This is not a typical year for the University of Utah ski team. In past years one thing was always certain: Utah would be a favorite come NCAA time.
That's not the case this year. A "possible" is a more accurate tag.In the past, the Utes have gone into the NCAAs undefeated and hardly marked. In the past 10 years people could count the number of lost invitationals on one hand and have fingers uncounted.
But not this year. Ute skiers are battered and bruised, and they show it. Of the six invitationals they've skied in, they won one - the Utah Invitational. In one, Utah finished a far distant 4th.
So, as they move into the NCAA Championships this week in Park City, looks of concern aren't on opponents' faces as much as on those of the Utes'.
The NCAAs open in Park City with a giant slalom on Wednesday, followed by the cross-country freestyle on Thursday at Jeremy Ranch, the slalom on Friday back at Park City, and finish with the classical cross country on Saturday back at Jeremy Ranch. The alpine races will begin at 9:30 a.m., the cross-country races at 9 a.m.
Actually, the Utes came into this season a question mark. The main question was how well did Ute Coach Pat Miller recruit - coaches and skiers? Gone from last year's NCAA runner-up team were 10 of his front-line skiers and two key coaches.
The Utes lost the first meet by two points to Colorado, but then recovered to win their own event at Solitude in early January. From there it went downhill. Sickness and injuries had Miller scrambling to just get enough healthy bodies to show up.
Gillian Frost broke her leg five weeks before the season started, then Anne Kari Aas broke her tailbone in the opening event. Both made the All-America team last year. At the last meet, All-America Heidi Dahlgren was lost when she injured her knee. And Luke Bodensteiner, a member of the NCAA-winning classic team last year, struggled through most of the season with upper respiratory problems.
Then there were flu and colds and minor injuries that required rest.
Still, Miller said he is optimistic. He will finally be going into a meet with a full team.
"I think with a full team we're pretty competitive. We haven't had much opportunity to prove it, but we've got the talent," he said.
Traditionally, the NCAAs have been a two-team affair - Utah and Vermont. In eight years, Utah has won the title five times and finished second three times. Vermont has won it two times - the last two - and has finished second five times.
This year add Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming to the race. Vermont, once again, dominated the Eastern races. But it was Colorado, not Utah, that controlled the West, winning five of six meets. New Mexico and Wyoming were never far behind.
The only other Eastern team with any hope is Middlebury. It, said Miller, has a pretty well-rounded team . . . "the rest are strong in one, but weak in the others."
The last time the NCAAs were held in Utah was in 1981. That was the year Utah, with local skier Scott Hoffman on the team, started its domination of the 1980s.
The question, of course, is how will all this down time affect the Utes.
They should do well in the giant slalom on Wednesday. Three men - Oyvind Ragnhildstveit, John Ethen and Per Kaare Langlo - and one woman - Katja Lesjak - qualified for the first seed in the GS.
The test will come Thursday, during the freestyle cross country. Nordic racing is the Utes' big weakness this year. In the women's freestyle, for example, Utah qualified one in the first seed, one in the third, one in the fourth and one in the fifth. In the women's classical, Utah went 1-2-3-4 in seedings. Stronger schools will have qualified all their racers in the first two seeds.
Utah's best nordic skiers are Venke Hatleberg, Frederic Tedborn, John Farra and Bodensteiner. All drew first-seed starts.
In alpine, the only other skier to make the first seed is Karianne Eriksen in slalom.
The Utes could get the adrenaline pumping and pull some surprises. Then, too, some of the weaker schools could help by knocking off some of the favorites. Then again, the down time could prove more than the Utes can overcome.
Helpful will be the fact that the Utes are skiing on home snow in Park City and Jeremy Ranch . . . and that they will be breathing air at an altitude they've adapted to.