Anticlimactic? Perhaps. But while a title trophy wasn’t awarded last week at the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Ski Championships, powerhouse programs from the University of Utah and Denver University came away feeling like champions in a hotly contested battle in Bozeman.
The NCAA Championships, hosted by Montana State University at Bridger Bowl, were cut short after day two of the planned four-day event when the NCAA took the unprecedented step of canceling all winter and spring championship events due to the spread of COVID-19.
After the giant slalom on day one, the Denver Pioneers held a 20-point margin over Utah. But the Utes came storming back after the day-two freestyle nordic event to move ahead by 32. Middlebury was a strong third. According to a statement from the NCAA, “There will not be a team title awarded since the event had to be canceled before completion of competition.”
The cancellation came with the GS and freestyle nordic events completed, but with slalom and the classic mass start cross-country remaining.
“We were leading but anything can happen,” said Utah Director of Skiing Fredrick Landstedt, who led the Utes to the national title a year ago in his first season since leaving the University of New Mexico. “Our team is pretty solid in slalom. We felt that if our slalom didn’t drop too many points we could win it in nordic classical mass start – our best event”
The Utes had dominated during the regular Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association (RMISA) season, taking overall titles at the Colorado, Denver and its own Utah Invitationals. But the Pioneers came roaring back to win the RMISA Championship/NCAA West Regional the previous weekend, also at Bridger Bowl. So the stage was set for a dramatic national championship.
“Our expectations on the alpine side were super high,” said DU Head Alpine Coach Andy LeRoy, a former NCAA champion himself and a 1998 Olympian with the U.S. Ski Team. “We’ve had the highest scoring alpine team since 2013. In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve seen a team so well prepared and as strong as this one. We gained a lot of confidence from regional championships. It was the first time we really had our full team. Our performance at Park City (Utah Invitational) then crushing the last day of regionals – that was the catapult for our team to figure out the soft snow and make the most of it.”
Wind and soft snow characterized the hill at Bridger Bowl.
“Our guys just bit the bullet and excelled with it despite having setups that were more for NorAms and harder snow,” said LeRoy. “They did a great job changing their mentality and tactics, then executing.”
Denver’s top guns Tobias Kogler of Austria and American Storm Klomhaus took GS titles for the Pioneers, while the Utes countered with third-place finishes from Joachim Lein and Sona Moravcikova. Utah placed five into the top 10 for All-American status, with Denver close behind with four.
“We were losing to Denver by 20 points – they had a strong day,” said Landstedt of Utah after the opening day alpine event. “But we were very happy with our performance and knew we had a chance to take lead in nordic the next day.”
LeRoy joined his alpine athletes at Crosscut Mountain Sports Center for the nordic event Thursday. “We skipped that morning of training, with the athletes bouncing back from taking final exams,” he said. “It’s a tough week for us. Thursday is typically a training day. But we wanted to go out to see the nordics.”
Utah freshman Samuel Hendry, a Canadian skier just back from U23 World Championships, scored his fourth podium in five races finishing second – 3.1 seconds back from American star Ben Ogden of the University of Vermont in the men’s 10k freestyle. Ute senior Guro Jordheim from Norway was third – her best championship result ever and seventh straight All-American finish in the women’s 5k freestyle.
But while athletes were competing at the Crosscut, the world around them was changing.
“After the race we were packing up waiting for awards when my sport supervisor Nona Richardson advised me that the Pac 12 conference decided to cancel all sports,” said Landstedt. “When I heard that, I figured it would be unlikely the ski championships would go on. We had our awards ceremony for the day and went back to our house. After about an hour we found out that they were canceling the championships.”
Despite the 32 point gap, the Pioneers were still optimistic. “Utah had obviously taken the lead,” said LeRoy. “But we just went back to hotel to do homework for the next day.”
A short time later, LeRoy got the cancellation call. “We did a team meeting, discussed it, had a nice dinner together and then drove back to Denver in the morning.”
“The alpine athletes were very unhappy because they were watching the nordic race after training in the morning,” said Landstedt. “They were all excited for slalom day. It was hard for the seniors who maybe hadn’t had the best race and wanted to redeem themselves. But everyone is so well informed that they understand it. Everyone came to the realization – it was an understandable decision.”
“The athletes were for sure bummed,” said LeRoy. “We were SO close to finishing and they had skied so well. That bummed them out. But at the same time, they watched other sports cancel in the 72 hours leading in. So it wasn’t a big surprise. Game, set, match – let’s head home.”
Both Landstedt and LeRoy are veteran NCAA coaches. They’ve both lived the four year cycle of eligibility. And each leaves the season with an intense feeling of pride for the accomplishments of their athletes – two remarkable collegiate teams.
“It was a really good season for us,” said Landstedt of his Utes. “It’s just too bad it ended a bit early.”
LeRoy was philosophical as he looked back. “I think in the end, we just smiled more than wondered what could have been.”