The NCAA Central Region will be represented by six schools from the Central Collegiate Ski Association at the NCAA Nordic Ski Championships, with full squads from perennial powerhouse Northern Michigan University and Michigan Tech leading the way.
Longtime NMU coach Sten Fjeldheim said he has skiers capable of winning an NCAA title — which if accomplished would follow up the classic-technique championship Marius Korthauer of Alaska-Fairbanks won a year ago.
"We feel we have both men and women that can win a title," Fjeldheim said after the Wildcats cruised to what he believed was their 12th Central Region championship in the last 15 years.
NMU has high aspirations as a Nordic team at NCAAs as well. An interval-start classic technique event (10 kilometers for men, 5K for women) will be Thursday while a mass-start freestyle races (20K for men, 15K for women) will be Saturday in Rumford, Maine.
"Our goal is to be in the top five," said Fjeldheim, whose Wildcats were third in the Nordic standings last year but have no Alpine team to be competitive for the overall championship.
Leading the NMU men is junior Martin Banerud of Oslo, Norway. He has placed fourth in the NCAA freestyle the past two seasons and is looking to finally break onto the podium.
"He needs to have a flawless race because it is so competitive," Fjeldheim said of Banerud. "If everything goes well, Martin is healthy and feels good, then he has a really good chance to be able to win a title."
NMU’s men will also be represented by seniors Phil Violett (six podiums in NCAA-qualifying races this season) and Justin Singleton, who has been the odd man out on stacked NMU squads the past two seasons.
Junior Laura DeWitt and freshman Marie Helen Soderman have topped the CCSA this season and are NCAA threats as well.
The third Wildcat woman qualifier is Ingrid Fjeldheim, the older of Sten’s two daughters on the team. She landed her spot over teammate Christina Gillis by 0.1 points after a strong Central Regions freestyle race.
"At times I wanted to be her dad but I had to keep reminding myself to be her coach," Sten said.
Michigan Tech University, which hosted the Central Region Championships Feb. 28 and March 1 in Houghton, Mich., also has qualified the maximum six skiers for the first time in program history.
"But we are not looking to end the season with this as our top accomplishment," head coach Joe Haggenmiller said. "Now that we are here in Maine, we have to perform as a team."
Last year the Huskies only qualified three skiers and were disappointed to have no result higher than 22nd at NCAAs. They plan to change that this year, and have plenty of capable horses.
Oskar Lund, Jesse Lang and Petter Sjulstad all finished in the top six in the CCSA points standings. Lund was runner-up by 0.4 seconds to Banerud at the Central Regions classic race while Lang was second to Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Santiago Ocariz in the freestyle event.
Lund, a junior, and Sjulstad, a freshman, are from Sweden and Norway, respectively. Both have high hopes in the 10K classic. Sjulstad also has an impressive NCAA pedigree, as two of his cousins are former NCAA skiing champions.
Lang is a junior from Minnesota who looks to excel in the 20K freestyle.
For the Huskies women, Jenna Klein is seeking solid results in both events. She and will joined by Elizabeth Quinley, a strong classic skier, and surprise qualifier Jill Smith, the final entrant from the Central Region.
Alaska-Fairbanks graduated Marius Korthauer and Vahur Teppan from last year; they led the team to seventh place in the NCAA Nordic standings. Oyvind Watterdal was the lone qualifier on the men’s side this year.
The Nanooks women, however, qualified twin sisters Julia Pierson and Anna Coulter, who each have 9th-place NCAA All-American certificates to their credit. Pierson also won her first Central Region title in the freestyle on March 1. Lanky German freshman Theresia Schnurr rounds out UAF’s trio as the third-ranked CCSA skier this season.
"All-American is certainly our goal, and the rest is gravy," Nanooks coach Scott Jerome said.
Jerome may even have a little knowledge of the courses at Bates College because he skied there as a collegian.
Wisconsin-Green Bay is sending one guy and one girl, and each is capable of doing damage. Santiago Ocariz, a junior from Spooner, Wis., won three NCAA-qualifier freestyle races this season, the last one landing him a region title. Carolyn Freeman, a sophomore, also has a pair of NCAA-qualifier podium finishes on her resume.
"I’m just excited to get two skiers through," UWGB coach Butch Reimer said. "We have an excellent group of qualifiers and I can’t wait to see how the Central Region does."
Representing Gustavus Adolphus College, which qualified three women a year ago, will be senior Kelly Chaudoin. She is making her second appearance at NCAAs.
"Skating is her stronger technique and she is capable of surprising some people as she did by winning the collegiate race at (Mount) Itasca by 56 seconds," GAC coach Jed Friedrich said.
Chaudoin’s dedication to summer training is paying dividends now.
"I’m really proud of all the hard work she has put into skiing and she is certainly leaving her mark on our program," Friedrich said.
"She is one of the few Division III skiers who trains like the best skiers in the region, and it has showed in her results."
Chaudoin joins Klein of Michigan Tech and Freeman of UWGB in hailing from the small town of Ely, Minn.
On the men’s side, the College of Saint Scholastica will send senior Tyler Kjorstad, who was the last man out a year ago.
The Central Region has a mission of doing well enough at NCAAs to increase the 20 berths (nine men, 11 women) it has this year.
"Basically as a region we try to work together at the national championships," Fjeldheim said. "There’s not a lot of spots available so it’s real important to get as many skiers in the top 10 as we can to gain more spots."