DU rides Steamboat snow to 23rd title | SteamboatToday.com

DU rides Steamboat snow to 23rd title

University of Denver skiing coach Andy Leroy, left, and DU freshman Lars Hannah embrace after the Pioneers won the 2016 NCAA Skiing Championships, which wrapped up Saturday in Steamboat Springs. The win was the 23rd for the team and the fifth for Leroy, a Steamboat native, as coach.

— There was a sense of inevitability to Saturday's final results from the NCAA Skiing Championships in Steamboat Springs.

University of Denver relied on consistent performances throughout the championships and on particularly powerful results from the four-race event's final two days.

The Pioneers had grabbed the lead after Friday night's slalom races at Howelsen Hill, and they firmed it up with more stellar skiing in Saturday's Nordic events at Romick Rodeo Arena.

It all added up to a record 23rd NCAA skiing championship.

Coach Andy Leroy said there was nothing ho-hum about this title, however, especially not a championship won in Steamboat Springs.

"We spent a lot of time in Steamboat," said Leroy, himself a Steamboat Springs native. "We've had a lot of experience here, and we definitely felt comfortable."

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The Pioneers closed their 2016 championship by winning two of the final four events and pulling away from the field.

Denver finished with 567.5 points. University of Colorado capped a wild rally of its own to finish second with 491.5 points. Utah was third at 485 and Montana State, the unlikely leader after four of the week's eight events, saw midnight strike and finished fourth, with 406.

"It only gets better," said Leroy, who's now guided the team to five titles. "The first couple championships I won, I didn't realize the magnitude of it. The last couple we've brought home have been even more special."

Grinding in the slush

Saturday's conditions at the final event, long Nordic Classic skiing races, didn't make it easy for any team to go and take a championship. The women's race proved especially difficult as the late morning sun turned it into a slushy slog.

That's the event that helped lock things up for Denver, however.

DU's Linn Eriksen laid down a dominating performance to win by 20 seconds over second-place Kati Roivas, of New Mexico.

Colorado's Ane Johnsen was third, just behind Roivas. DU also scored big from Aja Starkey's sixth-place finish

It wasn't easy for any of them, and that soggy trail left finishers gasping for air and piled in exhausted heaps just across the finish line.

"It got really slow on the third lap," said Mary O'Connell, a Steamboat Springs skier who finished her senior season at Dartmouth.

"It was about pushing through it," she said. "I almost didn't even make it to the finish line before I fell over."

O'Connell logged one of the best results of her career with her Saturday race, placing 11th, and came away from the race beaming. She was 27th in Thursday's freestyle Nordic race and was thrilled to improve drastically on that mark.

"That was really, really good," she said. "I was really close to top 10, and I can say I gave it everything I had.

"There were people everywhere cheering my name, so it's hard not to have a smile on my face."

What a week

It was Colorado's Mads Stroem who did the dominating on the men's side.

He won the 20-kilometer race, beating Denver's Moritz Madlener by 1.7 seconds. That was the final piece of a masterful pair of NCAA performances for Stroem, a clean sweep of the week's two Nordic events.

Niklas Persson, of Utah, was third, 18.1 seconds off Stroem.

CU also got strong results from Petter Reistad, who was ninth on the men's side, and Jesse Knori, who took fifth for the women.

It was Denver's day, however, and the Pioneers had one more Steamboat piece to help put it over the top: Lars Hannah, a freshman from Steamboat, finished 13th.

"The whole team performed exceptionally well, better than we have all season," Hannah said. "It just came together really well."

Steamboat baby!

This year's title was the second for DU and Leroy on the familiar confines of Steamboat Ski Area and Howelsen Hill. Leroy also led the team to a title in Steamboat in 2010, but so much was different then.

He didn't have to look far to see what on Saturday, as his wife, Julie, stood nearby, holding their 2-year old daughter, Lydia. Their 5-year old son, Andrew, played in the snow at their feet.

When Leroy was guiding that 2010 team to a title, Andrew was several months from being born.

"It's special," Leroy said.

He's tried to make Steamboat special for this year's team, too.

The team went camping on Buffalo Pass in the fall. It made trips to town to train in the winter, then competed in Steamboat for a January collegiate event.

He watched his team take the overall lead on Howelsen Hill, where he'd learned the art of ski racing.

"Getting an opportunity to coach my athletes on a hill I grew up on, that's tough to put into words," Leroy said. "I was choking back tears for most of Friday night."

After Saturday's races, Leroy made his way through the celebrating fans, the results locked in and DU's title confirmed. He shook hands and traded hugs. One of the last he came to was Hannah, a freshman skier who'd spent most of his life competing in skiing as an individual sport.

"It changes the way you ski," Hannah said of being on a team.

Leroy approached, and they embraced, then clasped their hands together, grinning widely, and Leroy offered a shout: "Steamboat, baby!"

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

2016 NCAA Skiing Championships team results

1. Denver 567.5

2. Colorado 491.5

3. Utah 485

4. Montana State 406

5. Dartmouth 335

6. New Mexico 317.5

7. Vermont 310

8. Northern Michigan 217

9. Alaska Anchorage 179.5

10. New Hampshire 151

11. Middlebury 133

12. Colby 107

13. Alaska Fairbanks 97

14. Williams 86

15. St. Michael’s 50

16. Plymouth State 27

17. Michigan Tech 19

18. St. Scholastica 6

19. Bates 1

20. Green Bay 0

20. Harvard 0