March 9, 2010

By Lynn DeBruin
Special to

They were sore from biking and hiking up mountains, not to mention sleeping on the ground in tents for two straight nights. And they were cold and wet and sleepy, with the 5 a.m. wakeup call coming much too early.

But when University of Denver skiers trudged up Howelsen Hill last October to take in a Sunday sunrise, there's little question a bond was formed – one they hope will propel them to even grander heights in their quest for a three-peat at this week's 57th NCAA Skiing Championships at Steamboat Springs.

"When we brought up (the idea), everybody was slightly against it," said DU sophomore A.J. Avrin, citing the iffy weather on that weekend retreat to Steamboat Springs for alpine and Nordic team members.

"But once we got to the top and the sun started coming out and the colors started to change, sitting there as a team, looking over the town, you knew it was something pretty special, something you don't get to share with too many people."

While the University of Colorado (located in Boulder) will serve as host for the championships, the two-time defending champion Pioneers of the University of Denver have let it be known they feel every bit as comfortable in Steamboat Springs this week.

"We knew come March we'd be racing in Steamboat, so we all spent enough time there to consider it our home hill," Avrin said.

If they are to make it three in a row, they'll have some stiff competition, first from CU, but also from New Mexico, which finished third at the 2008-09 championships and may have the strongest alpine team.

CU, DU, Utah and Dartmouth all qualified full squads (12 members) for the championships while New Mexico and Alaska-Anchorage will bring 11 skiers and Vermont 10.

Overall, 74 men and 74 women from 22 teams will compete over four days. The competition kicks off Wednesday with men’s and women’s giant slalom at Mt. Werner.

Nordic races will be contested Thursday and Saturday at Howelsen Hill while slalom competitors will race under the lights Friday night, also at Howelsen.

Leading CU is Matt Gelso, a senior Nordic racer who is on a hot streak with four consecutive wins. Gabriel Rivas, meanwhile, will set out to defend his NCAA slalom title, while fellow junior Vegard Kjoelhamar tries to repeat in freestyle.
Then there's CU's Fab Frosh – Erika Ghent (alpine), Joanne Reid (Nordic) and Spencer Nelson (alpine).

Though they're young, coach Richard Rokos isn't afraid to rely on youth; the last time Colorado won the national crown, in 2005-06, four of his 11 competitors were freshmen.

"They've had a great year, no question about it," DU coach Andy LeRoy said of Colorado. "They've won just about every meet and they're probably the favorites going in."

Rokos said anything can happen, with slalom being the great equalizer as one mistake can prove disastrous to a team.

LeRoy expects it all to come down to the final day with the Nordic races, just like last year.

"I like our chances if it gets down to that," he said.

Leading DU is junior Antje Maempel, who won gold in both classic and women's freestyle last year. This year she's won just about every race she’s entered, though she finished in a dead heat with Nevada’s Maria Graefnings in freestyle at the West regional.

In the alpine events, the Pioneers bring sophomore Leif Haugen, who is returning from the Olympics where he competed for Norway in both slalom and giant slalom.

"He watched a bunch of his roommates come back with four medals, so he knows what it takes to get to that level of experience and maturity," LeRoy said of Haugen, who won All-America honors after finishing second in giant slalom and third in slalom at last year’s championships. "That's been the type of mentality and experience this team has gotten. Winning has been passed down from team to team."

It's something Lindsay Cone already understands, even though this is her first season with DU after transferring from St. Lawrence University (where she won gold in giant slalom last year).

Like the rest of her teammates, she was huddled in a tent last October during those sub-freezing nights on Buffalo Pass, and could be seen hiking in a group up Mt. Werner, where she'll race Wednesday.

"I'm actually pretty excited to have a whole team going this year," said Cone, who transferred so she could also compete on a top-caliber golf team. "It will be nice to go for the overall title."

If successful, Cone and her teammates no doubt will think back on that spectacular sunrise.

"It's something we definitely will remember and won't forget," Avrin said.
Much like a three-peat.

Others to watch include:

- Anna Kocken, Utah's Swedish sensation, won the women's slalom at the West regional on the same course she'll ski for nationals. "We knew she was talented, she just hasn't been able to put it together all year," coach Eli Brown said. "Then she won regionals and that was a boost for the whole team."
- David Donaldson won the NCAA giant slalom as a freshman last year for Vermont. He enters NCAAs having won both the slalom and giant slalom in the East regional, giving him 15 career victories.
- New Mexico's Malin Hemmingsson, who hails from Ostersund, Sweden, is a two-time national champion in slalom. But both titles came when the NCAAs were held in the East, where the courses typically are icier and faster. "Anything can happen in this sport. That's what's fun (about) it," Hemmingsson said.
- Vermont’s Franz Bernstein enters NCAAs coming off wins at the East regional in the 20K skate and men’s 10K classic, where he blew away the field by 36 seconds.
- Clare Egan founded Wellesley's Nordic Team in 2006 during the fall of her freshman year. Though it is only a club sport, she qualified for NCAA’s by finishing 11th in skate at the East regionals. In addition to skiing, Egan runs cross-country and track for Wellesley.