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Ray Grass: Utah skiing: Utes fall to 2nd at NCAA ski championships after challenging cross-country race

SHARE Ray Grass: Utah skiing: Utes fall to 2nd at NCAA ski championships after challenging cross-country race
We struggled a little bit today, but I’m really looking forward to Saturday’s race. – Utah’s Niklas Persson

SOLDIER HOLLOW — To maintain its first-day lead in the men’s and women’s NCAA skiing championships, the University of Utah needed strong performances from its Nordic teams on Thursday.

They didn’t surface and Utah dropped to second behind the University of Denver, while defending NCAA champion Colorado is only a few points behind the Utes.

Utah did score well in giant slalom on Wednesday and is a favorite in Friday's slalom. That event, however, is risky. A little bad luck can take a team completely out of the title chase.

Going into the classic cross-country at Soldier Hollow in Midway on Thursday, Utah led New Mexico and Denver by 35 points. Utah scored 165 in the GS and New Mexico and Denver were tied at 130. After Thursday’s race, Denver leads with 299 points, followed by Utah with 248 and Colorado with 240.5.

Here again, Utah is expected to score well in the slalom, but the overall title will likely rest with the cross-country skiers on Saturday, which means the Utes will need much better finishes in the women’s 10K and men’s 15K freestyle.

Niklas Persson, who finished third for the Utes in the men’s 10K classic, said he was happy with his finish, but admitted: “We struggled a little bit today, but I’m really looking forward to Saturday’s race.’’

Conditions were far from perfect for cross-country skiers. Spring-like temperatures forced officials to move the men’s start time up by 40 minutes while women were still out on the course. This put pressure on coaches to choose the right wax for changing conditions and skiers to fight melting snow.

Anja Gruber of Vermont and Rune Oedegaard of Colorado repeated their winning performances of 2013 in the women’s and men’s Nordic races.

Guber’s time in the women’s 5K was 13 minutes, 38.4 seconds. She was followed by Sylvia Nordskar of Denver (13:47.7) and Eva Sever Rus of New Mexico (14:01.0).

Utah’s Anna Svendsen finished eighth (14:24.8) and Sloan Storey finished ninth (14:26.0), but a third team member failed to score points, finishing 35th of 38 skiers.

Oedegaard finished the men’s 10K in 24:34.5. Second was Pierre Guedon of Denver in 24:45.8 and Persson skied the course in 25:00.9. Denver placed three men in the top eight and Colorado had two in the top four. Utah’s two remaining skiers finished 27th and 37th out of 40 skiers.

“We had some great results and some excellent All-American performances, but we’re also looking for some answers,” said Kevin Sweeney, Utah’s director of skiing. “I think we were charging and hoping for a bit more of a day, but the effort was there. ... It could have been the wax. It’s ski racing. Looking at the leader board, we’re not the only team that had mixed results, with skiers who are usually scoring in the top 10 — from all regions — who fell back a little bit.’’

Heavy snow expected early Friday will make the slalom at the Park City Mountain Resort even more difficult. Racing will start at 9 a.m. And, warm temperatures expected on Saturday will put added pressure on the Nordic skiers and coaches.

NCAA ski championships

Team scores after Thursday

1. University of Denver 299

2. University of Utah 248

3. University of Colorado 240.5

4. University of New Mexico 231

5. University of Vermont 186.5

6. Dartmouth 131

7. Northern Michigan 125

8. Montana State 104.5

9. Alaska Anchorage 94

10. Alaska Fairbanks 76

11. Middlebury 70.5

12. New Hampshire 59

13. Harvard 41