Last season, the NMU ski team had a significant finish in the NCAA National Tournament. The Wildcat women swept the podium in both the classic and freestyle races.
This season the Wildcats have 10 skiers who qualified for the race, five men and five women, and NMU head coach Sten Fjeldheim stressed that this is a new group of skiers, with a new chance at history.
“Last year, that was history and that’s done,” Fjeldheim said. “I think if the girls ski like they can, I wouldn’t be surprised if they can get three in the top 10 and the same thing with the men. But if everything has got to happen right and they have got to ski like they know they can ski.”
The women proved they knew how to ski for success as Laura DeWitt of NMU (32:46) beat teammate Morgan Smyth by 1.7 seconds to take the crown in the Central Regional classic race over the weekend. The ‘Cats won the competition with a final score of 166.
The freestyle race proved successful for the Wildcats as well, as Smyth edged a second place finish and teammates DeWitt and Maria Stuber earned fourth and fifth.
“It’s pretty big, definitely,” DeWitt said. “We got a lot of momentum and we’re racing strong and everyone is healthy.”
In the men’s classic race Phil Violett out-sprinted the undefeated Marius Korthauers of Alaska Fairbanks University (UAF) to bring home the top spot. While NMU’s Banerud, Kaeding and Bill Bowler placed in the next three spots. The Wildcats won the men’s regional team title, beating out UAF by six points.
“You can’t complain with a win and it definitely builds your confidence, especially over [Korthauer], I’ve only beat him once,” Violett said.
For the freestyle race, Martin Banerud was third at 28:39 and Bowler placed sixth, en route to a second place overall finish for the Wildcats. UAF took the title, by a score of 79-78.
“Its definitely solid and we’re looking strong for nationals,” Violett added.
The National race is held in Bozeman, Mont., March 3-8. Coach Fjeldheim said his team has recently been making final adjustments in order to ski more polished at the higher altitude. He said, in the thinner air, the athletes can’t ski as hard as possible at all times, because it is harder to regain oxygen.
“Racing in altitude is definitely a huge challenge,” Fjeldheim said.
Despite this constant difficulty looming over the heads of the skiers, NMU’s head coach still predicts the best out of them.
“I expect them to handle it like they do every race, and just not go into it like it’s the national championships,” he said. “They need to focus on the task and just ski the race.”
For the ‘Cats, this is the last scheduled race of the 2008 season and it is the last race for the seniors. Some of the athletes have been training their whole collegiate career for this opportunity.
“Right now, it is like you have done all of your training in the summer and worked hard all year, so you just ride the wave and hope you get [a top finish],” Violett said.
Even though most of their training is complete, the Wildcats still need the desire to win, in order to place high in Nationals.
“This is where you start seeing years of training and the work in the summer starting to pay off,” DeWitt said. “You got to want it and we want it bad.”
Fjeldheim said even though the team wants a victory badly, he is still reminding them to stay focused because skiers at the National level have been training just as hard and are just as prepared.
“There’s a lot of strategy going on,” he said. “And the cooler heads will prevail.”
The Wildcats will leave for the event on Thursday February 21. They will stay and train in Montana until the races begin on March 3.
Fjeldheim and the ‘Cats will be looking to make history once again.
“They’re just working hard and looking really good,” Fjeldheim said. “We are just real close to where we want to be.”