First-year ski coach Richard Rokos said at the start of the year he wanted his University of Colorado Buffalos to be "competitive" once again . . . "like we were in the 1970s."

Obviously they listened. Thursday the Buffs, winners of eight straight NCAA ski titles from 1972-79, became odds-on favorites to regain the NCAA Skiing Championships.On a cross country course made for speed and gutsy performances, the Buffs rose, the University of Vermont Catamounts sunk and the University of Utah just about faded from the title picture. The Utes have yet to recover from injuries and illness during the season.

After trailing Vermont by one point after the first event on Wednesday, the giant slalom, Colorado opened up a 41-point lead - 388 to 347 - in the men's and women's freestyle cross country. And, after trailing by 34 after the GS, Utah fell further back after the cross country - 388 to 302. Following were Wyoming with 291, Dartmouth with 256, New Mexico with 231 and Alaska-Anchorage with 193.

The next event was the slalom at Park City on Friday. It is recognized as the riskiest of the four NCAA events. With its lead, however, Colorado needed only to play it safe. Vermont and Utah couldn't. Both had to close the gap substantially before the final event, the classical cross country on Saturday.

Actually, there was no one more surprised at the results on Thursday than Rokos and Vermont coach Chip LaCasse. First, that Colorado did so well and second, that Vermont did so poorly. The Utes have not been strong in nordic events this year.

In the men's 10 kilometer, Colorado went 1-2-4, while Vermont went 6-18-27. The Catamounts' Tim Miller, winner of the 1990 NCAA freestyle cross country, wasn't even in scoring position - 31st.

"How could you anticipate that," said LaCasse. "He's skied well all year and then this. The thing is we were ready."

Utah's best was Luke Bodensteiner in 5th. Next was John Farra in 13th and Frederic Tedborn in 15th.

In the women's 5K, Colorado went 4-7-8, to 1-5-15 for Vermont. Utah's Venke Hatleberg was 2nd, Krisin Bjervig was 29th and Erica Alexander was 30th.

Cold winds blew and a light snow fell during most of the event, which kept track conditions hard and fast.

Bodensteiner said he was happy with the course and the way he skied. His goal at race-time was to finish in the top 10. He admitted, too, that this was his kind of course, " . . . fast with gradual ups and downs. Some skiers don't ski the gradual hills well."

Hatleberg turned in Utah's best showing to this point. She was even in first place for a few minutes. But Laura Wilson of Vermont, who started three skiers behind her and was winner of this event last year, beat her by nine seconds. Wilson's time was 15 minutes, 9 seconds. Hatleberg posted at 15:18.

Where Wilson won the race was apparently in the last kilometer. She said she felt confident at the start of the race that she could repeat her performance of a year ago, but knew she was a little behind going into the final stretch.

"I knew if I was going to win I had to go hard at the last," she said. "I was having trouble there at the last catching my breath. I'm just not used to the altitude. But I knew I had to push it so I did."

The knockout punch came in the men's 10K. Colorado's Bjorn Svensson was first in 25:46, followed by teammate Jeff Graves in 26:13, followed by Wyoming's Bernie Lafleua in 26:23, followed by Colorado's third man, Bjorn Laukli in 26:25. Bodensteiner clocked a 26:34.

CU nordic coach Mike Devecka admitted the outcome was a surprise to him.

"We were ready. I could tell from our training the last couple of weeks. But we didn't expect this," he said.

"I think it goes with team togetherness. From the first day of training this has been a group of skiers working as a team."

The final event, the men's and women's 20 and 15 kilometer classical races, will be Saturday to the north of Jeremy Ranch. The women will start at 9 a.m., the men at 10:30 a.m.