After an exhausting few months of training and competition, it is finally coming down to crunch time for the Alaska men’s and women’s ski teams, as they prepare for the championship stretch of their season.
Going into this weekend’s NCAA Central Region Championships, a number of compelling narratives have wound themselves into the context of the races, providing questions that will finally be answered come Sunday afternoon. For example, will Marius Korthauer be able to extend his five-race winning streak, as he looks to continue writing the perfect ending to his Nanook career? The German native has been the top collegiate skier in every event he has raced in this season, save for a second-place finish behind Anchorage’s Max Treinen in an uphill skate all the way back on Dec. 9, 2007.
Also, will Vahur Teppan, who will be skiing in his first race for Alaska since returning from international duty with Estonia at the Canmore World Cup races last month, be able to repeat as Central Collegiate Ski Association champion in the distance classic race: an event that he and Korthauer went 1-2 in last season?
But perhaps the most intriguing storyline for the Blue and Gold as they head into regionals revolves around the Nanooks’ chase for the CCSA’s tenth and final NCAA men’s qualifying spot. Heading into the fourth and final qualifying races, Alaska has no less than five guys (Ray Sabo, John Parry, Zach McGill, Einar Often and Andy Schnitzer) that could mathematically jump into the team’s third allotted spot for nationals.
Of the five Nanooks in contention, Whitehorse natives Sabo and Parry are both tantalizingly close to grabbing a ticket to the NCAA in just their second year of collegiate competition. A monster classic race from Sabo at the Telemark SuperTour, where he took sixth place among collegiate skiers (12th overall), has brought him to within one-tenth of a point from a NCAA berth, as his 188.7 points trail College of Saint Scholastica’s Bjorn Bakken’s 188.6 by just a whisker.
Though he knows a trip to nationals hangs in balance this weekend, however, Sabo is doing his best to relax and stay loose before the all-important competitions.
â€œI’m trying to alleviate the pressure going in by not thinking about the race too much,â€ Sabo said. â€œI know we have to race hard this weekend. The biggest thing I want to do is just have the same tactic for the last SuperTour races that we had. Go in, no pressure, race the way I can and have fun.â€
Parry, meanwhile, has been one of Alaska’s most consistent skiers this season, culminating in a seventh place collegiate finish (11th overall) in the 10K freestyle at the NTN Trails on Jan. 19. Parry remains a strong contender for the final CCSA qualifying spot, trailing Bakken by just 3.4 points.
Though Sabo and Parry are the most likely candidates to leapfrog the CSS skier for the final NCAA spot, a strong race from McGill (195.5 points), Often (196.6) or Schnitzer (204.9) could see them make big moves in the standings as well, depending on the results of other skiers.
Each Alaska skier has shown they are capable of putting together a good race this season, so anything is possible heading into the season’s final weekend. If someone is going to make a big move up the charts, however, the best place for them to make up ground seems to lie in Saturday’s freestyle race.
â€œWe tend to have some good classic results, so, for sure, we need to step it up on the skate side,â€ said head coach Scott Jerome. â€œWe’ve done some extra training for skating: they have all shown that they can race well skating, they just haven’t done it consistently. That’s a priority for us, but if they have an amazing classic race, that can offset some of it as well. So we are going to try to do our best in both, but obviously the guys know that skate is where they need points: that is a really important day for us.â€
Though only a maximum of three Nanooks will be able to make it to the NCAA Championships, both Jerome and Sabo feel the increased competition for spots within the squad has been a boost to the Blue and Gold this season.
â€œAny time you get people who are fighting for a spot, I think it steps everyone’s game up,â€ Jerome said. â€œIt really has motivated and helped people. By having it close, it has really helped them become better skiers and better racers. I don’t like being on the bubble, necessarily: obviously, it’s a little nerve-wracking. But the good thing about it is that you see who can step up at the races.â€
â€œ[The fight for spots] keeps everyone focused,â€ Sabo added. â€œIt is healthy competition, because we are a young team and we have so much to build towards for the next four years. As a whole, it’s only going to make our team stronger and more dominant next year.â€
Qualification for the NCAA Championships is much more cut-and-dried on the women’s side, however, as Alaska seems certain to send the maximum to Bozeman, Mont. next month. Aurelia Korthauer, Anna Coulter and Elisabeth Habermann currently sit in fourth, fifth and sixth spots respectively in the CCSA standings, with the top 11 qualifying for nationals. As Coulter put it, â€œSomething ridiculous would have to happen for us not to go.â€
While they may not have the same pressure on them individually, however, there is still plenty of impetus for the Nanook women to perform well as a team, as they attempt to chase down rivals Northern Michigan, who have dominated the skiing world in recent years. Last year, the Wildcat women scored an unprecedented podium sweep in both the classic and freestyle races at the NCAA championship, and they have been the top- finishing CCSA school in every race so far this season as well.
Alaska will have their work cut out for them, as they will be without Elisabeth Habermann, who is battling fatigue. Having likely already qualified for the NCAA Championships, the Nanooks have elected to rest Habermann, giving her time to return to full fitness before next month’s national race.
â€œRight now, she wouldn’t help herself in any way in the points, so it makes no sense to take her,â€ Jerome said. â€œWe are 100 percent behind her taking the rest right now: Elisabeth is a fighter and the best thing for her to do right now is to rest. We know that she is a very good skier and just want her to get healthy.â€
Despite missing one of their top guns, however, the Blue and Gold are far from ready to concede the conference crown to Northern Michigan just yet.
â€œIt will be tough to beat Northern Michigan, but I don’t want to say anything is impossible,â€ Coulter said. â€œThey do have three really strong girls so we are definitely the underdogs, but Aurelia has been skating really well in skate recently. If she and I both have good races, and the other two girls that are traveling ski to their full potential, we have a good chance of being really, really close to them. I think that’s a realistic goal.â€
The Nanook women also come into the regional race with plenty of momentum, having seen improvement and a steady climb up the leaderboard over the course of the season. Though the team had plenty of positives to take away from the season’s opening U.S. Senior Nationals, Jerome and the Nanooks always felt they were capable of more. Their work on the training grounds has resulted in noticeable progress throughout the SuperTour, culminating in a third-place overall finish (second-place collegiate) for Korthauer at the Telemark.
â€œInstead of just sitting back and letting the season come at them, they made the commitment to really continuing to prepare for NCAA’s, and now we are seeing the fruits of that,â€ Jerome said. â€œBecause they focused on the process, and because they focused on their training, they’ve made gains. When we saw Aurelia come in third in the SuperTour, we knew she was back to where we needed her to be.â€
While Northern Michigan is a force to be reckoned with, Jerome believes that, if things fall into place, Alaska has what it takes to contend for the CCSA title this weekend. â€œWe are a team: everybody knows that it might be there day to step up,â€ he said. â€œOur men are competitive with Northern, and for the overall title, if we pop a couple of good races for the women and the men do what they can do, we got a chance to win the whole thing.â€
Whatever the weekend holds for the Nanooks, Jerome hopes that the results come down to the athletes, rather than the coaches.
â€œIt will be warmer down there, but I don’t think it’s going to be tricky waxing: the last thing you want regionals to come down to is a wax race,â€ he said. â€œWe would rather have the athletes win and give their best performance than to have it won in the wax room. It’s important to see who the best athletes are, and typically, when you have conditions below freezing and fresh snow, you are going to find the best athletes.â€
Alaska’s skiers hit the trails for the NCAA Central Region Championships on Feb. 16-17 beginning at 7:00 a.m. Alaska time each day. For full details and results from both days of racing, stay tuned to www.alaskananooks.com, or see www.pttiming.com.