 10 points down to New Mexico to win in 1992, and did so again in 1994 when trailing Utah by 31 points, previously the biggest comeback on the final day. Denver rallied in both 2008 and 2009, overtaking a 17.5-point CU advantage and a two-point margin by UVM, respectively.
Despite competing here with seven freshmen, easily the most by any contender, Colorado tallied 708 team points, with Utah taking over second after the last event with 665 points; Vermont, which had led after each of the first three days, finished in a distant third with 653, while Denver was fourth (629). The leader at the midway point had won six straight and 10 of the last 12 times, and schools leading after three days (six events) had won 16 of the last 18.
"It's never happened that we had this young of a team, there is a lot of discipline involved and you don't always display the maturity to do it in your freshman year," CU head coach Richard Rokos said. "Suddenly, you're on a leash, you have to finish your runs. It was our strategy to hold back a bit, and while it's not perfect, it's the only way to accommodate this format of racing."
It was Colorado's seventh national championship under Rokos, as he tied the legendary Bill Marolt, who coached CU to seven straight from 1972-78 before leaving to coach the U.S. National Team. "That was my goal originally, to reach what Bill Marolt accomplished in seven years. It took 23 years, but you know, seven isn't my lucky number, so I'll keep going," Rokos joked.
"I don't know if it's totally hit me yet, I felt it was a pretty long shot entering the day," CU Nordic coach Bruce Cranmer said. "I knew we'd need some help from Vermont, which we got, but what an awesome day. NCAA's, anything can happen, and things happen quickly.
"Almost a 100-point swing for a day is pretty big," he added. "Obviously Vermont had some bad luck and probably didn't have guys skiing their best, but credit our guys, everybody skied their hearts out. The girls set the tempo, got us the lead, and once that happened, the guys knew they could maintain it. I was too nervous to think we could do it, even in the men's race with the lead."
The women's 15-kilometer race was first up Saturday, and set the tone for the day. Senior Joanne Reid took the lead at the beginning and dipped into second just once after the second split, eventually pulling away from the field in an impressive winning time of 38:17.8. At 20 years, eight months and nine days old, she became the third youngest Nordic female national champion, second youngest at CU to Kristen Petty (20, 2, 24) who won in 1985; Vermont's Laura Wilson was a two-time champ in classic and freestyle in 1990, three months younger than Reid.
Senior Eliska Hajkova was second in 38:44.6, giving the Buffs two first-team All-Americans; it was the fifth honor for Reid and the fourth for Hajkova. Freshman Maria Nordstroem played a key role as well despite battling illness and being on antibiotics, finishing 12th in 39:57.1 and helped earn 125 points scored by the CU women. That was more than enough to overtake Vermont, which netted just 55, and it gave Colorado a 16-point cushion heading into the men's race.
Reid's mother, Olympic speed skating gold medalist Beth Heiden, won the cross country title skiing for Vermont in 1983, the first year the NCAA sponsored women's skiing after absorbing the old AIAW (Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women).
"It feels amazing," Reid said of her final collegiate race. "My mom's got connections here, she can do what she wants, so I saw her at the finish line and it was great. It's cool that we have both now won NCAA Individual titles. Especially because every time I go skiing with here, they just list all her awards so now I have one that she has. I just need a few more world championships in other sports now to catch up."
"I was really worried about falling, because I'm small, and I get knocked pretty easily, so Eliska and I just decided to go out fast and get in front and go," Reid said. "I'm more comfortable leading. I have a weird style so it's hard for me to follow. When I got passed, I just got really nervous that they would break away so I passed them right back. I didn't realize I had a gap, when you get a game there's a hush over the crowd, that's when I realized I had a breakaway."
Reid is the sixth CU woman be crowned an NCAA freestyle champion, joining Anette Skjolden (1992), Line Selnes (1998), Katka Hanusova (2000), current CU assistant coach Jana Rehemaa (2006) and Maria Grevsgaard (2008). It was her ninth win this year, third-most in a single season behind Selnes and Grevsgard, who had 11 those same years. It was also Reid's 11th career win, tying her for fifth all-time at Colorado, and the NCAA-leading 86th all-time a CU skier.
It was the sixth time at the NCAA Championships since 1983 that Colorado skiers produced a 1-2 finish, the first since 2008 when Grevsgaard and Lenka Palanova also did it in the freestyle, though that year it was a 5K. In 2006, it happened in the 15k classic, with Rehemaa winning with Grevsgaard second. CU also had 1-2 finishes in 1999 (women's giant slalom), 1988 (men's 20k classic) and in 1991 (men's 10k freestyle).
"I'm so proud of Eliska, she was right next to me for most of the race, we inspire each other," Reid said. "That helped me. She's an amazing sprinter, and amazing skier, that made my race complete when she won the sprint to get second."
"With the team drama, we just knew we needed the points, so we were going to go as fast as we could," Hajkova said. "It was on. Joanne was just better today, she was so strong. She went down the last hill and was just so much stronger.
"I was hanging onto Marine (Dusser, UAA), I knew I could out sprint her to the end," she continued. "I had faster skis and I'm kind of a sprinter. I took the shorter route around the last bend, so she couldn't get around me. I was thinking about when I was 16 and 17 when I was sprinting at World Juniors, I guess I just have it. Maria skied great, 12th place with all the issues she had. She was considering not starting, she was coughing all morning."
"I just knew that we had to make up some points to catch up to Vermont, I just wanted to go and go as hard as I could and give it all," Nordstroem said. "There's no point in not starting out hard. I saw the other girls going really well, but I couldn't keep up with them. I fought as hard as I could and I was so tired at the end."
"It's hard to express my feelings, because it was definitely nerve wracking for a while, back and forth," Rokos said. "After yesterday, I was a little skeptical about being over 50 points behind - it's not easy to gap. I didn't lose the trust in our Nordic team, and Bruce and Jana displayed incredible expertise in waxing skis with changing temperatures and changing snow. Our girls were phenomenal, closing that big a gap in one race."
"I couldn't be happier for Joanne, and it's hard not to have favorites, but she's skied so well for four years, Eliska has won an NCAA race, I was pulling for her to do it, too," Cranmer said of his conflicting thoughts. "You want everybody to be in there, but it was special for me to have Joanne win, her senior year, such a dominant year, and she could've been in there in the classic race too with different wax, so this makes up for that a little bit.
"I felt if Maria just got in there and felt the excitement of racing, she'd forget about how she felt and just ski," Cranmer added. "I told her one of the better races I had, I was sick but then had one of my best races. So you don't know, just go out and fight as hard as you can, you may have a better race than you think."
The men still needed to hold off Vermont, which had a strong men's Nordic team that had captured four of the top nine spots in the East Regional. The 20-kilometer race didn't disappoint, as a lead pack never broke away from the rest of the field; just 28 seconds separated the top 13 skiers and just 40 seconds the next 12 after that.
And it was the tightest at the front of the race, where Utah's Miles Havlick out-sprinted CU sophomore Rune Oedegaard at the very end, Havlick winning in 50:13.4 with Oedegaard six-tenths of a second back (50:14.0).
With coaches and staff calculating where the Buffs stood against Vermont throughout the race, it became apparent with one lap remaining that Colorado appeared to stave off any charge from the Catamounts. Freshman Gustav Nordstrom finished in 51:10.1, less than 50 seconds out of the lead but 22nd overall, while junior Andreas Hoye was 32nd in 53:36.8.
Only one UVM skier was in the top 10 for any of the splits, and he soon vanished by the fourth split; the other Catamounts struggled, one rising out of the 20's to 16th in the middle split, and the other actually in last for several splits until rising to 33rd in the end. The Buffs actually wound up holding off a determined Utah squad, which placed two others in the top five behind Havlick and won the race with 133 team points while CU was third (73); Dartmouth was second with 90.
"What I was thinking was to stay in the lead all the way, have fun all day," Oedegaard said. "With what the girls did today, we knew it was our day headed into the race. We all talked, Andreas and Gustav and myself, we knew we had the lead but we still wanted to chase, not be defensive. We want to chase this, we want to beat Vermont and do all we can. During the race, I looked around and didn't see any Vermont skiers in the top group and I knew we had it and I just wanted to enjoy it on the last lap.
"On the last uphill, I tried to push," he continued. "I felt like Miles and I, I knew we were going fast, but it was a big group going into the last uphill and we were both several seconds up on everybody else by the end. I knew we were going fast, but he was so strong today, he wanted to revenge his fall from the first day, and when that happens, you can dig a little deeper. At that point I knew we had the team win, and I had the win on Thursday, I maybe didn't have as much as he did to pull from.
"This is more than I could've dreamt of going into the NCAA's this year," Oedegaard said. "It's such a credit to Bruce today, too. We all felt like we had the best and the fastest skis on the course today."
"It was a little weird," Gustav Nordstrom said. "This morning when I woke up, I didn't really believe we could do it, I just tried to focus and have a good race and see what could happen. After the girls, I was able to see that we could do it. I was super nervous, I felt good, had good skis, I got a little tired in the end, but I was a little conservative. It was nice when I passed the Vermont guys, I knew I had them behind me and I felt safe. I saw them all the time. I just focused on my own race, and when none of the Vermont guys were no longer ahead of me, I felt safe and then I focused on going as fast as I could."
"I didn't have the perfect day today, but it was enough for the team," he added. "This was such a team effort. We didn't have our best week, but we were solid and then we had some heroes like Rune and Joanne and Eliska taking a lot of points.
"Maria was really fighting today, we got some big heroes," Nordstrom said of his sister. "I feel sorry for the (other) Buffaloes that couldn't be here today. This season has been really amazing; there are a lot of guys at home that could've done the same performances we did today. It's sad they couldn't be here with us today."
"I was so tired, but I just had to remember that everybody else was, too," Reid said. "Then I got nervous that they were coming for me so I kept hammering and hammering. When Jana gave me the (CU) flag (just before the finish), it was actually a flag my mom had made - I never thought I'd finish a race with a flag. I just wanted to win it for my team, my coaches, and we did."
Colorado won here with balance: in seven of the eight races, it was the only school to score 70 or more, and with 59 in the other, the only one to score that many in all eight. Within the overall scoring, CU also won the Nordic point battle with 391 as well as scoring the most by its women's team (387).
"We are looking forward to going home and start preparing for next year," Rokos concluded. "As soon as this thing ends, you're already thinking about how to do it next year."
The title is also the 454th national championship won by a Pac-12 Conference member school, the third this athletic year, joining Oregon (women's cross country) and Southern California (men's water polo). It is CU's first "live" contribution since joining the league in July 2011, as CU's last national championship was also in skiing in March of that year, four months before becoming a Pac-12 member.
NCAA Championship Team Scores (Final, 8 events)- 1. Colorado 708; 2. Utah 665; 3. Vermont 653; 4. Denver 629; 5. Dartmouth 594; 6. New Mexico 576; 7. Alaska-Anchorage 493.5; 8. New Hampshire 461.5; 9. Montana State 422; 10. Middlebury 357; 11. Northern Michigan 278; 12. Williams 143; 13. Colby 132; 14. Alaska-Fairbanks 103.5; 15. St. Lawrence 89; 16. Bates 57.5; 17. Harvard 39; 18. Maine-Presque Isle 38; 19. St. Scholastica 35; 20. St. Michael's 24; 21. Bowdoin 1.5.
Women's 15K Freestyle (40 finishers)- 1. Joanne Reid, CU, 38:17.8; 2. Eliska Hajkova, CU, 38:44.6; 3. Marine Dusser, UAA, 38:45.0; 4. Mary O'Connell, Dart., 39:18.3; 5. Silje Benum, DU, 39:21.0; 6. Anya Bean, UNH, 39:26.4; 7. Rosie Frankowski, NMU, 39:36.9; 8. Annie Hart, Dart., 39:42.4; 9. Rose Kemp, Utah, 39:48.1; 10. Makayla Cappel, DU, 39:50.0. Other CU Finisher: 12. Maria Nordstroem, 39:57.1.
Men's 20K Freestyle (40 finishers)- 1. Miles Havlick, Utah, 50:13.4; 2. Rune Oedegaard, CU, 50:14.0; 3. Einar Ulsund, Utah, 50:14.4; 4. Erik Soderman, NMU, 50:16.0; 5. Niklas Persson, Utah, 50:16.5; 6. Mats Resaland, UNM, 50:16.7; 7. Sam Tarling, Dart., 50:18.3; 8. Benjamin Lustgarten, Midd., 50:18.6; 9. Silas Talbot, Dart., 50:19.6; 10. Kyle Bratrud, NMU, 50:22.1. Other CU Finishers: 22. Gustav Nordstrom, 51:10.1; 32. Andreas Hoye, 53:36.8.
CU SKIING / 2013 NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP NOTES
IN-THE-END: Listed below is how the 2013 championship broke down; the Buffs were second in several categories but weren't first in at least one discipline for the first time since 2005:
MEN'S TEAM SCORING: Utah 332, Colorado 321, New Mexico 317, Vermont 307, Alaska-Anchorage 270, Denver 266, Middlebury 250.
WOMEN'S TEAM SCORING: Colorado 387, Denver 363, Vermont 346, Dartmouth 345, Utah 333, New Mexico 259, New Hampshire 238.5.
ALPINE POINT LEADERS: Vermont 402, Denver 366, New Hampshire 327, Colorado 317, New Mexico 313. Men's Leader: Vermont 206 (2nd-New Hampshire 153). Women's Leader: Denver 213 (2nd-Vermont 196).
NORDIC POINT LEADERS: Colorado 391, Dartmouth 376, Utah 369, Alaska-Anchorage 314, Northern Michigan 278. Men's Leader: Utah 220 (2nd-Dartmouth 175). Women's Leader: Colorado 227 (2nd-Dartmouth 201).
CRACKING THE TOP: NCAA West schools have won 17 of the last 19 championships, as the skiing elite fraternity remains hard to crack; only seven different schools have claimed the title since the sport went coed in 1983: Utah (9 titles), Colorado (7), Denver (7), Vermont (5), Dartmouth (1), New Mexico (1) and Wyoming (1). But since the '67 title meet, Colorado (22 first or second place finishes, including 16 wins), Utah (22; 10, 12), Vermont (20; 6, 14) and Denver (16; 11, 5) have dominated college skiing over these 47 seasons. Only three other schools, Wyoming (two wins and four seconds), Dartmouth (two wins, two seconds) and New Mexico (one title and two seconds) have been able to crack the top two in this span (note: adds to 46 titles since CU and Dartmouth shared '76 crown).
CU ALL-TIME: The Buffaloes have won 19 national championships in skiing: 11 men's (1959-60-72-73-74-75-76-77-78-79-82), seven coed (1991-95-98-99-2006-11-13) and one women's (1982, AIAW). The 18 NCAA titles by Colorado trail Denver by three, as the Pioneers caught and passed CU by winning three straight to open the 21st century and extended their lead with three more from 2008-10. After DU and CU (39 combined), Utah has won 10, Vermont 6, Dartmouth 3, Wyoming 2 and New Mexico 1 (CU and Dartmouth tied for the '76 crown).
INDIVIDUAL CHAMPIONS: The Buffs had two individual NCAA champions this winter (Rune Oedegard, CL and Joanne Reid, FS), and posted four top five efforts and 12 top 10 overall. Colorado leads all-time with 86 individual NCAA titles, topping Denver (82), Utah (68), Vermont (60), Dartmouth (35), Wyoming (19), New Mexico (14) and Middlebury (10); other individual winners in 2013 came from Denver and UVM (two apiece), with one each from New Mexico and Utah. The Buffs have had two or more individual champions 28 times (three or more 13 times), including four occasions when CU skiers topped the podium four times: 1960, John Dendahl (skimeister, nordic, cross country) and Dave Butts (downhill); in 1963, Buddy Werner (alpine combined, downhill), Bill Marolt (downhill) and Jimmie Heuga (slalom); in 2006, Jana Rehemaa (classical, freestyle), Kit Richmond (freestyle) and Lucie Zikova (downhill); and in 2008, Maria Grevsgaard (freestyle, classical) and Lucie Zikova (giant slalom, slalom). CU has had at least one individual champion 25 of the last 32 years.
LEARFIELD DIRECTORS' CUP: Colorado picked up 100 points for the Learfield Director's Cup, jumping from 38th place into 20th in the standings with 235 total points as skiing was the first NCAA winter championship completed.
HEAD COACH RICHARD ROKOS: Rokos wrapped up his 23rd season as head coach of the Buffaloes (he is just the ninth person to coach 20 or more seasons in any sport at Colorado). He has guided CU to national championships in 1991 (his first season), 1995, 1998, 1999, 2006, 2011 and 2013, to five second place finishes and five third place efforts. Under Rokos, Colorado has won 61 of 141 ski meets, including 54 of 118 in the west (with 12 RMISA Championships/NCAA West Regionals titles). In his tenure, CU has had 115 first-team All-Americans and 182 first- or second-team selections (Alpine and Nordic), all adding to 268 top 10 finishes in NCAA championship competition.
NORDIC COACH BRUCE CRANMER: Cranmer has done an equally excellent job with the Nordics. He has coached CU skiers to 13 individual Nordic NCAA titles, and his Buffalo teams have been the Nordic point champions six times at the NCAA meet (2004-06-08-10-11-13).
ALL-AMERICANS: Seven Buffaloes earned All-America honors in the meet, four gaining first-team status: Eliska Hajkova (freestyle), Rune Oedegaard (classical and freestyle), Joanne Reid (classical and freestyle) and Brooke Wales (giant slalom). In addition, three others garnered second-team honors: Thea Grosvold (giant slalom), Kasper Hietanen (slalom) and Maria Nordstroem (classical). Top five finishes earn skiers the first-team accolade, while finishing sixth through 10th nets a second-team honor.
NCAA SKIING ALL-ACADEMIC TEAM: Colorado placed 14 team members on the NCAA Skiing All-Academic Team (its version of Academic All-America), as the qualifications included owning a 3.50 or better grade point average for the fall semester and participation in the NCAA regionals (unless injured). Arnaud Du Pasquier, Thea Grosvold, Eliska Hajkova, Andreas Haug, Andreas Hoye, Max Lamb, *Ian Mallams, Rune Oedegaard, Joanne Reid, Cameron Smith, *Michael Vigers, Brooke Wales, *Clair Wise and Adam Zika all made the prestigious team; Mallams has made the squad four times, with Haug doing so thrice and Hajkova, Hoye and Oedegaard twice. Mallams, Vigers and Wise all posted perfect 4.0 grade point averages for the fall 2012 semester.
LOOKING AHEAD: Ten of the 12 student-athletes who competed for Colorado in Middlebury are scheduled to return in 2014, as CU graduates just six seniors, two of whom competed here, Eliska Hajkova and Joanne Reid (Nordic). Also graduating are Khyla Burrows and Max Lamb (Alpine) and Ian Mallams and Mary Rose (Nordic). Eight other underclassmen return with the 10 who participated this week, including sophomore Adam Zika, the 2013 NCAA giant slalom champion who missed the entire winter with a knee injury, and CU's top alpine woman, Shane McLean, who missed the last part of this season with a concussion.
FUTURE SITES: Utah will host the 2014 NCAA Championships in Park City (Alpine) and Soldier Hollow (Nordic) next March 5-8. The 2015 (March 11-14) site in the east will be selected later this year, and CU will bid once again to host the event in Steamboat Springs the following year (2016).