Alpine ‘March Madness’ concludes with 8 Park City Ski and Snowboard racers at junior nationals | ParkRecord.com

Alpine ‘March Madness’ concludes with 8 Park City Ski and Snowboard racers at junior nationals

On Thursday, eight Park City Ski and Snowboard Club athletes loaded their alpine gear into vans and headed north. It's a 12-hour drive to Washington's Mission Ridge Ski Area, which is nestled into the southeastern edge of the Wenatchee National Forest between Seattle and Spokane, and it's the team's most important stop of the season — the U-16 National Championships.

"We're proud," Alpine director John Buchar said. "We had a slow start this season with the lack of snow, but the training once we got it up and running was fantastic. I think we were able to roll into the second half well prepared, and I think the results we've had at different levels are a testimony of that."

The U-16 nationals come at the tail end of a string of high-stakes events — 10 finals in the past two weeks, including the YSL Finals at Brian Head, the Intermountain Division Championships at Grand Targhee Resort in Alta, Wyoming, the Western Region U-14 Championships at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, plus division and region finals at Snowbasin, Bogus Basin in Idaho, and, most recently, Alyeska Resort in Alaska. "It's our own March Madness in the alpine world," Buchar said. "It's crazy how many different directions our coaches have been going in."

Teams have been busy loading selections from the 225 total athletes into vans and buses. Buchar said sometimes coaches come home for a night and leave the following day.

"Then, it always changes because it's an outdoor sport — you can't predict the weather," he said. "These coaches have to be willing to change the plan on a short notice. They work extremely hard and care tremendously for our athletes. It's a lot of time spent on the road."

But it's paid off in dozens of podium finishes for the club, and it's not quite over yet.

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Lauren Macuga was one of the athletes making the trip north.

So far, she said her best performance was at Grand Targhee, where she took second in the giant slalom and slalom races.

Macuga hopes to place in the top 10 when she gets to Washington, "but I'd love a top five," she said, adding that she hopes to bring the elements that worked for her in Wyoming to the U-16 nationals.

"Staying focused, taking some alone time to really focus on my run, and having fun, too," are the strategies that worked in her favor, she said. "When I was in the gates it was just having fun."

Making it to the junior nationals this season was a primary goal.

"It means a lot to me," she said. "And now that I've made it, it's thrilling."

Two of her teammates, Jack Schaede and Justin Bigatel, feel the same way. For both of them, it will be their first time going to junior nationals.

"Now that I've gotten there, it will be really cool to go see how the other kids are doing and put my best run down to compete with them," said Schaede, who had more than one first-place finish in the Intermountain Division Championships at Grand Targhee, which qualified him for the Western Region Championships in Alaska. Schaede said his performance in Alaska left something to be desired, though he still finished eighth in giant slalom, and sixth in slalom.

"I was nervous about qualifying for nationals," he said. "Now that it's nationals, there are no other races, there's no pressure."

He's hoping for a top-five finish, with first place on his wish list.

Odds are, if that dream comes true, Schaede said it would come from his giant slalom performances.

"That's what I've been working on a lot this year," he said. "It wasn't my best last year, but I've put a lot of work in."

Bigatel, who is hoping to break into the top 10 at junior nationals, said qualifying for the final race of the season has been the highpoint of his year so far.

To get there, he said he had to focus on sharpening his mental toughness. He and Schaede have been friends for several years, and Bigatel said though the two hadn't explicitly discussed what the competition will be like, he understands the competition will be tough.

"It's going to be tough but its going to be fun," he said.

The team competing in Washington also includes Annika Severn-Eriksson, Zach Kaufman and Gunnar Travis, plus Kennedy Heavrin and Brendan Friberg of the U14 team, who qualified up to the U-16 nationals.

The push toward nationals concludes on April 4, when the team will load back into the vans, and head home.