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Watching the stars come out

Turin athletes will be on hand in N.H., Maine

With memories of the Winter Olympic Games fast receding and March weather suggesting some early sailing, it seems the snow sports season is fast schussing toward a close.

But not so fast. Aside from the terrific recreational skiing right now, complements of recent snowfall and plenty of snowmaking nights in February, March is a big month for big events in New England.

While the West got the NCAA championships -- being held through this weekend at Steamboat, Colo. -- two national championships will be decided in Vermont and Maine.

Next weekend, Stratton Mountain will host the US Open Snowboarding Championships, drawing a lineup of the world's best, including Olympians Shaun White and Hannah Teter -- both gold medalists in Turin -- and silver medalists Danny Kass and Gretchen Bleiler along with Travis Rice, who won a gold at the X-Games.

The Open begins a week from tomorrow with an invitational quarterpipe contest at the Stratton main base area on a pipe with 30-foot, hand-dug walls designed for serious air. In this competition Rice will go head-to-head with Kass, Keir Dillon, Pat Moore, and Junko Asazuma.

On Saturday, historically the day that attracts the biggest crowds (15,000 last year), the halfpipe contest will be studded with the biggest names in the sport: White, Kass, Markku Koski, 2002 Olympic gold medalists Ross Powers and Kelly Clark, and Gian Simmen and Bleiler.

The pipe is the largest built for this competition, featuring 22-foot walls and a high-rise deck alongside. Put all that top talent in such a pipe, and, says Jake Burton, whose company, Burton Snowboards, sponsors the event, you have something special.

''We're all looking forward to watching the world's best riders compete in that laid-back atmosphere," said Burton. ''That's what this sport is all about."

Both Burton and Stratton have been committed to creating the biggest pipe in the event's 24-year history. Crews have been working continuously for weeks on making snow, aided by a new grooming device for creating pipes.

On Sunday, the slopestyle contest will feature White, Rice, Risto Mattila, Todd Richards, Tara Dakides, and Natasza Zurek in the not-so-laid-back world of slopestyle rumbling.

On Sunday, before the slopestyle finale, the mini-shredders get in the pipe for an under-13 Junior Jam contest.

And for those who miss it live, NBC will air the Open April 15.

The following week at Sugarloaf, the scene turns to the US Alpine Championships beginning March 25. Since the US team has been away since December, this is a good opportunity to see America's stars.

From the prominent names such as Bode Miller and Julia Mancuso to the up-and-comers, who cherish this opportunity to take on the veterans, the whole gang is expected to race, with the possible exception of Erik Schlopy (broken thumb) and Sarah Schleper (knee).

Putting aside the disappointment of the Turin Games, Miller will return to the speed courses on Narrow Gauge where he honed his skills as a teenage student at nearby Carrabassett Valley Academy. Miller, the 2002 Olympic downhill silver medalist and 2005 overall World Cup champion, will undoubtedly feel some motivation to perform well in front of his hometown fans.

It was just a decade ago when the 18-year-old Miller began to draw the notice of US coaches. At the nationals that year at Sugarloaf, he took a third in the slalom, the beginning of his rise to ski racing fame.

Another former CVA student, Kirsten Clark will race in the speed events and Daron Rahlves, the retiring Californian who came through Green Mountain Valley School in Vermont is expected to race his last downhill and super-G.

Two young Turin gold medalists who were classmates at Park City Utah's Winter School -- Ted Ligety and Mancuso -- will show off the form that made them Olympic champions. Known strictly as a slalom skier hoping to branch out, Ligety shocked the ski world -- and himself -- last week with a World Cup giant slalom win in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

''New England skiers don't often get the opportunity to experience racing of this caliber," said Sugarloaf spokesman Karen Greene. ''This is going to be a very special opportunity for ski racing fans."

Indeed, aside from the racing, fans can expect photo and autograph sessions with the racers in the Sugarloaf base lodge.

''The Winter Olympics provide an additional interest in winter sports," said Sugarloaf's Bill Swain, ''But this year it's going beyond the typical spike. This year the US team is stronger than ever and as a result several athletes will get to Sugarloaf with an almost national hero or rock star status -- all within our relaxed atmosphere."

Racing is scheduled to stagger the men's and women's disciplines each day March 25-30.

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