Ahead of giants, Bobcats dare | SteamboatToday.com

Ahead of giants, Bobcats dare

Montana State maintains lead in Day 2 of NCAA championships

— The sun blazed Thursday morning, and that provided wide open views at Howelsen Hill and Emerald Mountain on the second day of the NCAA Collegiate Skiing National Championships.

The hundreds of fans, meanwhile, were heard constantly, their roars echoing on the hill and their ever-clanking cow bells acting as a reliable system for tracking athletes nearly anywhere on the course.

With good views and people everywhere, Thursday might not have been a good day for sneaking around, but it proved a perfect day for sneaking up, and despite a big performance from University of Colorado, the defending NCAA champ, in the day's freestyle Nordic ski races, the focus afterward was on a team and a skier no one saw coming.

"We came in as the dark horse that no one expected to win," Montana State's Anika Miller said, "but we've been throwing down."

Miller helped lead her Bobcats into unprecedented territory Thursday, winning the women's Nordic freestyle skiing 5-kilometer race.

She became the first woman in program history to win an individual NCAA championship and the first Bobcat of either gender to win a title in nearly 40 years.

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Teammate Cambria McDermott was fourth on the women's side, while Sawyer Kesselheim was fifth among the men. Added with the team's strong showing in Thurday's giant slalom race, those results were enough to keep upstart Montana State in first place overall at the midway point of the four-day event.

"Whoa," one Bobcat exclaimed, walking away from the post-race awards ceremony. "This is getting real."

“Absolutely shocked”

"Whoa" also provided an apt summary of Miller's reaction to the biggest win of her career.

She didn't come in expecting to win, and even midway through the race, she didn't think she had a shot.

Thursday's race was an interval start race, and Miller only heard one update on her time, early in the race. She was already several seconds behind the leaders at that point.

She didn't even realize she'd won until several minutes after she'd finished.

"I was absolutely shocked," she said. "My friends ran up to me and started jumping on me, telling me I'd won. I had no idea."

Colorado's Petra Hyncicova fights her way up a hill Thursday during the women's 5K Nordic freestyle skiing race at the NCAA Skiing Championships in Steamboat Springs. She placed second.Joel Reichenberger

CU's Petra Hyncicova finished second, and she was thrilled in her own right. She'd come in hoping to at least place fifth, but with a strong race, she helped bump the Buffs back into contention after a dismal day on the giant slalom course.

"It was tough during the race, but I feel great right now," said Hyncicova, a Czech skier in her sophomore season at CU. "I love this course. It's my favorite in the United States. It reminds me a little bit of Czech. I just love Steamboat."

CU also got a strong finish from Ane Johnsen, who placed ninth.

Still, it was Montana State's day.

The team now has 282 points, giving it a lead on University of Utah, second at 264, and University of Denver, third at 263. Colorado is fourth with 214.5, and Vermont is fifth at 154.

A game of "one of these things is not like the others" in that group would quickly single out the Bobcats.

The other four schools have combined to win 57 national championships, 92 percent of those awarded. Montana State, meanwhile, has never finished better than seventh, where it placed in 2012 and 2015.

"I'm not going to jinx us and say anything," Miller said, "but we have some phenomenal athletes."

“Hometown energy”

The Bobcats weren't the only ones doing the surprising Thursday.

Steamboat Springs skier Lars Hannah, now a freshman at Denver, surprised even himself when he shot up to an eight-place finish in the men's 10K race.

"It's the greatest feeling ever," Hannah said, grinning widely and exchanging congratulations with friends and family. "It was the hometown energy. Every corner, every downhill, every uphill, there was someone cheering for me. I felt it big time."

Knowing the terrain helped a bit, too. He grew up pounding the snow on Emerald Mountain, training there daily for years.

The grueling climbs that define the first half of the course are best taken conservatively, he said. The second half, with steep, technical downhills, are about managing whatever juice a skier has left to maintain balance and a good racing tuck.

"You have to take it easy in the beginning," he said. "That's what I did, took it easy on the first lap with the hills, then crushed it on the flats."

It all amounted to a time of 22:56.9, 50.1 seconds off CU's Mads Stroem, the day's winner, and solidly in eighth place, good enough to earn second team All America honors and a trophy.

He was one of two DU skiers in the men’s top 10. Moritz Madlener was third for the squad. Taeler McCrerey and Linn Eriksen were seventh and eighth, respectively, on the women’s side.

For Stroem, winning the day was sweet relief and another important result for his team. He was one of four Buffalos to crack the top 10 in Thursday’s races.

It was his second career championship and a bit of revenge. After winning the same event in 2014, he placed fourth last year.

"It's amazing," he said afterward. "I've been working for this for 10 months. It's unbelievable."

He, too, managed his energy properly up those hills, then worked hard on the way down, skating hard where others settled just for a tuck.

Colorado's Mads Stroem raises his arms in celebration after winning the men's 10K Nordic freestyle skiing race at the NCAA Skiing Championships in Steamboat Springs.Joel Reichenberger

"I tried to push it hard," he said. "On the last lap, your legs are just shaking, and you have to tuck and work. It was hard, but I was feeling good."

The week’s Alpine skiers are back on course Friday for their second and final event of the week.

Slalom racing start at 6:30 p.m. at Howelsen Hill in downtown Steamboat Springs. Nordic skiers will get one more race, as well, starting at Howelsen at 9 a.m. Saturday morning.

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9

Day 2 NCAA skiing team standings

1 Montana State 282

2  Utah 264

3  Denver 263

4  Colorado 214.5

5 Vermont 154

6 New Mexico 139.5

7 Dartmouth 126

8 Alaska Anchorage 124

9 Northern Michigan 122

10 Middlebury 81