BRECKENRIDGE - The defending national champion University of Colorado ski team bounced back strong here Thursday with four finishers in the top 14 of the men's slalom as the Buffaloes closed the gap a bit on three-event leader Utah at the midway point of their own CU Invitational/Spencer Nelson Memorial.
Utah maintained its lead with four of eight events complete with 469 total points, with Colorado in second with 440, the Buffs shaving eight points off the Utes' lead. Denver, which won the men's slalom as a team with 108 points, two more than CU, moved into third with 386, overtaking New Mexico (379). Alaska-Anchorage rounds out the top five in the 8-team meet with 341 points.
The slalom races originally were scheduled for last Sunday, but poor snow conditions forced the postponement until Wednesday for the women's event and Thursday for the men's; both races were folded into previous FIS competitions on Breckenridge's Cimarron Run, along with both morning and afternoon races making for challenging conditions.
As with the women's race Wednesday, the college competition followed in the afternoon after a morning race - the CSC Surefoot Slalom - and Colorado skiers fared very well. Five Buffaloes placed in the top 10, including junior Max Lamb finishing second.
Sophomore Fletcher McDonald had the top CU performance in the college slalom with a career-best fourth place finish with a two-run time of 1:32.32; he was second after the first run (a 44.82 clocking). As a freshman, he had three top 10 efforts in the slalom, with a previous best of fifth in Montana State's invitational. He placed 27th and 31st in the two college giant slaloms so far this winter.
McDonald took his collegiate best performance in stride. "It was a tricky in the second race, and the second run of that race, it was whoever could ski well but still stayed in," he said. "The conditions were kind of tough, a little inconsistent, but you just had to ski smart. After three runs down the hill, on the fourth run, you have gates all over the place."
"Our depth is awesome," he added. "It's anybody's race, we're all skiing good slalom. Anybody on our team can podium or win any race, we're very confident right now."
Lamb finished sixth in 1:32.79, while sophomore Andreas Haug was 11th in 1:33.35 and freshman Adam Zika 14th in 1:34.01. Senior Taggart Spenst was CU's other finisher, placing 23rd in 1:35.37; another Buff senior, Eric Davis did not compete as he remains day-to-day after suffering a hip injury in the first giant slalom of the year last Friday.
"The guys skied well today, they were motivated to do better than the girls did yesterday," head coach Richard Rokos said. "Utah has an advantage right now with a lot of guys in the super seed, because they are carrying points from last year.
"For us to have Adam (Zika) out of the super seed, and pretty far out, that hurts us early this season. Adam will eventually make the super seed and as a group, we'll be in a much better place to attack and get some good points. Max and Fletcher both did great, Andreas did very well. Taggart had a mishap in the first run but did really well in the second run.
"Once you have ruts in soft places, it's almost a given that your start order will be your finish," Rokos continued. "For Adam in both runs and Taggart in the second run, to move up 5-10 spots was a big deal."
Rokos and assistant alpine Drew Roberts talked with the team the night before about not participating in the morning slalom, but it was a consensus by them to run both races. "It was good preparation, it's a long and intense day, you go from inspection to run, then to the next inspection and run without any breaks," Rokos noted. "By the end of the day you're tired, but we had a good day.
"When you have two races like we did today, you can inspect both races before the first, so there's a lot more to memorize for the guys. Sometimes that bites you, there's some danger in that, there's a lot to memorize and absorb throughout the day but that's all part of it."
The first Nordic action of the 2012 season commences Friday in Steamboat Springs at the famed Howelsen Hill ski area with the freestyle competition. The men will ski a 10-kilometer course, the women's will race a 5K.
"We're a little behind, we beat everybody but Utah on our side and left some work for the Nordic team to do. Nordic's an unknown right now, we know that we're strong but we have to how new skiers perform and there's always the health issue. Right now, I have confidence they (CU's Nordic team) will make those points up."
The Buffaloes have won seven of the last nine meets (six of seven in the west), and 55 of 129 they have skied in under Rokos' tutelage in his 21 seasons as head coach, including six national championships.
Colorado's annual invitational has been renamed the Spencer Nelson Memorial, honoring the Buff sophomore who was killed in a hiking accident near Aspen in August 2010. The previous two decades the meet honored Laura Sharpe Flood, who was killed in a training run here at Eldora in April 1990.
In addition to CU's meet turning to the cross country events, the Denver Invitational begins Saturday with the giant slalom races at Winter Park.
"We're almost one-third of the way through the season, it's always quick at the start," Rokos said. "There's some time off here after DU (Denver's meet) and every team will take advantage of it for training. Training before the first set of races was inconsistent, but now there is snow everywhere so a lot of teams will make some good strides between Winter Park and (two February meets in) Alaska."
CU Invitational/Spencer Nelson Memorial Team Scores (4 events)-1. Utah 469; 2. Colorado 440; 3. Denver 386; 4. New Mexico 379; 5. Alaska-Anchorage 341; 6. Westminster 293; 7. Montana State 276; 8. Colorado Mountain College 87.
Men's Slalom (36 collegiate finishers)- 1. Petter Brenna, WC, 1:31.66; 2. Trevor Philp, DU, 1:31.95; 3. Ryan Wilson, UU, 1:32.10; 4. Fletcher McDonald, CU, 1:32.32; 5. Juho-Pekk Pettinen, UNM, 1:32.56; T6. Max Lamb, CU, and Andreas Adde, UAA, 1:32.79; 8. Espen Lysdahl, DU, 1:32.85; 9. Joonas Rasanen, UNM, 1:33.06; 10. Torjus Krogdahl, UU, 1:33.19; 11. Andreas Haug, CU, 1:33.35; 12. Kitt Flowers, DU, 1:33.97; 13. Chriss Salbu, UNM, 1:33.98; 14. Adam Zika, CU, 1:34.01; 15. Armin Triendl, UNM, 1:34.02; 16. Sean Alexander, UAA, 1:34.19; 17. Cam Brewington, UAA, 1:34.38; 18. Charlie Reynolds, DU, 1:34.43; 19. Nick Cohee, UU, 1:34.65; 20. Max Marno, DU, :34.69; 21. Christopher Kollenborg, UAA, 1:35.03; 22. Mark Miller, UNM, 1:35.23; 23. Taggart Spenst, CU, 1:35.37; 24. Arnaud Favre, WC, 1:35.83; 25. Sean Horner, UNM, 1:36.87; 26. Niko Harmanen, UAA, 1:36.90; 27. Michael Bansmer, UNM, 1:36.92; 28. Ryan McConnell, MSU, 1:37.85; 29. Geoffrey Irwin, MSU, 1:38.35; 30. David Owsley, MSU, 1:39.14; 31. Johnathon Zilverberg, CMC, 1:49.61; 32. Maxence Rolland, WC, 1:50.05; 33. Luke Laidlaw, DU, 1:53.21; 34. Timotej Hribar, UU, 1:53.67; 35. Benoit Jagot, WC, 2:00.28; 36. Jake Bell, CMC, 2:13.15. Other CU Skiers: Corey Ketai, DNF (first run).
(Associate SID Curtis Snyder contributed to this report.)