PARK CITY, Utah — The rescheduling of Friday’s slalom to Saturday (March 8) put all the cards on the table in a single day, and the University of Denver emerged with a full house to best the University of Vermont’s three of a kind and claim the Pioneers’ 22nd NCAA Championship title, though its first since 2010.
“We didn’t miss a step this week,” said Denver head alpine coach Andy LeRoy. “Every single athlete in every race really stepped up and put down some of their best runs and best tracks in nordic. It’s not a big surprise that we ended up winning, in my mind, but to see them come through in the clutch like they did this afternoon was a tearjerker.”
Morning action at Soldier Hollow saw a solid men’s pack in the 20km freestyle mass start race eventually splinter on the fourth and final lap as Colorado’s Mads Stroem skated furiously away from the group to declare a decisive victory. A surprise finish perhaps, as even the announcer mistook Stroem, the freshman who finished fourth in Thursday’s classic race, for his more well known teammate Rune Oedegaard before noting the correction. It was a day for the “M”s as Max Olex of Alaska-Fairbanks cruised across the finish line seven seconds later, followed by New Mexico’s Mats Resaland four more seconds back to complete the podium in third. Patrick Caldwell from Dartmouth was the top Eastern skier in fifth.
“I was just trying to save as much energy as possible for the last lap,” Stroem said. “I know I’m really strong on the uphills, so I was waiting and waiting and then on the first uphill of the last lap, Rune and I opened a gap. I asked Rune if he wanted to be in front and he said he didn’t have any energy, so I knew I had to leave him.” Oedegaard ultimately finished 15th.
The women’s 15km race was much less compact as the eventual podium of New Mexico’s Eva Severrus, Northern Michigan’s Rosie Frankowski, and Denver’s Sylvia Nordskar (still recovering from the flu), who finished first through third, respectively, had gapped the field by the middle of the race and held on to the end. However, the University of Vermont won team scoring in the event with skiers Linda Danvind-Malm finishing fourth and Anja Gruber, the classic title winner, fifth, setting the stage for a surge by the Catamounts to move well beyond their fifth-place ranking at the midway point of the championships.
After Utah ceded the lead to Denver in the second day of competition, the Utes had a hard time getting their feet back underneath them. The slalom races seemed like a prime opportunity for the host team to once again take advantage of their home hill, but disaster struck early when Mark Engel, the GS title winner who finished second on the first slalom run with a blistering performance despite two major errors, was subsequently disqualified for straddling. Andy Trow and Joergen Brath were left behind to pick up the pieces, but they best they could produce was seventh and 14th on the day.
Denver’s Espen Lysdahl reclaimed the 2012 title he won at Bozeman but had temporarily lent to New Mexico’s Joonas Rasanen for one season after winning both runs and beating out his own teammate, Trevor Philp, in slushy conditions. Despite two individual titles to Lysdahl’s name, this was his first overall team title.
“It was pretty decent, actually. It wasn’t as bad as people said it was. It kind of reminds me of spring series in Norway. Typical conditions, a little soft, but it was relatively good,” said Lysdahl. “It’s really amazing. We’ve been questing this title for quite some time now.”
Philp’s second place along with freshman Sebastian Brigovic’s ninth gave Denver the team victory in the event, but Vermont was hot on its tail with Jonathan Nordbotten third as well as Travis Dawson and Kevin Drury inside the top 10. Although Denver had amassed a seemingly impenetrable lead heading into the women’s race, the runner-up spot was still up for grabs and the Catamounts dug in their claws.
Sitting first, third, and seventh after the first run, the lady Cats made the best of a salted course that had been baking in the Western heat. Vermont team volunteer Sohier Perry manned the rake to do his part to provide a quality surface for the later runners in the flip.
“I put in a fair amount of work between raking and throwing salt,” said Perry. “But as Jimmy (Cochran) says, you do whatever you can to make your girls go faster.” And fast they went, ultimately sweeping the podium behind the lead of Kristina Riis-Johannessen, who has twice been runner-up in the NCAA championship slalom race. Not this year. She pulled off the win followed by Kate Ryley, who bested Riis-Johannessen in 2012, and Elise Tefre.
It was the ninth podium sweep all-time and just the second in an alpine event in NCAA Skiing Championship history. The Catamounts did it once before in 1989 when they swept the top four spots in the women’s 15K freestyle. The last alpine 1-2-3 finish was by Wyoming in 1985.
“Sharing the podium with my teammates is just unbelievable. We couldn’t do better today,” Riis-Johannessen remarked. “I’ve had a pretty tough year and this just makes everything so much better. I knew I’ve been skiing well the whole time, I just kind of kept doing mistakes and doing stupid things. But I knew I could win today, and I also knew it was going to be hard and I had to absolutely do my best. That’s what I did and it worked.”
The Catamounts pulled into second place behind Denver whose Kristine Haugen finished fifth. Tianda Carroll and Devin Delaney also produced top-10 results for the Pioneers. But the skiers from Vermont celebrated second place with nearly as much exuberance as the Pioneers.
“I’m really happy about our team performance. We had kind of a slow start. We were fifth going into this day in overall team score, so we brought it back to second place. I think that’s really awesome,” added Riis-Johannessen. “I’m not bummed about not getting first place. No matter what, it’s a great team effort.”
The 2013 national champion Colorado Buffaloes finished a disappointing fourth after struggling to find their stride.
“We didn’t deliver and now we know what to do next year,” Colorado head alpine coach Richard Rokos said. “Trophies don’t matter between second, third or fourth place, it’s all the same. We always aim for the best, we came here to defend our title. We didn’t shoot for second place.”
The secret to the Pioneers’ first victory since 2010 was likely due to something more than their training sessions and hitting the wax.
“We had a good feeling going into the season. We had a lot of strong athletes as incoming freshmen these past couple years, and it’s definitely been a process. It’s been building,” noted LeRoy. “You could see just the mentality of everybody—they’re having team barbeques, they’re having team dinners. It’s not just alpine and nordic or men or women, it was just a huge support staff. Even the athletes who didn’t compete, every single one of them is out here and brought their parents too. That type of team atmosphere is just a ton of support and it shows in the results.”
Denver’s head nordic coach Dave Stewart echoed those sentiments.
“We won three championships, 2008-2010, you get a little bit used to it. And then it kind of takes a new atmosphere, a new attitude,” said Stewart. “This team, we had a fall camping trip to Moab, and we were sitting around the fire talking about goals. And the goal of this team was 22—to win our 22nd national championship this year. They knew they could do it, and they wanted to put in the work to do it, and they did.”
See more photos from the races in our gallery here.
Susan Theis and Claire Brown contributed on-site reporting for this article.
FINAL TEAM SCORES