Midway through the NCAA Ski Championships, the University of Utah finds itself in the team title driver’s seat.
With conditions on the Whiteface giant slalom course in upstate New York alternating almost turn-by-turn from soft and grippy to rough rolling pebbles of ice, though, the situation looked dicey for at times for the Utes.
Utah's Endre Bjertness stood in the starting house when one of those moments of misfortune hit in alpine ski racing. Teammate Joergen Brath pushed hard into the first few corners of his race before clipping a tip on a gate. Brath lost a ski, and his day finished hardly before it even started.
“Just before I went, I saw Joergen lose his ski at the top of the course,” Bjertness said. “I saw this and I was pretty nervous about that — I knew I couldn’t do the same, you know?”
Bjertness, a freshman from the outskirts of Oslo, made it just past the gate that ended his teammate’s day. A moment later, Bjertness hip-checked the snow, nearly crashing out of the race himself.
“It wasn’t an option to ski out,” Bjertness told his coach, then the media afterwards. “Sure, it happens… but it just wasn’t an option for me today.”
Bjertness stood up and got his feet under him. “Then he just charged the rest of the hill,” said Utah assistant alpine coach Luke Patterson.
By the second run, the mishaps were over for the Utes. The freshman also felt more at ease. Bjertness posted the second fastest run of the day to move from 11th to sixth. He went from nearly skiing out to first-team All-America.
“I was a little nervous in the first run,” Bjertness said. “I then managed to ski with more confidence. That second run—that’s probably my best GS skiing in a long while.”
Teammate Andy Trow helped Utah’s title chances with an eighth, the third All-American finish for the junior from Canmore, Canada.
For the Utah women, the captain shows the way
Only the top step of the podium eluded Kristiina Rove from winning the NCAA giant slalom title last year in Park City. But the senior captain had more than individual honors on her mind Thursday.
“Kristiina’s a very special athlete,” Patterson said. “I think in her heart-of-hearts she wanted to win. I think she evaluated the conditions and evaluated the competition and knew she had to stay on her feet for us to win the team title. I think she’s very happy with fourth even though she’s very capable of skiing much faster.”
Rove, who competed for her native Finland at this year’s world championships in Vail, Colorado, echoed her coach’s comments.
“Many racers made mistakes because of the windy conditions and inconsistent snow. My approach was to ski two solid runs and not risk too much. This paid off.”
Sophomore Chloe Fause finished immediately behind Rove in fifth, 17 hundredths of a second seperating the two.
Senior Ana Kobal skied out on coming off a pitch when the snow transitioned immediately from windblown, chalky snow to “hardpacked ball bearings,” according to Patterson.
“It’s easy to get lulled into a too aggressive line for the conditions that might wait at the next gate,” Patterson said about Kobal’s and Brath’s early-ending performances . Coaches and teammates say the two will come out charging for Saturday’s slalom races.
“Those two (Kobal and Brath) are really going to sink their teeth into the next one," Patterson said. "They made hard mistakes on the day but they weren’t catastrophic. At the end of the day many teams, especially the real contenders, lost one or two athletes.”
The team title leaderboard could hardly be tighter. Utah leads Colorado 241-237; the difference between the two teams being one Ute bettering one Buffalo. Defending national champion Denver University sits in third with 232 points.
“We’ve lost it before halfway through,” Rove said. “We’re going to have to fight all the way through to the last race. We’re such a good team. We can definitely win this.”
Rove added: “We feel good, but not too good.”
Utah looks to extend their razor-thin lead in the team title chase with Friday’s classic style competition. The long distance (20-km for men, 15-km for women) and the head-to-head racing of mass starts should play to the Utah’s nordic strengths.
“It’ll be even better on Friday,” Wednesday’s national champion Veronika Mayerhofer said. “Not just me, it’ll be much better for all the boys and the girls on our team as well.”
Utah might have a secret weapon with cloudy, temperate conditions forecasted. It’s the work nordic coach Abi Holt and program director Kevin Sweeney do in the wax cabin.
“Our coaches are so good at waxing and preparing our skis,” Mayerhofer said. “That can be our advantage. Yeah, we’ll be great.”
NCAA’s wrap Saturday with the men's and women's slalom.
“I could not be more impressed with the efforts and scoring of our four All-Americans today,” Utah’s ski director Kevin Sweeney said. “The championship is turning into a real slug fest.”