Even with the Winter Olympics starting last week, the cross country skiers of the NMU Wildcats made sure they got their recognition on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 13-14, when the ’Cats turned in dominant performances at the Central Collegiate Skiing Association (CCSA) conference meet.
The women’s squad took first place overall, finishing four points ahead of Alaska-Fairbanks, while the men were second overall, coming in five points behind champions Michigan Tech.
Head coach Sten Fjeldheim felt good about the showing his team put out.
“We’re happy with our performances. It was a good weekend,” he said. The Wildcat underclassmen performed especially well, something Fjeldheim was pleased about. “It looks really good for the future. I’m impressed with some of our young skiers, and with the whole team, actually. We’re kind of heading in the right direction.”
In Saturday’s 5K classic race, the women were led by junior captain Christina Gillis. Gillis took second place, just six seconds away from the winner, Aurelia Korthauer of UAF. Following close behind were senior Laura DeWitt and sophomore Marie-Helen Soderman, in fourth and fifth, respectively.
“Our team as a whole is skiing awesome this year, we have a lot of depth,” Gillis said. “It’s been a really, really fun year, and a lot of awesome competitors are on our team.”
The women followed up in similar fashion in Sunday’s 15K freestyle race, with Gillis again finishing in the top three. She wasn’t NMU’s top performer, however. Freshman Monica Markvardsen stepped up to take second place, a finish that surprised even Fjeldheim.
“That was kind of an incredible race for her, and a little bit of a breakthrough for her, because even though she was junior national champion last year, it’s a big step, even from being junior national champion to being competitive in the NCAA,” Fjeldheim said. “She showed a lot of poise and determination, because she had a little crash early on in her race, but she worked her way back up to the front and finished strong.”
DeWitt did not race on Sunday due to illness.
On the men’s side, the NMU underclassmen stole the show. Freshman George Cartwright, redshirt freshman Chris Bowler and sophomore Kevin Cutts occupied all three scoring spots for the Wildcats on both days. Cartwright led Saturday’s race for the ’Cats, taking second place, while Cutts paved the way on Sunday with a third place finish.
“We have a pretty young men’s team. Really young skiers in the front. It looks good for the future,” Fjeldheim said.
Cartwright has been a standout for the Wildcats all year, something that his coach is very excited about.
“George is a diamond in the rough. I liked his attitude when I first met him, and he’s got just incredible work ethic,” Fjeldheim said. “He has a very strong desire to be good. It’s impressive, he did really well. I’m happy with both his races. He’s got some great upperclassmen leading him.”
Next weekend, the team will travel to Houghton for the NCAA Regional competition. Qualification for the national meet is dependent on a cup-style system which uses results from several meets throughout the season.
Eight women and nine men can go from NMU’s region, and each school is limited to sending three athletes. Several Wildcats have all but locked national qualifier spots, like Gillis, DeWitt and Cartwright.
The last spots in the region, however, are still being contested and several NMU athletes are on the bubble.
Bowler is one of those athletes who will need a strong performance at the upcoming meet to put him into mix. He said he isn’t dwelling on what-ifs, however.
“I just want solid races that I feel like I can’t do any better than, and just get as well as I can,” he said.
Gillis has some goals in mind that will help her out at the national meet.
“I’m just looking to have a couple good races, get my confidence up for nationals, going out a little conservative, because that’s something we’ll have to do at high altitude in Colorado,” Gillis said. The national competition will be held in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
The ’Cats are largely done with the conditioning portions of their season, and are now preparing to be well rested for the regional and national meets.
“We’re just going to sharpen up on a few technical things. Like all sports, there’s a few technical things you can do a little bit better as far as each individual’s technique,” Fjeldheim said. “We’re going to try to do our best to stay healthy and train well, and just sharpen up on some of the small little individual things that some of the athletes need to do.”