There’s more at stake than team and individual titles at the NCAA Central Region Skiing Championships this weekend in Houghton, Mich. The classic race on Saturday and freestyle event on Sunday will help determine which 20 skiers qualify for the NCAA Skiing Championships two weeks later in Rumford, Maine.
All 11 schools in the Central Collegiate Ski Association will participate in the races at the Michigan Tech Nordic Training Center. Northern Michigan University is the defending champion.
Saturday’s individual-start classic races will have the women skiing 5 kilometers at 10:30 a.m. and the men going 10K at 12:30 p.m.
Top contenders for the women include Laura DeWitt and Marie Helen Soderman of NMU and Theresia Schnurr of Alaska-Fairbanks. In the three NCAA-qualifying classic races this season, DeWitt has won twice, Soderman won once and Schnurr was runner-up twice.
For the men, Phil Violett of NMU, Oskar Lund of Michigan Tech and Petter Sjulstad have won races. Martin Banerud of NMU, an NCAA All-American the last two seasons, is also a serious threat.
Violett, who last year edged 2008 NCAA Champion Marius Korthauer, will seek to defend his Central Region classic title for the men while DeWitt will look to repeat for the women.
Sunday’s mass-start freestyle races will see the men skate 15 kilometers at 10 a.m. followed by the women going 10K at noon.
Soderman and DeWitt could battle it out for the women’s title, while Banerud, Violett and Santiago Ocariz of Wisconsin-Green Bay have been the strongest freestyle men’s skiers this season.
There will be new Central Region freestyle champions as 2008 victors Marius Korthauer has graduated and Aurelia Korthauer is redshirting this season for Alaska.
In the team standings last year, NMU was the team champion with 327 points, followed by Alaska with 285, Michigan Tech with 224, Gustavus Adolphus with 223 and Wisconsin-Green Bay with 215.
The same schools will likely vie for the top this year.
NMU’s depth is especially impressive, as the Wildcats have five men among the conference’s top seven and five women among the top nine in the points list that determines which nine men and 11 women qualify for NCAAs.
“There is not a skier on the team that can kick back and feel that they are number one,” NMU coach Sten Fjeldheim said via e-mail. “They have four to five teammates that on any given weekend can win if they are not 100 percent on their game.”
Despite the intrasquad competition, Fjeldheim has been impressed with how supportive the Wildcats are for each other. “They are there after the race to congratulate one another and to keep positive when things do not go so well,” Fjeldheim said.
The one downfall to all that talent is that several Wildcats will be shut out of NCAAs because only three skiers per gender per school can qualify.
This weekend’s races are also vital for Michigan Tech.
“We have an opportunity to send six skiers to the NCAAs, but we could just as easily send three or four athletes if we are not racing near our best,” MTU coach Joe Haggenmiller said.
After sending a full complement of six skiers to NCAAs last year, Alaska will likely only qualify four this season (three women, one man). Schnurr, a freshman from Germany, has been the biggest surprise. “She has the tools, motivation and attitude to become a top skier in the NCAA in the coming years,” Alaska coach Scott Jerome said.