There was nothing common about these NCAA Ski Championships, not the races, not the weather, not the racers, not the outcome. It was, in the words of one coach, "different."
The University of Vermont won it and the University of Utah was second. For six of the past eight years, including the last three, it was just the reverse. Final standings had Vermont with 672, Utah with 668, Colorado with 600.5, Wyoming with 592, New Mexico with 520 and Alaska-Anchorage with 459.5.But Vermont did win, and it deserved to win. Never could long-time Coach Chip LaCasse remember a national when his team had reached such extreme highs or such depressing lows, and stayed together.
Nor can any of the long-time officials remember when a NCAA meet had been so often guaranteed, only to have fate jump in and wrench it away. Both Vermont and Utah had chances early in the event to sew it up, but unexpected mishaps proved costly to both.
Nor can anyone remember an NCAA final so close.
The only day of calm was the last. On the final day there were no mistakes, only heroics.
Utah entered the freestyle cross country, a new event that replaced the team relays this year, with a 16-point lead. To win, each of the final eight Catamount skiers had to beat his or her Utah counterpart by at least two places, which many considered impossible noting Utah's overall strength.
But they did and with the kinds of finishes tailor-made for movies. In the women's freestyle, for example, spectators watched the "Vermont Train" skate the 15 kilometer track in places 1, 2, 3 and 4, 30 seconds ahead of any other of the 40 competitors.
Vermont's total dominance of the event put it ahead of Utah by 16 points.
Then in the men's race, Vermont racers, in serious jeopardy of losing more points than it could afford after 10 of the 20 kilometers, attacked the course with new life and saved the title for Vermont.
In the women's race, the winner was Sari Argillander in 49 minutes, 47.4 seconds. Utah's Simone Brake was 7th in 50:52.2. Kim Csizmazia was 14th and Kris Ryan was 15th.
Brake said she skied well, but after the Vermont skiers broke at 51/2 kilometers, she found herself alone.
"It was difficult," she said at the finish. "It helps if you can work with someone. The Vermont skiers were able to do that."
Brenda White, who finished 3rd for Vermont, said it was teamwork. "We agreed before the race we'd go out as a team. We took turns leading, right up to the finish, then it was everyone for themselves."
In the men's race that followed, Per Jakobsen of Colorado and Petri Aho of St. Lawrence ran a two-man race almost from start to finish. And here, too, a Utah skier was left to make his own way. Hans Sjulstad, winner of the men's classic cross country on Friday, finished alone in third. Jakobsen won with a time of 56:17.6, to 56:21 for Aho. Sjulstad's time was 57:22. Eric Bauman was 4th.
Sjulstad also said the race was made difficult by the fact that he had to run alone. "I felt good, but it was hard," he said. "It's hard skiing alone. I just tried to relax. That's all I could do."
Utah skiers finished 3rd, 4th and 15th, while Vermont's finished 7th, 11th and 13th. Utah picked up points, but not enough. Vermont won its first title in eight years; eight years of being always a co-favorite with Utah and always runner-up.
The event got off on a down note back on Thursday. Snow and fog, both serious problems for skiers, settled over the Jackson Hole ski area. The result was that the men's giant slalom race was postponed and only one run of the women's race was held. Without an opportunity to better poor first runs, Vermont appeared to have lost the title before the NCAAs even got underway. Utah, with a 57-point lead, appeared to have secured its 4th straight title. Vermont protested the race, but the results stood.
This was the turning point, said LaCasse. "Our skiers went to bed depressed and woke up mad."
On Friday, Vermont came back with a vengeance and outscored Utah by 70 points. Never in NCAA skiing history has there been such huge point swings.
Then on Saturday, considered by both LaCasse and Utah Coach Pat Miller, the most pressure-filled day they could remember, the Utah women swung the title Utah's way, but then it appeared Vermont had it wrapped up in the men's slalom only to have it's No.1 skier, in the lead after the first run, fall on his second run.
"Everything was so unpredictable," said Miller. "So many things happened, things you would just never expect. Of the eight events, the lead changed hands six times.
"Who could have predicted it. We had the best season we've ever had and you can't ignore that. Some unfortunate things happened, that's all."