Maybe, if the NCAA rules committee had known it would come down to this, it wouldhave waited to change skiing's events around. But it didn't, and the NCAA Ski Championships will be decided on an "unknown" today.
The two leaders, Utah and Vermont, will toss their skiers into the first mass-start freestyle cross country race, and what comes out will be this year's national champion. Despite more highs and lows than a weather report, only 14 points separate the two skiing powers. The school that skis best in the two nordic events will win the title.In the third day of skiing surprises, Utah regained the lead with 501 points to 487 for yesterday's leader, Vermont. Third is Colorado with 465.5, then Wyoming with 444 and New Mexico with 389.
When the games finally got under way Thursday, it did not look like this year's race was going to be close at all. On a one-run, protested women's GS, Utah jumped out to a 57-point lead, which in any other NCAA would have meant the title was almost assured.
Then Utah's worst fears were realized and, on an emotional high, Vermont came back Friday to outscore Utah by 70 points to take a 13-point lead. Long-time coaches cannot remember a team scoring that many points in one day, or a leader losing that many. At that point, Vermont appeared to have the title clinched.
Then on Saturday, Vermont's worst fears were realized as a less-than-whole Utah team regained the lead with some gutsy performances.
Good skiing by Vermont would have sewn up the title for the Catamounts on Saturday and would have ended a string of runner-up finishes unmatched in NCAA history - seven in the last eight years. It didn't get it.
Utah, with its men's team riddled with injuries, needed good team skiing and got it.
Henrik Smith-Meyer was in second after the first run of the slalom and could have gone for the title but chose instead to finish for the team and ended up fourth. Jesse Hunt, in first after the first run, could have put the title in Vermont's hands with a good safe run but instead ended up hooking a tip and falling.
Still, the door was open for Vermont. Utah's fourth man, Greg Norton, suffered a sprained ankle in a fall Friday and did not ski in the slalom; Brent Nixon, bothered by a bad knee all season, was hardly able to walk but skied and finished an impressive 11th; and Oivind Ragnhildstveit, Utah's third and last scorer, fell on his first run and ended up 31st.
Winning the men's slalom was Robert McCleod of Middlebury in 1:30.35. Smith-Meyer's time was 1:31.52. Hunt finished 26th.
Even with all of Utah's misfortunes, Vermont only tied the Utes for fifth, this from a school that should have won the event and picked up 30 points on Utah.
Then, as expected, the Ute women came through to dominate the slalom. After the first run they were in first, fourth, fifth and sixth. After the second run they finished second, third, fourth and, for good measure, fifth. (In NCAA skiing, only three skiers can score.)
Gella Hamberg won the event with a two-run time of 1:32.66. Then came Utah's foursome: Kjersti Nilsen was second in 1:33.51, Katja Lesjak was third in 1:34.92, Anke Friedrich was fourth in 1:35.56 and Heidi Dahlgren was fifth in 1:37.13.
Smith-Meyer admitted after his run that he held back. "I just tried to be quick, to make sure that I set up for the next turn, but I never let the skis run. I never took chances," he said.
Nilsen said she didn't start out to hold back. "But near the middle I made a mistake and almost fell. I got back too far. And I was tired, I think, and I was more careful. All the waiting around, I got nervous. I couldn't eat lunch."
Now, it comes down to the freestyle cross country, which replaces an old event called the team relays. This race will have a mass start and an anything-goes race technique, although most will skate the entire way. So 40 skiers in both the men's and women's races will stand in a line and then dash for a trail about 12 feet wide. They will then sprint for the finish - 15 kilometers for the women, 20 kilometers for the men.
At this point, the team with the highest three finishers will win.
Both Utah's and Vermont's coaches acknowledged that they have been somewhat taken aback by the strange pattern of these NCAA finals. Both said there have been extreme emotional highs and lows.
"I just told my team after Friday that tomorrow is a new day," said Utah Coach Pat Miller.
Vermont Coach Chip LaCasse said he's just tried to ease the pressure on his skiers.
"I've never seen pressure like this. Just imagine, knowing that you've got to finish and knowing one or two of your teammates ahead of you is down."
If Utah wins, it would be its seventh title in eight years, and its fourth consecutive. If Vermont wins, it would be its first title in 10 years.
Because of NCAA rules, skiing can't start before noon on Sundays. By 4 p.m., a champion will be crowned.