BOZEMAN, Mont. - The defending national champion University of Colorado ski team finished second here Saturday in the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association Championships, but more importantly, qualified a full 12-skier squad for next month's NCAA Championships thanks to one of the greatest individual CU efforts in recent memory.
Utah, ranked No. 1 in the nation, won the title with 932 points, followed by the Buffaloes with 862.5. New Mexico pulled ahead of host Montana State by winning the men's slalom and finished with 768.5 points, while MSU was fourth with 750; Denver rounded out the top five with 716. The competition also doubled as the NCAA West Regional.
The Utes' margin of victory over the Buffs was 69.5 points, the bulk of which can be traced to the women's giant slalom (61.5); Utah won three other disciplines as did CU, with the two rivals tying in the other in the eight-event meet.
Utah is the first team to win all five western meets since Denver in 2005, just the fourth time that has happened since skiing went coed in 1983. The other western sweeps were accomplished in 1989 (Utah) and in 1995 (Colorado); all but the '89 Utes went on to win the NCAA crown. CU finished second four times and Denver once, while individually, Utah skiers won 18 and Colorado 13, far ahead of the pack for the 45 races.
Conditions worsened as the day progressed, with no precipitation at the start of the men's cross country race with snow beginning during the competition until it there were virtual blizzard conditions by the end of the women's cross country race.
"The main goal for us was to improve the seeding and the side benefit is (if you can win) the RMISA," CU head coach Richard Rokos said. "Coming into today's race with a solid deficit to Utah, we achieved both goals pretty well. We stayed in second place in the team standings but we improved the start position for two skiers in the slalom. There were a few misfortunes and ups and downs, but everybody feels satisfied and prepared for NCAAs."
Rokos, in his 22nd year as head coach of the Buffaloes, has seen his teams win 11 RMISA titles, with Saturday's runner-up showing the eighth time CU has finished second. Now his squad will set its sights on a seventh national championship in his tenure.
The story of the day for Colorado was junior Nordic skier Mary Rose. Having never posted a top 10 finish in her collegiate career and faced with the challenge of finishing at least eighth if not higher in the women's 15-kilometer classical race to have a chance at qualifying for next month's NCAA Championships, she responded with the best race of her career. The Steamboat Springs native skied to a fifth place finish in 1 hour, 3 minutes and 20.2 seconds, qualifying for nationals as the 17th and final cross country performer in the west and in the process, enabled CU to qualify a full 12-skier team to defend its title here in two weeks.
"My strategy today was to go out there and stay in the lead pack and stay there as long as possible," Rose said. "I thought I was going to fall off but I didn't. The men's team stayed and cheered us on and that was huge. I figured if it was my last race so I may as well just go for it. I pulled a good one out."
How close was it in the end? It looked to be a battle between Rose and Montana State's Casey Kutz for that final spot; but the two rallied well past a pair of DU performers this weekend and both wound up advancing to the NCAA's. Rose secured the spot by two points in the final standings over both DU women, the difference ultimately being 16.4 seconds between her fifth place finish and a seventh place one in the classic that would have kept her home.
"Mary qualifying is awesome ... for her to do that much better in classic was going to be tough," CU Nordic Coach Bruce Cranmer said. "It was snowing so hard, there was no real strategy we were just hoping for the best. She got out in front and then things started separating. Often when you're out in front, things do separate. She was on the right side of all the separations. If she had been in 10th place and the group spreads out, all those splits keep spreading out and she may have got passed by a few more skiers. When things get tough, Mary's a fighter. She just toughed it out."
While a few teams have won national titles without a full complement of skiers, Rose's qualifying could mean as many as 40 to 50 additional points for Colorado between the two races, a significant number. It also eases the pressure a bit off the other 11 who will be competing; the coaches will officially name who is going on Monday.
"The star of the show for today was Mary Rose with her fifth place," Rokos said. "We were all holding our breath for her and we knew it would take a miracle, but it happened. There's nothing you can do on the Nordic side like you can in alpine as far as tinkering with starting positions. They have to go out and do it, and she did. It's great to come with full strength to NCAAs and it adds to everybody's confidence."
"We've gone without a full team before, but that was because we didn't have anybody close," Cranmer commented. "This is the first time we've had somebody that close to the final spot. It's not that I didn't think it was possible, but it was a long shot. It was too complicated to try and calculate who could affect the results. Mary didn't just have to beat somebody, she also had to be 'X' number of points better than somebody else would pick up."
Alaska and Utah joined Colorado in qualifying full 12-skier teams from the west; Montana State and New Mexico qualified 11 and Denver 10.
Utah's Maria Graefnings captured her second regional crown, cruising around the course in 1:01:17.5 to add the classical title to her freestyle win on Friday. CU senior Eliska Hajkova was second as she was in Friday, grabbing the silver podium spot in a 1:01:52.4 time; she'll be out to defend her NCAA individual crown in the classic on this same course next month. DU's Kate Dolan, who finished third, led after the first two laps before Graefnings and Hajkova overtook her early on third one.
"Tactically, Eliska felt if things had gone a little differently she would've had a shot at winning," Cranmer said. "She worked pretty hard in the middle of the race. When you realize where you're going to finish, in this case second place and well ahead of third, you don't go all out. When you're leading in that instance, you may push harder longer in fear of being caught. She knew she was far enough ahead that she wouldn't catch Maria but had a good cushion behind her in front of third."
Junior Joanne Reid was 10th in 1:04:00.3, giving the Buffs three top10 finishers in a women's Nordic race this winter. She'll race in her third NCAA meet, where she has finished in the top 10 in all four of her previous races, including three top five efforts. Senior Katie Stege (22nd, 1:08:29.5) and freshman Marianne Madsen (25th, 1:08:48.5) completed the CU effort Saturday.
In the men's 20-kilometer classical race, freshman Rune Oedegaard recorded his third straight win and fifth overall, along with his ninth podium finish, in a 1:02:03.0 clocking; he held off Montana State's David Norris by two seconds in a spring at the end.
"The snow made it really hard to go in front of the pack," Oedegaard said. "I figured there was no need to use extra energy. I went really easy on the uphills and went all out on the flats. David Norris went pretty hard up the last hill and I just kind of followed. Then on the downhill I worked hard to be first coming into the stadium, then it was just going hard and sprinting to the end."
"Rune said his skis were great before it started snowing and maybe they weren't quite as fast at the end of the race with the snow was accumulating," Cranmer said. "When you get a change in the weather like that it makes waxing a challenge. It's a gamble guessing if it was going to snow or not and how you wax."
"It means a lot to sweep the races here," Oedegaard said in becoming the third Buff to sweep the regional races in the last five years, joining Kit Richmond (2008) and Matt Gelso (2010); otherwise, you have to go back to 1993 for the last sweep before this run (Bjorn Svensson did the honors that year). "Hopefully I'll be in even better shape coming back for NCAA's. The plan the whole time is to be in the best shape for NCAA's. I wasn't planning on being on top at this point in the season so I hope there's still some room for improvement in two weeks."
The CU men also placed three in the top 10, and bolstering Oedegaard's win were sophomore Andreas Hoye (seventh, 1:02:45.9) and senior Vegard Kjoelhamar (ninth, 1:03:14.8). Senior Reid Pletcher (16th, 1:05:50.0), junior Ian Mallams (21st, 1:0701.1) and freshman Arnaud De Pasquier (23rd, 1:08:04.7) and junior Ian Mallams (20th, 27:38.7) completed the Buffalo men's efforts here.
In the men's slalom, freshman Adam Zika posted CU's best effort in an alpine race for the fifth time this year, as he finished fourth in a two-run time of 1:55.97. It was also his top finish in the slalom as a collegian, besting a ninth-place showing at DU's Invitational in Winter Park last month. New Mexico's Christopher Acosta won in 1:55.41.
Sophomore Fletcher McDonald finished ninth in 1:57.24, as he used the fifth-fastest second run time (58.67) to move up from 19th after his morning run to secure his fourth top 10 effort in the slalom this winter.
Senior Taggart Spenst was CU's third and final scorer, with his 1:59.19 time netting him 18th place. Sophomore Andreas Haug, initially disqualified after his first run but then reinstated, was 22nd in 2:01.41. Junior Max Lamb did not finish his second run, but had started well down the line (33rd) as once again the coaches tinkered with the order in the usual attempt to improve the seeds for those qualified for the NCAA's.
The women's slalom wrapped the meet, with CU the only school to place three finishers in the top 10. All were seniors, led by Carolina Nordh in fourth with a 1:38.15 time. Right behind her in fifth was Erika Ghent (1:38.70) and then Katie Hartman in eighth (1:39.59).
It wasn't enough to topple the Utes however, as a 1-3 finish led by Anna Kocken's winning time of 1:37.50 was enough for Utah to edge the Buffs in the race by 119-113.
Rounding out the CU contingent were senior Jennifer Allen (24th, 2:00.71), junior Khyla Burrows (25th, 2:01.95) and freshman Shane McLean (29th, 2:18.71).
As Rokos stated, the regional has morphed into more about improving seeds and qualifying skiers for the NCAA Championships than winning the title. Both Nordh and Zika accomplished the former, improving their positions for the slalom at nationals.
Next up are the NCAA Championships, which will be held on these very same courses in the Bozeman area in two weeks (March 7-10). Colorado will be gunning to win its 19th title in the sport (18th NCAA) and the seventh since 1983 when the men's and women's programs were combined. CU last won back-to-back titles in 1998-99.
"In those four days at NCAAs anything can happen," Rokos said. "We won in 2006 without a full squad, but it's unpredictable. It's a confidence builder for everybody to come here and race this weekend and see the same courses we will compete on in two weeks.
"Our main goal the next few days will be to catch up in school," he added. "We'll start training (alpine) on Wednesday and then we'll travel back up here Saturday. The traveling team will come here Saturday and start training right away."
As for the Nordic preparations, "There's not a lot to do," Cranmer said. "We'll do some hard skiing but not a lot. Everybody I think is happy with where they are."
NCAA East Regional: No. 2 Vermont captured the EISA Championship/NCAA East Regional with 955 points, pulling away from No. 3 Dartmouth (848); UVM won four of the six eastern meets this winter, with Dartmouth snaring the other two. Host Middlebury and New Hampshire tied for third with 724.5 points, with Williams rounding out the top five (539.5).
RMISA Championships/NCAA West Regional (Final, 8 events)- 1. Utah 932; 2. Colorado 862.5; 3. New Mexico 768.5; 4. Montana State 750; 5. Denver 716; 6. Alaska 647; 7. Westminster 251; 8. Colorado Mountain College 105.
Men's 20K Classical (28 collegiate finishers)- 1. Rune Oedegaard, CU, 1:02.03.0; 2. David Norris, MSU, 1:02:05.0; 3. Didrik Smith, Utah, 1:02:06.2; 4. Miles Havlick, Utah, 1:02:06.5; 5. Trygve Markset, DU, 1:02:21.2; 6. Sjur Prestsaeter, UNM, 1:02:36.8; 7. Andreas Hoye, CU, 1:02:45.9; 8. Tyler Reinking, MSU, 1:03:01.3; 9. Vegard Kjoelhamar, CU, 1:03:14.8; 10. Andrew Daugherty, DU, 1:03:38:2. Other CU Finishers: 16. Reid Pletcher, 1:05:50.0; 21. Ian Mallams, 1:07:01.1; 23. Arnaud De Pasquier, 1:08:04.7.
Women's 15K Classical (27 collegiate finishers)- 1. Maria Graefnings, Utah, 1:01:17.5; 2. Eliska Hajkova, CU, 1:01:52.4; 3. Kate Dolan, DU, 1:03:05.2; 4. Linn Klaesson, UNM, 1:03:15.8; 5. Mary Rose, CU, 1:03:20.2; 6. Casey Kutz, MSU, 1:03:25.4; 7. Ase Carlson, MSU, 1:03:36.5; 8. Parker Tyler, Utah, 1:03:45.1; 9. Jaime Bronga, UAA, 1:03:55.6; 10. Joanne Reid, CU, 1:04:00.3. Other CU Finishers: 22. Katie Stege, 1:08:29.5; 25. Marianne Madsen, 1:08:48.5.
Men's Slalom (32 collegiate finishers)- 1. Christopher Acosta, UNM, 1:55.41; 2. Charlie Reynolds, DU, 1:55.59; 3. Torjus Krogdahl, Utah, 1:55.91; 4. Adam Zika, CU, 1:55.97; 5. Michael Bansmer, UNM, 1:56.18; 6. Nick Cohee, Utah, 1:56.33; 7. Joonas Rasanen, UNM, 1:56.40; 8. Max Marno, DU, 1:56.79; 9. Fletcher McDonald, CU, 1:57.24; 10 (tie). Ryan Wilson, Utah and Armin Triendl, UNM, 1:57.28. Other CU Results: 18. Taggart Spenst, 1:59.19; 22. Andreas Haug, 2:01.41. Did Not Finish (2nd run): Max Lamb.
Women's Slalom (29 collegiate finishers)- 1. Anna Kocken, Utah, 1:37.50; 2. Stefanie Demetz, UNM, 1:37.65; 3. Julie Bordeau, Utah, 1:37.69; 4. Carolina Nordh, CU, 1:38.15; 5. Erika Ghent, CU, 1:38.70; 6. Marissa Riopelle, MSU, 1:38.87; 7. Kelly McBroom, MSU, 1:39.48; 8. Katie Hartman, CU, 1:39.59; 9. Vanessa Berther, UAA, 1:40.13; 10. Maria Fraschini, WC, 1:40.16. Other CU Finishers: 24. Jennifer Allen, 2:00.71; 25. Khyla Burrows, 2:01.95; 29. Shane McLean, 2:18.71.
(Associate SID Curtis Snyder contributed to this report.)