MARQUETTE - The Northern Michigan University Nordic ski team enters this weekend with confidence as it hosts the Central Collegiate Ski Association Championship, its lone home meet of the year.
The CCSA Championship takes place at the Al Quaal Recreation Area in Ishpeming with the classic races beginning at 10 a.m. on Saturday and the freestyle at 10 a.m. on Sunday.
"As a team, we've pretty much won every competition we've had this year and our training's been going really well," sophomore Mary Kate Cirelli said.
"It's been pretty seamless, so if all things keep going the way they have been, everything should just fall into place."
The 'Cats have found a great deal of success this season, posting individual and team wins at nearly every competition they attend.
CCSA athletes accumulate points according to their results from five meets throughout the season, including this weekend's competition and NCAA Regionals in Houghton the following weekend. The athletes' total points are tallied and used to determine who will qualify for the NCAA Championship on March 6-8 in Midway, Utah.
NMU junior Kyle Bratrud leads all of the men in the CCSA, while senior George Cartwright and freshman Fredrik Schwencke sit in the top 10.
Cirelli tops the women's chart, with junior Felicia Gesior, sophomore Hannah Boyer and freshman Kristen Bourne each in reach of a qualifying spot.
Seven male and six female athletes from the CCSA will qualify for the NCAA Championship, but a maximum of three athletes per school are allowed to compete.
As the conclusion of the season grows near, the field only becomes more competitive.
"I've been pleased with my team's performance this season," head coach Sten Fjeldheim said. "We've been competing solid all year and have some good depth."
The Wildcats come into the weekend at a slight disadvantage as they are missing two of their top skiers in senior Rosie Frankowski and freshman Adam Martin.
Frankowski and Martin recently returned from Italy where they competed in the U23 World Championships and Junior World Championships, respectively. Both athletes were the top American finishers in their events abroad.
"I think it's best for them to train and rest and use their energy at the regional championship the following weekend," Fjeldheim said.
Because of their U.S. team qualifications, Frankowski and Martin will automatically qualify for the NCAA Championships. Fjeldheim said he has high hopes that Frankowski and Bratrud will repeat their All-American successes this year.
While NMU has won the CCSA Championship the last six years in a row, Fjeldheim said he expects a victory this year to be a challenge. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks poses the biggest threat as a team, he said.
"We're not planning on it being an easy win," Fjeldheim said. "But we're planning on skiing super hard, so I think we have a good chance."
Despite missing a couple top performers, the 'Cats had the opportunity to build confidence at Al Quaal, a course that features large climbs and technical downhills.
"I didn't think the home course advantage was that big of a deal until we'd done some interval workouts on it," Cirelli said. "Those hills, when you ski them for the first time, are just incredibly intimidating and they hurt."
Fjeldheim said there is one especially challenging corkscrew downhill that takes skill when skied at high speeds, but training on it several weeks in advance served as a confidence boost for the Wildcats.
"It's definitely a world class course," Fjeldheim said. "We look forward to hosting a meet and being able to race here."
The Wildcats hope to draw a crowd in Ishpeming. Cirelli said she enjoys having fans out on the course because it keeps her motivated in tough sections of the races.
"Having people out there makes you focus on having better technique, skiing fast and just getting up those hills quicker," she said.