April 16, 1998
Reflecting upon the 1998 skiing season, Utah ski Coach Pat Miller sums up his sentiments in stating, "Its not that we lost a gold, we won a silver."
At the NCAA Ski Championships in Bozeman, Mont., March 11-14, the Utes fell just 2.5 points shy of winning their third straight national championship. "We had a great year," Miller says, "but it will be a while before the sting of this loss wears off."
With only one day of competition left, Utah was in third place and 49.5 points out of first. "There was enormous pressure on the cross country skiers from that huge point deficit," relates cross country coach Kevin Sweeney. Led by brothers Rune and Frode Kollerud, the Utes stormed back to challenge front-running Colorado. But after the snow had settled, Utah came up just 2.5 points short.
"I certainly commend integrity of the cross country team for staging the comeback that they did," says Sweeney. "The entire championship was a tremendous lesson in team skiing. We've been close before, but 2.5 points almost seems too close to determine a national title."
The 1998 championships proved to be the closest finish in 34 years, since Denver beat Dartmouth by 1.4 points. In 1976, Colorado and Dartmouth tied for the championship.
"The disappointment is real and we must deal with that. But at the same time, trying to look positively, some of the results that we had were outstanding," continues Sweeney. "What an experience for the young skiers to learn about the highest level of collegiate skiing. We feel good as a group and we all accept the responsibility. It is important that the whole group works to get the gold back in here. We'll charge on next year."
"Winning a third straight national title just would have been the icing on the cake," declares Miller. "I even said it before the meet, `regardless if we win or lose, this was a great year.' In every meet, our skiers were competitive, consistent and always got the job done."
This year's second place finish continues Utah's amazing dominance on the national skiing scene. Every year since the NCAA began awarding a combined men's and women's championship in 1983, the Utes have never finished lower than third and have won eight titles.
The 1998 season helped Utah maintain its rightful place as a national power. The Utes won three of the year's six meets, including the Western Regional Championships in Eldora, Colo., to lead the region in wins. Utah outscored regional championship meet host Colorado by 23 points. Many individual skiers posted great achievements, as well. Nine Utah skiers were named All-Americans, nine were academic All-Americans and 12 were named all-conference.
Much of this year's success can be attributed to the strong skiing of the cross country team. In its portion of the championships meet, Utah's cross country team outscored Colorado's by 38.5 points. "We try to be consistent and always finish on top. That is the way we coach," says Sweeney.
The emerging leaders of the team were twin brothers Rune and Frode Kollerud. Both finished in the top seven in every race this year and were honored as All-Americans for the second straight year. "There is no question that they were the core responsible for the success of the cross country team," admits Sweeney. "They have naturally developed as team leaders. In a very positive way, they utilize their brotherhood to motivate the team and each other."
These sibling skiing sensations came to Utah from Drammen, Norway, where they lived until moving to America for skiing. "There is a healthy competitiveness between them," states Sweeney. "Each one wants to win, but at the same time wants the other to do well. They aren't content with just skiing well. They want to win. That attitude is very healthy for the team."
The Kollerud brothers weren't the only ones hoping to lead Utah to the winner's stand. Junior cross country skier Hailey Wappett has been a benchmark of consistency for the Utes. "Hailey has moved up a whole level in regards to scoring, as well as being a role model and team leader," comments Sweeney. "Hailey was extremely consistent all year."
Kristin Tjelle was the team's comeback story of the year. Tjelle was forced to sit out two early meets this year because of physical ailments. "Kristin had a tough time getting her strength back," recalls Miller. "The way that she was able to come back was remarkable." In the four remaining meets of the year, Tjelle never finished lower than fourth in the classic cross country and never out of the top nine in the skate. Tjelle completed her formidable comeback by winning the regional title in the classic cross country.
In the alpine events, the women posted two top-10 finishes in the giant slalom with freshman Sabrina Lawrence placing sixth and sophomore Marianne Winge placing 10th. Sophomore Ryan Forsyth finished sixth and senior Mike Elvidge was 11th in the men's giant slalom. Three Utes were in the top 10 in the women's slalom. Freshmen Sabrina Lawrence and Alicia Howard placed seventh and eighth, respectively. Winge finished 10th.
Were it not for a uncharacteristic sub-par performance in the men's slalom, Utah would have brought home its third-consecutive NCAA title. Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong did, and no Utes finished in the top 10. "Our men's alpine team had a very good season, and their performance at the NCAAs wasn't indicative of how they skied throughout the year," emphasizes Miller. "We just had a season's worth of bad luck all in the same day."
With all of that behind them now, the Utes look forward to having another successful campaign in 1999. "We are happy with this year," says Miller. "But we are happier about thinking of next year's success." Utah expects to only lose one skier after this year. "This was Marianne Winge and Mike Elvidge's last year of eligibility, and we will really miss what they contribute on and off the slopes," comments Miller. "However, the majority of our team still intact. Each discipline will have to make adjustments to improve, but the core is still there."
As recruiting season starts, Miller is excited about his future prospects as well. "We are looking at people who will do more than just fill shoes. We need to get some blue-chippers, especially on the alpine side." Utah possesses one of the premier skiing programs in the country, and the young recruits are very aware of this. "Just because of our tradition and the results that we've had, I am optimistic about attracting kids. They also know that the nucleus is returning with great experience after this year."
Miller is already looking forward to next season. "Like I said, I am not disappointed with a second place trophy," he said. "Maybe that's the case because I know we'll be even stronger next year."