Stene leads the way for Pioneers

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— Favored to defend its NCAA skiing team title, the University of Denver found itself behind after Wednesday's first day of competition.

Not anymore.

Behind solid efforts from their Nordic women and an expected dominant performance from their Nordic men, including John Stene's first-place finish in the 10-kilometer race, the Pioneers have 337.5 points. Their rival, University of Colorado, is in second with 307 points.

"It's a really big deal," Stene said about the team race. "We won the championship last year. We hope to do the same thing this year. It's inspiring because skiing is an individual sport, but that's the one of the biggest differences I noticed when I came over here: all the team spirit."

Thursday's 10-kilometer classic cross-country race sent the nation's top collegiate skiers up Howelsen Hill and out on the Bluffs Loop. The top finishers laid down quick split times on a challenging course. Stene's first-lap time of 13:32 was the fastest and set him up for the win.

"I was second last year," Stene said. "I took one step up this year, which is amazing."

More amazing was Stene's winning time of 27:57.7. He was the only cross-country skier to break 28 minutes in the classic race.

"It's probably my strongest event, yes," he said.

Marius Korthauer of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks was second in 28:10.0. Northern Michigan University's Bryan Cook was third in 28:10.6. DU's Rene Reisshauer, last year's champion, was fourth in 28:39.7.

Stene could have stayed in Norway to pursue a career in professional skiing, but the desire to get an education led him to the Pioneers.

"It's not that easy to combine education and pro skiing in Norway," he said. "I think this was the best opportunity for me."

Stene is studying finance at DU.

"It's a lot of work, but hopefully it will pay off," Stene said.

Steamboat had one skier in Thursday's field. Mark Iverson, a senior at Montana State University, placed 26th in 30:52.1. The former Winter Sports Club Nordic skier said he was pleased with his first lap but not his second.

"In the middle of the second lap, I fell apart," he said.

Iverson and the rest of the men's field will have another chance to race on the Howelsen course during Saturday's freestyle, or skate, race. The men are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., and if Thursday's times were any indication, Saturday's races should be fast and entertaining.

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley, call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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