TRAVERSE CITY — It all comes down to this.
After a hard-fought, season-long battle that's gone back and forth, the Traverse City Central and Traverse City West girls ski teams have one last chance to determine which team has the upper hand for the 2014 season when they go into Monday's Division 1 state final at Schuss Mountain as two of the leading contenders to win the state championship.
Central and West represent the last two girls champions, with Central capturing last year's crown and West winning it over the Trojans in 2012. They are again poised to make a run at winning the state meet after standout years on the slopes, including a regional title for the Trojans and regional runner-up finish for the Titans less than two weeks ago as well as a Big North crown for West and runner-up league finish for Central.
"There's no doubt that we're close and have been close in the competitions," said West head coach Jerry Stanek. "The performance and what they do on race day is going to determine (who wins). I still think West has the best ski team, but that being said we're not going there for second place. We're going there to try and win it. I think our girls, they're going there with the thought that they're going to win. That's the mental state I want them to be in."
West head coach Ed Johnson likes the fact that the state finals figures to come down to a pair of teams from the same city that know each other well.
"It's a great thing for ski racing in Traverse City," he said. "It's a great thing to see both teams considered the top two girls teams in the state.
"I think it could go either way. We may have a little bit of an upper hand, but Central has an advantage with the home hill. It's going to come down to who puts it together on that given day."
Central has not missed a beat since winning last year's championship despite only returning Devon Dotterrer and Molly Whiting from the team's top skiers. The Trojans have benefited from having Lily Lockwood — who skied on West's title team two years ago and missed last season after transferring and was the regional runner up in giant slalom — as well as Maggie Dutmers, who finished eighth in both disciplines at regionals.
Claire Podges and Morgan Culp have been the leaders for the Titans this season. Culp was second (slalom) and fourth (giant slalom) at regionals, while Podges took fourth in giant slalom.
The boys meets appears — at least on paper — to be a battle for second place. Marquette had a perfect score of 20 at the regional and is clearly the team to beat.
"Marquette is by far and away the favorite," said Stanek. "Our boys, right from the start of the year, have known (we) have an excellent team — and they really do — we're a real strong team one through six. The bottom line is Marquette is the same way and just a step faster than we are."
With that said, Stanek's team, which was second at the regional, followed by West, isn't conceding the crown to the Redmen.
"If our boys ski like they have been skiing and Marquette, by whatever reason, makes a few mistakes, it could change the whole outcome. Clarkston also has a very good boys team. Some of these kids have been skiing in this meet the last three years so they've gone from fourth to third and they're really looking to compete for the state championship. They know what they have to do. My son Nick is coaching the boys and he's done an excellent job of getting these guys ready for this. We're as prepared as we can be."
Lars Hornberg led Central in slalom at the regional, placing sixth. Brendan Wells was sixth for the Trojans in giant slalom. Kurt Frick and Tyler Sepanik also scored in both events for Central, with Dirk Phelps adding a seventh-place finish in slalom.
West has been paced by all-conference performers Austin Skibowski and Ben Friar, with Evan Culp and Ryan Geiser also playing a key role in West's season. Perhaps a bit of an underdog — Johnson was unsure if West would qualify as a team or if the Titans would simply have qualifiers on an individual level — West is relishing the opportunity to compete at the finals.
"I'm really excited to see those guys there," said Johnson. "They've worked really hard this year. We've got a couple of seniors that have worked hard over the last four years — Ben Friar and Ryan Geiser have both put in their time. It's nice to see the team there for them. They've skied well."
The Traverse City St. Francis-Elk Rapids boys team will be among the teams competing at the Division 2 meet at Nubs Nob. The co-op team was the regional runner-up to Big North champion Petoskey and won the Lake Michigan Conference Championships to share the overall league title with Harbor Springs in the final preparations for the state meet.
Among the key racers for St. Francis-Elk Rapids are Sean Wells, Jake KIein, Nick Cunningham, Addison Clark and Christian Stellin. Wells was the leader of a consistent effort at the regional, placing eighth in giant slalom and 15th in slalom.
The St. Francis-Elk Rapids girls team also had two individual qualifiers for the state meet as Carlee McCardel, the Lake Michigan Conference giant slalom champion, was third in giant slalom and seventh in slalom at the regional, and Sara Trilla was eighth in giant slalom and 14th in slalom.
Kaitlin Gaudard of Glen Lake-Suttons Bay will also compete as an individual at the Division 2 meet, earning qualification with a 12th-place finish in slalom.
Other teams competing in Division 2 are Cadillac, which captured regional titles in both girls and boys. Keenan Cooper was the regional champion for the Vikings' boys. Benzie Central's girls were second to Cadillac in the regional and also will be aiming for a state title.