March 13, 2010

by Lynn DeBruin
Special to

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. - Five-and-a-half-months ago, University of Denver skiers did circles on Howelsen Hill, riding bikes and hiking all over the famous mountain that has turned out so many Olympic champions.

On Saturday, they stood at the base of the hill riding even higher emotionally, after pulling off a three-peat at the NCAA Championships.

"It's unbelievable, to be honest," DU Nordic coach Dave Stewart said after senior Antje Maempel sealed the deal with a win in the women's 15K freestyle - giving her back-to-back sweeps in the Nordic races.

The Pioneers, who came together as a team in October during a weekend camping trip to Steamboat, finished with 785.5 points. That easily outdistanced rival University of Colorado (714), which served as host of the 57th championships.

New Mexico was third with 677 points, followed by Utah with 595 and Dartmouth with 523. Vermont was sixth, powered by Franz Bernstein's dramatic win Saturday in the men's 20K freestyle.

The title was DU's 21st national championship.

In the end, it was only fitting that Maempel was carried to the podium on the shoulders of her DU teammates.

She carried the team, earning 100 points alone in winning both the 5K and 15K, after doing the same in 2009.

"I can't even describe it, last year and then this year. It's just crazy," said Maempel, who pulled away down the stretch to win by six seconds over CU's Alexa Turzian in a time of 41 minutes, 3 seconds.

"You can never be sure, but I knew I had a pretty strong finish. I kind of counted on that."

Unlike last year, when the team title came down to the final event, DU pretty much won it on Day 1 when the Pioneers jumped out to a 96-point lead over CU following gold- and silver-medal performances in the men's and women's giant slalom races.

Leif Haugen took first for DU for the men and Lindsay Cone was the silver medalist in the women's race. CU's alpine racers, meanwhile, struggled, with the men posting just 56 points that day - a 66-point difference.

"We didn't want to give up 100 points the first day," said a dejected CU coach Richard Rokos, counting the 30-point differential on the women's side. "We gave up more than they earned. As organizers, it was a beautiful championship, but (as a team) we had hoped for better. We didn't come here for second."

DU head coach Andy LeRoy said he knew the giant slalom would be key this year.

"I didn't tell (our skiers), but our preparation was for that giant slalom. We didn't want to wait for it to unfold. We wanted to blow it open on that so when we got to slalom, we could, not necessarily cruise, but ski safe," he said.

CU's men, not having that luxury, had to go for it Friday night, but under pressure earned only 42 points in the slalom.

The biggest disappointment came when defending champion Gabriel Rivas was disqualified for failing to hike properly around a gate after missing it.

By the time the sun came up Saturday, it was merely a race for second place overall between CU and New Mexico, which qualified one racer short overall.

CU won that battle by going silver-bronze in the women's 15K, with Turzian second in 41:9.0 seconds, Eliska Hajkova third in 41:42.5 and, as an added bonus, Joanne Reid nabbing 10th in 43:05.0.

But there was no stopping Maempel, who sat back until the final kick to close out her career with a fourth NCAA gold.
She admitted feeling the pressure to repeat and sweep.

"It's not a nice feeling," she said. "It was a little harder this year. Last year I didn't have the pressure because I thought maybe I'd end up on the podium."

The woman who came to DU because its then-coach was German and some of the racers were her friends, plans to go to grad school next year, either here or somewhere in Europe.

She made it clear her competitive days were done.

"I will ski just for fun," said Maempel, 26.

Of course, judging by the smile on her face Saturday afternoon, the NCAA championship was pretty fun, too.