In all my years of coaching, it was one of the most challenging four days of competition. —Utah director of skiing Kevin Sweeney
JACKSON, N.H. — National champions.
Yeah, it’s got a real nice ring to it, doesn’t it.
And for the first time since 2003, the University of Utah ski team can lay claim to that coveted crown after capturing the 2017 NCAA championship on Saturday in this year’s meet, held over a four-day period at the Cannon Mountain resort and the Jackson Ski touring center.
Martin Bergström led the way for the Utes’ team, winning his second national title at this year’s championships with a victory Saturday in the men’s freestyle race.
“I am stunned with the win today,” said Utah director of skiing Kevin Sweeney, who also guided the program to its last title 14 years ago and served as head Nordic coach under Pat Miller on Utah’s two NCAA title teams in 1997-98. “In all my years of coaching, it was one of the most challenging four days of competition. I say that because the weather was incredibly cold and windy and challenging from both a waxing perspective, as well as visibility and conditions.
“I know all the teams had to deal with it, but it really beat us up. It took a lot of perseverance and gutsy performances for us to win.
“We struggled a little bit in the slalom, but they were going for it and came up short,” Sweeney said. “We’ve been crunching numbers and have been able to beat Denver and Colorado by about 30 points on a really good showing during the RMISA season, but didn’t know if we could do it in the NCAA championships.”
Saturday’s triumphant showing capped a come-from-behind performance by Utah’s team, which came into the final day of competition in second place, trailing first-place Denver University — which owns a record 23 national team titles, including nine since 2000 — by 34.5 points.
Colorado came into Saturday’s action a close third, needing two solid Nordic races to overtake Utah and Denver U. for the top spot.
But with Bergström leading the way, Utah piled up a race-high 84 points in Saturday’s men’s freestyle race and scored 73 more points in the women’s race, which was the second-most among all teams.
With Saturday’s strong showing, Utah wound up with a team total of 541.5 points, finishing just ahead of runner-up Denver with 525 and Colorado with 524.
“It feels awesome,” Sweeney said. “It’s been a long time coming, and we’ve been so close so many times before. We had a lot of gutsy performances. Give everybody credit — they charged when we really needed them to do it.”
Bergström’s victory was just his second of the season, but his second of this year’s national meet. He also won the 10-kilometer classic on Thursday.
“For Morton to win both events is huge,” Sweeney said. “He’s been in the hunt all year, and he really planned his training and his peaking really well to build up for this.”
Utah’s men put three of their skiers in the top 10 of Saturday’s race, with Martin Mikkelsen finishing eighth and Kevin Bolger finishing 10th. All three skiers earned All-American honors — the second of the meet for both Bergström and Mikkelsen.
Denver, meanwhile, had three of its skiers finish in the top 11, and the Utes were able to pick up five points in that race.
“Looking back at it now,” Sweeney said Saturday night, “I knew it was unfolding. The guys skied so well so I said, ‘OK, we are in it. Maybe we can make this point swing.’”
And the Utes did just that.
In the women’s race, Utah was the only team with all three of its skiers in the top 14, as Merete Myrseth finished fifth, Guro Jordheim placed sixth and Natalia Müller was 14th. Myrseth and Jordheim both earned their second All-American honors of the meet with those performances.
Colorado finished first, third and 28th in the women’s race for 77 points, scoring just four more than the Utes, and Denver only managed 26 points in the women’s race after placing 11th, 27th and 29th, vaulting the Utes to the team victory.
“The turning point of today is when Guro broke a (ski) pole. She was skiing in the top six at the time, but then she broke her pole and dropped back into the 20s,” Sweeney said. “She was able to pick up a pole and was able to ski really fast. She was able to pass a group and, next thing I know, Guro is hunting the top 10 and pulling her teammate (Müller) into the top 15 with her.
“And at that point I thought, ‘You know what, I think we’re in it.’ But we were on the radios and I said ‘They gotta go! They gotta go!’ We told them that they had to go, and they busted out and made a big move.
“Everybody charged and when they came across the line, I really didn’t know, but I knew we were gonna be close,” Sweeney said. “Maybe I’m a little bit jaded because we’ve been so close for so many years.”
Sweeney said the key to Utah’s victory was not only the men’s strong showing Saturday, but also the way the U. women skiers pushed so hard down the stretch of their race.
“The men’s results were tremendous, but whether or not we were going to win was based on those guys (Myrseth, Jordheim and Müller) making the move,” he said. “It was exceptional athleticism and gutsy performances.
“Bergström was skiing at a whole new level this week, and Mikkelsen had stepped it up, and I knew Kevin Bolger could get top 10.
“I was also confident in the women, who have been skiing awesome, so I felt good there,” said Sweeney, who has guided the Utes’ program for a combined total of 11 years, including the last five. “It’s awesome to be able to take this new trophy back to our new ski building.”
The Utes have won 11 NCAA titles and 12 championships overall, including an AIAW title in 1978. Utah’s 11 NCAA titles rank third all-time in collegiate skiing.
It also marked the 494th NCAA championship for the Pac-12 Conference.