Coach Jerry Wolf won’t have to wait much longer to find out if the men on his Rocky Mountain College ski racing team are once again national championship contenders.
Not with powerful Westminster College invading the slopes at Red Lodge Mountain beginning today.
“They’re definitely taking it pretty serious,” Wolf said of his Battlin’ Bears bracing for the speedy Griffins. “It will be a great measuring tool for where we’re going to stand for the year.”
Rocky’s men and women will be competing in their annual invitational today through Sunday on Red Lodge Mountain’s Upper Limited and Lower Limited runs.
The six-school field for the opening Grand Teton Conference meet will include skiers from Rocky, Montana, Montana State, Westminster, Weber State and Brigham Young University.
Westminster’s women are the reigning United States Collegiate Ski Association queens of the hill, while the men from the Salt Lake City school placed third nationally last season.
“We couldn’t ask for any better competition,” Wolf said.
Rocky’s men finished fifth at nationals a year ago in Winter Park, Colo., and even waxed Westminster for the Western Region title last February in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
“It’s our home hill, and that plays a little bit into it,” Wolf said of the added motivation behind this weekend’s giant slalom and slalom races at Red Lodge. “Nobody wants to get beat in their own house, so to speak. It’s our turf and we’d like to keep it.”
The Bears, who practice most weekdays at Red Lodge, claimed the men’s national championship in 2005 and 2007. Rocky was a runner-up in 2006.
“We’ve got a lot of returning athletes,” said Wolf, who is in his ninth season as head coach. “A lot of them were just freshmen last year. I think they’ve learned a lot over the last year about team scoring and how important it is to finish.
“We’ve been really excited this year and we’ve done a lot more training.”
Westminster men are ranked second nationally this winter behind Plymouth State University of New Hampshire, with Rocky fourth. In the women’s poll, national champ Westminster is No. 1 with Rocky sitting eighth.
Rocky’s women were seventh at nationals a year ago. They were the national runners-up in 2006, but depth might be an issue for the Bears this season.
“I don’t expect the women to win the meet (this weekend), but just do some good, solid skiing and not be too far out,” Wolf said.
Rocky’s men and women have made eight straight trips to nationals — and that streak doesn’t appear to be in jeopardy.
The competition this weekend is being organized and run by the Silver Run Ski Education Foundation.
There will be GS racing today, with slalom races set for Saturday and Sunday. Runs will begin at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. all three days on the steep terrain, where more snow is in the forecast.
The slalom racing will take place on Lower Limited, while the start for the longer GS races will be on Upper Limited.
Spectators are welcome. “It’s just a short walk up to the finish line,” Wolf said.
Westminster swept both of the team titles last year at Rocky’s invitational during what was its first year of ski racing. The Bears finished second.
The Griffins’ lineup for the women includes sophomore Kendall Brown, who placed second nationally in both the GS and slalom last year in Winter Park to capture the combined championship. On the men’s side, the Griffins return sophomore Lorentz Gedde-Dahl, who claimed national titles in both the GS and slalom.
Brown is from Toronto, while Gedde-Dahl is from Norway.
Rocky, which will have 19 skiers on the hill, will counter with some firepower of its own.
Harald Carlsson placed second behind Gedde-Dahl in the slalom at nationals and was 13th in the GS. For the women, Isa Floden was tied for seventh nationally in the slalom and eighth in the GS.
Both Carlsson and Floden are sophomores from Sweden.
“Olle (Friberg) is still our fastest skier,” Wolf said. “He’s skiing really well. He’s put last year’s injury (at nationals) behind him. I think he’s learned a lot, too, on just how much he means to the team to finish.”
Friberg, another sophomore from Sweden, won seven races last year and was the top male point-scorer in the conference. He is the reigning slalom champion in the Western Region, but took a tumble in the GS at regionals and also was hurt in a spectacular crash in the GS at nationals.
On the women’s side for the Bears, “Alex (Guras) is skiing a lot better than she did last year,” Wolf said. “The same with Isa, she’s getting faster. Mimmi (Palovaara) is a good addition to the team.”
This will be the first of two conference meets prior to regionals Feb. 19-21 at Snowbasin, Utah. The national championships will take place March 3-6 at Sunday River, Maine.