WALLA WALLA, Wash. - With thunder, lightning, heavy rains and tornadoes providing a somewhat fitting atmosphere, the Whitman College cycling team took the collegiate cycling scene by storm at the Collegiate National Championships, held May 21-23 in Madison, Wisc.

Competing as a team at nationals for the first time, Whitman made its presence felt in every event. Doing battle in Division II (schools with enrollments of less than 15,000), the Missionaries made their biggest splash in the women&#146s team time trial event, placing first to claim a national title. The Whitman men's squad, in its time trial, placed fifth in a highly competitive field.

Laura Matsen and Andrew Fischer, who contributed to Whitman's success in the team time trials, scored just as well in the weekend's two individual events. Matsen and Fischer, two graduating seniors, skipped their Whitman commencement ceremonies to compete in the cycling championships.

Matsen, a biology major from Seattle, Wash., came within an inch or two of winning the women's 60-mile road race. In a photo finish, Matsen placed second behind New Mexico State University's Merrill Sapp, whose winning time was clocked at 3 hours, 7:54 minutes. "No one knew who won the race until they looked at the photos," Whitman assistant coach Soren Klingsporn said.

Matsen, who added an eighth-place showing in the criterium event, finished third in the women's overall scoring. Fischer, a politics-environmental studies major from Missoula, Mont., placed third in the men's overall scoring, combining a fourth-place finish in the 75-mile road race with a sixth-place effort in the criterium.

In the overall team scoring in Division II, Whitman amassed enough points in the women's and men's events to place second behind Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school that draws its cyclists from an enrollment of about 4,300 undergraduates and 1,200 graduate students, or nearly four times the number of students at Whitman. It was Dartmouth's third consecutive Division II national team title.

Whitman team members were surprised, at least to some extent, by their success at nationals, Klingsporn said. "We knew we had strong riders and that we could compete," he said. "We didn't know how well we'd do against all the top teams from around the country. As it turned out, we did just fine."

This year's championships concluded May 23 with the team time trials. Three sophomores -- Laura Valaas (Wenatchee, Wash.), Jane Rynbrandt (Petosky, Mich.) and Jamie Hinderliter (Bountiful, Utah) -- joined Matsen to win the women's race, finishing the 18-mile, out-and-back course in 41 minutes, 15:26 seconds.

In a time trial, a team's time is determined by the finish of its second rider. Matsen and Valaas crossed the finish line together in this particular race. Riders from each team routinely work together on such points of strategy as pacing and drafting.

Dartmouth was the runner-up in the women's team time trial, finishing more than 17 seconds behind Whitman. DePauw University was 19 seconds back in third.

In the men's team time trial, Whitman logged its fifth-place finish behind the efforts of Fischer, juniors Nicholas Clayville (Spokane, Wash.) and Bill Goulding (Los Alamos, N.M.), and sophomore Sam Johnson (Santa Fe, N.M.). All four riders crossed the finish line together, about 71 seconds behind the winning team from Dartmouth. The Missionary foursome missed fourth place by just six seconds.

In the women's 60-mile road race, held on Saturday, May 22, Whitman's Matsen finished second by the width of a bike tire. Valaas was also riding with the lead group until a flat tire knocked her from contention. She recovered to place 18th, about 6:36 minutes out of first. Stefanie Bergh, a Whitman senior from Wayzata, Minn., finished about 17 minutes off the pace, placing 23rd. Rynbrandt had mechanical problems with her bike and was unable to finish.

Michael Barton, a 30-year-old graduate student at Dartmouth, won the men's 75-mile road race in 3 hours, 14:29 minutes. Whitman's Fischer, who took fourth place, was part of the five-man lead group that all crossed the finish line within a second or two of one another. Whitman's Clayville, who stayed with the lead group until the final climb, placed sixth, about 44 seconds off the winning pace. Also racing for the Missionaries were Goulding, who placed 53rd, and sophomore Brandon Weil (Boulder, Colo.), who finished but did not place.

"Bill (Goulding) did a lot of work for Andy and Nick early in the race by helping chase down a breakaway of six riders," Klingsporn said. "None of our riders were in that early break. After exhausting himself setting a high pace for Andy and Nick, Bill then fell off the pace of the leaders."

The championships got underway Friday, May 21, with the fast-paced criterium events in downtown Madison. The Division II women went first, circling a one-kilometer loop numerous times until the horn sounded for a final three laps. Northern Colorado's Nicky Wangsgard won the bunch sprint to the finish line, clocking a time of 51 minutes, 37 seconds. Whitman's Matsen took eighth in 51:39, the same time as the sixth- and seventh-place finishers.

Valaas placed 18th for the Missionaries, less than four seconds out of first. Rynbrandt, Whitman's third racer in the criterium, was 24th.

Lightning and tornado warnings interrupted, delayed and eventually shortened the men's Division II criterium. While Dartmouth's Barton was the winner in 34 minutes, 26 seconds, Whitman's Fischer was just five seconds back in sixth place, finishing with the same time as the fourth- and fifth-place riders. Goulding crashed on the wet pavement and failed to complete the race, and Weil was among the riders pulled from the course because they were being lapped by the leaders.

With each team limited to three riders in the criterium, Whitman's Johnson competed instead in the men's open criterium, placing 13th.

Whitman's cycling team qualified for nationals by finishing first this spring among the Division II schools in the Northwest Collegiate Cycling Conference. A year ago, both Fischer and Valaas qualified for nationals as individuals, placing fourth and eighth, respectively, in the criterium events. Valaas also finished 14th in the women's road race last year, which placed her eighth in the overall individual scoring.

At the conclusion of this year's championships, Matsen was invited to a USA Cycling Federation "talent identification" camp this summer at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. She declined the offer, however, because of a previous commitment to travel through Ecuador with a medical team providing free health care services to needy children. Matsen will start medical school this fall at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.

Meanwhile, Fischer was offered a one-year contract with an elite under-23 development team, a semi-professional squad. Because he turns 23 later this year, however, Fischer was unable to accept the offer.

Valaas, for her part, was the only cyclist nominated for the "athlete representative" position on the National Collegiate Cycling Association's first-ever board of trustees. Her two-year term begins later this fall, following elections in which Valaas will run unopposed. The NCCA is a newly-organized group under the USA Cycling umbrella, and its board will take an active role in setting the rules and eligibility standards of collegiate cycling.

Glenn Silver, a Walla Walla resident, served as Whitman's volunteer head coach for a second consecutive year. Klingsporn and Alan Schmitz, two 2003 Whitman graduates, were the assistant coaches. Rilke Bushey, also a 2003 graduate, was the team manager.