Utah’s coaches were worried before the Utes clinched the NCAA skiing title

Victory wasn’t certain even with Olympians Sophia Laukli and Novie McCabe and defending champ Sydney Palmer-Leger on the 15k Nordic course

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sophia Laukli, Novie McCabe and Sydney Palmer-Ledger, from left, of the University of Utah celebrate after competing in the women’s 5K classic in the NCAA Skiing Championships held at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center on Thursday, March 10, 2022 in Midway, Utah.

Midway • Miles Havlick sucked in his breath as the women lined up Saturday at Soldier Hollow to race the 15-kilometer freestyle, the final race of the NCAA Skiing Championships.

The University of Utah held a 23-point lead over Vermont, a nice cushion but far from insurmountable. Still, stacked at the line for the Utes were two Olympians and a two-time defending NCAA champion. So Havlick, Utah’s Nordic coach, could breathe easy, right?

Instead, the specter of all the things that could go wrong kept him holding his breath right until Sophia Laukli crossed the finish line well ahead of the pack. She was followed in short order by teammate Novie McCabe, who took second, and, despite fighting through cramps, Sydney Palmer-Leger, who placed eighth.

Utah’s national championship streak was safe.

“I can finally exhale,” Havlick said once the points had been tallied and Utah, with 578 points, ran away with the victory over Vermont (511.5), Denver (436.5), Colorado (435) and 18 other schools. Westminster College, which doesn’t have a Nordic team, finished eighth in the overall standings.

Julie Jag/The Salt Lake Tribune The University of Utah ski team celebrates winning its third straight NCAA Ski Championships on Saturday, March 12, 2022 at Soldier Hollow in Midway.

“It feels great. We’ve worked really hard for this and, yeah, great to do it in front of a home crowd. I can’t remember the last time a home team won, so it’s great to do it here.”

The last team to win while hosting the national championships was Colorado at Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in 2006. However, Denver shares its home course with the Buffaloes, and it won in 2018. That also happens to be the last time a team other than Utah won the national title. The Utes have now won three straight and 14 overall, not counting the 2020 races which were cut short due to the initial COVID-19 outbreak with Utah in the lead.

That means Utah head coach Fredrik Landstedt has won a title basically every season since he came to the school four years ago. Still, even he was worried, given the nature of NCAA skiing. Each team gets just three Nordic and three Alpine skiers in the men’s and women’s races, and their points combine for the team score. So one misstep can turn a team’s championship dreams to slush.

“I get nervous for sure,” Landstedt said. “You watch Alpine, it’s swinging so quick. You have one person skiing out and suddenly it’s 30 points less. If CU has one skier out, they lose 30 points, and it just can swing 60, 70 points in just one race. So you can never be sure.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gustav Vøllo of the University of Utah competes in men’s slalom as he takes second place during the NCAA Skiing Championships held at Park City Mountain Resort on Friday, March 11, 2022, in Park City, Utah.

It took some hiking up to ski through missed gates, but the Alpine team had the Utes in pretty good position by the time those races wrapped up Friday afternoon at Park City Mountain Resort. Led by Gustav Vøllo’s pair of silvers, the Utah men’s team won both disciplines, while the women’s team compiled the second-most points in giant slalom and tied for the seventh-most in slalom.

That gave Utah a 27.5-point lead over Vermont heading into the final day. But there was one big question mark, one hiccup that, in addition to the usual concerns about racers getting sick or hurt, kept the Utes from celebrating prematurely.

In their opening race Thursday, Utah’s men had struggled. They’d finished fifth overall, with a 30-point gap between themselves and the three other team title contenders. If that happened again, Havlick might have been holding more than his breath. He might have been holding his stomach.

Turns out, there was no reason for concern. For the second straight year, Samuel Hendry took silver in the 20k, followed by Bjorn Riksaasen in 12th and Luke Jager in 14th. More importantly, their 73 total points were the second-most and just five points behind race leader Vermont.

“They were definitely out for redemption today,” Havlick said. “They were a little frustrated after Thursday’s race. So, yeah, this morning they were fired up.”

Julie Jag/The Salt Lake Tribune Sofia Laukli celebrates winning the women's 15k freestyle race at the NCAA Ski Championships on Saturday, March 12, 2022 at Soldier Hollow in Midway.

Having dropped just a half a point off their lead from the morning, the Utes then put their fate in their all-star squad of Laukli, McCabe and Palmer-Leger. And Laukli, in her first season with Utah after transferring from Middlebury, was feeling it.

“We kind of had a team plan to, like, take it out faster, try to share the work,” McCabe said. “But Sophia pretty much ended up doing all the work because I was just doing whatever I could to stay with her for a bit there. She just skied so well today.”

The three women had opened an 18-second gap on the pack after the first of four laps. A third of the way through the second lap, it was up to 26 seconds. Even that wasn’t fast enough for Laukli. On the uphill portion of the third lap, she broke away from McCabe, her Olympic teammate. From there, she tore through the course, arriving 34 second ahead of McCabe, the silver medalist — in plenty of time to wave the large, red Utah flag she’d been handed a few yards from the finish.

“I honestly thought Novie was really close behind me, so I was going to try to ski as fast as I could to the end,” Laukli said. “And then I saw the flag. And so I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll take that and hopefully it’s enough.’ … Then it really sank in, and it was certainly a great feeling.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sydney Palmer-Leger of the University of Utah competes during the women’s 5K classic in the NCAA Skiing Championships held at the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center on Thursday, March 10, 2022 in Midway, Utah.

While their efforts were impressive for their speed, it was Palmer-Leger’s grit that really sealed the win for Utah. Landsted said she started cramping halfway through the race and a lesser racer would have just dropped out.

“That’s the ultimate team skier we need,” Landstedt said of the Park City native. “Somebody that has not their best races and they just fight for the team and get in they don’t fall back that much. She was [eighth] having a bad day, and that’s incredible.”

Palmer-Leger seemed to have mostly recovered by the time the entire Utah team huddled together after being awarded the winner’s trophy.

Havlick was there, too, taking a deep breath just before the entire team put its hands together and, on the count of three, yelled out “Champions!”

“It’s always more pressure and it’s definitely harder to win at home,” said head coach Fredrik Landstedt, who arrived at Utah four years ago. “But it’s just an amazing feeling.”