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MARK LEFFINGWELL
Nederland’s Bailey Kuechenmeister practices at Eldora Mountain on Dec. 19 in Nederland.

NEDERLAND — This year’s Colorado prep skiing championship is far away on the Nederland High Panthers’ season schedule. But the season’s final meet isn’t far off on the map.

The Panthers traversed 70 winding miles through treacherous snowy weather to the state championships at Winter Park Resort last season. The Panthers will have a considerably shorter distance to travel this season.

This year’s state meet will take place at Eldora Mountain Resort on Feb. 13-14. For the Panthers, composed of skiers from schools across the Front Range, that means a leisurely drive up the road to their home hill when they hope to be at their best.

“We do have the home-hill advantage. It’s a pretty big deal,” Panthers senior Bailey Kuechenmeister said. “The race run is technical and I’ve been practicing and training on it. It’s really nice to know the run and have it at our place.”

Kuechenmeister returns to Colorado prep skiing in 2013 as the two-time reigning Skimeister, the Ski League MVP award given to the regular season’s most accomplished all-around skier in all four disciplines.

The Panthers’ sixth Skimeister winner since 2006, Kuechenmeister will look to vault into a new category with her third consecutive award.

“I am doing Skimeister again and I’m hoping to go for a third title,” Kuechenmeister said. “But my main goal is to have fun and stay away from injuries.”

The Panthers graduated Dayna Larson, who won Skimeister as a freshman in 2010 and took home state titles in the giant slalom and slalom last season. But Kuechenmeister said the team is getting into gates earlier this season and working harder during dry-land training, which should help them fill the void.

Panthers head coach Chantall Knapp said the Panthers also plan to train on the state meet race hill as much as possible. Despite that critical advantage, Knapp said she is most excited about the depth the Panthers have across the roster.

“For the overall team morale and spirit, it’s nice to see depth and experience on both the ladies and men’s side, which leads to a stronger experience for the young,” Knapp said. “It’s a positive for the less experienced skiers to have an example and for the more experienced skiers to get a mentoring opportunity.”

Knapp said she thinks the Panthers are capable of winning state on both the boys and girls side. The Nederland girls finished fourth in the total team scoring from all four events combined last season, including second-place finishes in both the giant slalom and slalom. The boys finished 10th, placing sixth in the giant slalom.

Making a return from an injury-shortened season a year ago, senior Owen Foster will lead the Panthers boys squad.

“We have a lot more guys on the team this year and everyone seems to be more dialed in,” Foster said. “We have a bunch of guys who could throw down a great run at any time. If everybody stays focused and keeps up the hard work, we should be in for a good season.”

Foster broke his collarbone early last season but was allowed to compete at the state meet as a discretionary skier since he was all-state the previous year. He took 29th in the slalom.

Back to full strength, Foster has shown his potential already in the preseason. Last weekend, he took second place in the 18U age group at the first Smartwool Ski Cup Series event at the Winter Park Competition Center.

With a two-time Skimeister and an early-season standout to guide a talent young group of skiers, the Panthers are ready for the 2013-14 season on the slopes. And at the end, the slopes will be familiar ones.

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