Utah skiing: Hosting Utes finish fifth at NCAA championships in Park City

Published: Saturday, March 8 2014 8:25 p.m. MST

Utah's Anna-Lena Heynen and Northern Michigan's Mary Kate Cirelli compete in the NCAA 15K freestyle ski championship at Soldier Hollow in Midway on Saturday, March 8, 2014.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PARK CITY — When the week began, hopes were high for the University of Utah ski team to win its first NCAA championship in 11 years and 11th in school history. After all, the Utes had beaten their top challengers in the West regional two weeks earlier and enjoyed “home-snow” advantage at the two venues — Park City Resort and Soldier Hollow.

Instead, nothing much went right for the Utes after taking the first-day lead. A mediocre showing in two days of Nordic events and missed gates and disqualifications in Saturday’s Alpine events doomed the Utes to a disappointing fifth-place team finish.

Denver, which surged into the lead on the second day, pulled away on the final day with balanced performances in the men’s and women’s Alpine and Nordic events to win its 22nd NCAA skiing title and first since 2010.

The Pioneers finished with 556 points to win comfortably over a fast-finishing Vermont team at 487.5. New Mexico finished third at 458.5. Colorado was fourth at 402.5, followed by the Utes at 392 in the 23-team field.

“It’s hard for us to end up where we did,’’ said Utah director of skiing Kevin Sweeney. “I think we’re a better team than that. The athletes are OK with their effort, and obviously we all wish that some of the results were better.”

Utah took the first-day lead after the men’s and women’s giant slalom events, but Denver charged ahead on day two thanks to a solid performance in cross-country races at Soldier Hollow.

Then Friday’s Alpine events were postponed due to unstable conditions on the slalom course caused by a Thursday night rain followed by a few inches of snow.

So five teams had a legitimate chance coming into two days worth of events on Saturday at Soldier Hollow and Park City, as Denver had 299 points to 248 for Utah, 240.5 for Colorado, 231 for New Mexico and 186.5 for Vermont.

After Saturday morning’s Nordic events at Soldier Hollow, things tightened up as both Utah and New Mexico outscored Denver. However, the Pioneers pretty much put it away with a one-two finish in the men’s slalom where Espen Lysdahl and Trevor Philip picked up 77 team points and Sebastian Brigovic added 22 with a ninth-place finish.

Then in the women’s slalom, Denver finished in fifth, seventh and eighth to pick up 77 more points.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I spent most of the day pretty much in tears watching our team close it out the way they did,’’ said Denver Alpine coach Andy LeRoy. “It’s been a long road to be back on the top. We put all the pieces together. It wasn’t just Alpine men or Alpine women, or Nordic men or Nordic women. We counted on everybody. Everybody contributed.’’

Vermont made a late charge thanks to a podium sweep in the final event of the day, the women’s slalom.

Kristina Riis-Johannessen won with a combined time of 1:37:89, just ahead of Kate Ryley and Elise-Woien Tefre. That race gave the Catamounts 121 points, which pushed them into second place overall.

Utah had a rough day on the slopes after a strong first day in the giant slalom. Mark Engel, who took first in the giant slalom, earning 40 points for the Utes, had the second-best time in Saturday’s first run of the slalom, but was disqualified for straddling a gate during his run.

Then in the women’s race, Ana Kobal was disqualified on her first run and Kristina Rove, who was second after the first run, missed a gate on her second and didn’t finish.

So although the Utes wouldn’t have won, they lost a potential 100 points or so that could have given them their fourth straight runner-up NCAA finish.

“There is no question that all of our team members really charged today,” Sweeney said. “I know nobody held back. We came up short, but at the same time, we did have some solid performances. There is momentum and point swings and sometimes you are on the right side of that, and sometimes you’re not.’’

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