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Northern Michigan University

The CCSA 12

Sun, Dec  17, 2006 - By Matias Saari, CCSA

This is the first of a 12-part series profiling the schools in the Central Collegiate Ski Association. Schools from Michigan, Wisconsin and Alaska and Minnesota makeup the CCSA.

Watch out again for the Wildcats, virtually disguised as the U.S. Women’s Nordic ski team.

Last season, Lindsey Weier and Lindsay Williams redshirted in order to focus on competing at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy, while Morgan Smyth took the year off from NMU for the Junior World Championships in Slovenia. The three are all members of the U.S. Ski Team’s “B” squad, and they’re back as seniors this season, along with a host of other talented women.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a women’s team with this power,” said Fjeldheim. “It’s an incredible group.”

That’s saying a lot, considering that Fjeldheim has coached in Marquette, Michigan since 1986 (minus a stint with the U.S. Ski Team from 1994-97) and in his tenure has produced 40 NCAA All-Americans and 10 Olympians.

The Wildcats are looking to reclaim the CCSA title after NMU placed runner-up to the Alaska Nanooks for men, women and in the overall standings at the 2006 CCSA Championships. “UAF had challenged us many times. They had been close for many years,” said Fjeldheim. “It wasn’t really too much of a disappointment (finishing second) because our top three girls weren’t there. We did pretty good considering.”

Fjeldheim has so much depth on the women’s side that he’s faced with a problem other coaches wish they had. “You hate to see people staying home that could be All-Americans,” said Fjeldheim.

That’s a realistic predicament, since only three women can qualify for the NCAA Championships from a single school and more Wildcats than that are capable of doing damage at the NCAAs. The intrasquad competition, therefore, will be fierce. That will include Weier (Mahtomedi, Minn.), a two-time Olympian who placed third at the 2006 NCAAs in the 5-kilometer classic; Williams (Hastings, Minn.), 2005 NCAA runnerup in the classic; Smyth (Vernon, Vt.), who won three golds at the 2006 Junior Nationals on the Michigan Tech trails; Laura Dewitt, a junior from Rhinebeck, N.Y.; Maria Stuber, who’ll rejoin the team for the second semester; and several promising freshmen including Anna Karin Berglund of Sundsvall, Sweden. Fjeldheim’s freshman daughter, Ingrid, has also joined the team.

Though NMU has produced the last two American-born NCAA men’s individual champions in Pete Vordenberg (the winner in 1993, and now the U.S. Ski Team’s head coach) and Chris Cook (2003), no Lady Wildcat has ever stood atop the NCAA podium. “The girls are really shooting to win a (individual) national championship,” said Fjeldheim, adding that Williams was just five seconds shy in 2005.

Other goals for the team include qualifying the maximum six athletes for NCAAs and having four of them achieve All-American status (earned by finishing in the top 10).

Northern planned to host a season-opening meet Dec. 2-3 but it was canceled due to lack of snow. But NMU’s depth was evident at the Grandview XC Classic Dec. 9-10 in Ironwood, Mich., where the Lady Wildcats claimed six of the top seven places in a competition that featured many of the CCSA teams, with one notable omission being the Alaska Nanooks. Bergland won the sprint as NMU placed six in the top seven (the lone infiltrator was second-place Tami Kochen, a 2006 All-American at NMU who has since graduated but still trains in Marquette). In the women’s 5k classic, Weier won and Smyth and Dewitt placed third and fourth, respectively, as the Wildcats put seven in the top 10.

On the men’s side, the Wildcats graduated 2006 NCAA-qualifier Bryan Cook but have five skiers vying for three possible NCAA spots, said Fjeldheim. “It’s hard to say who our top guy is because they’re all pretty close,” said Fjeldheim.

The quintet includes junior Ben Cline (Madison, Wisc.), winner of the Grandview Sprint; Bill Bowler, a sophomore from Wausau, Wisc, and a Junior Nationals champion last season; Martin Benerud, a freshman from Oslo, Norway; Justin Singleton, a sophomore from Eagle River, Alaska, who redshirted last season; and Phillip Violett, a sophomore from Brownsville, Calif., who placed third in the Grandview 10k classic, trailing only two elite non-collegiate skiers.

[Editor's note: Now you know why Ernie Brumbaugh and I have asked Sten Fjeldheim to do ski clinics in downstate Michigan these last two years! - Mike Muha]