WALLA WALLA, Wash. – Youth rather than experience is the watchword as Tom Olson, the alpine ski coach at Whitman College for nearly two decades, gets his charges ready for the start of the NCAA ski season.

"This is definitely one of the youngest teams we’ve ever had," Olson says. "All the skiers on our alpine roster, men and women, are in their first or second years at Whitman."

With Whitman still on semester break, Olson and his youngsters will gather later this week in Steamboat Springs, Colo., for the University of Colorado Invitational. Slalom races on Saturday, Jan. 5, followed by giant slalom races on Sunday will mark the first of five weekend events sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association (RMISA).

As RMISA’s only NCAA Div. III (non-scholarship) school, Whitman routinely faces an uphill battle in a conference typically dominated by the universities of Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Denver and New Mexico, the strongest of the NCAA Div. I ski programs. RMISA also includes Montana State and the University of Wyoming, two more Division I schools, and the University of Alaska-Anchorage and Western State College, a pair of Division II affiliates.

Based on regular season results, each of the 10 RMISA schools can qualify as many as three men and three women for the national alpine championships. As one of three NCAA ski conferences in the country, however, RMISA is limited to sending 18 men and 17 women to nationals.

"RMISA is the only ski conference in the western United States, and the competition within the conference is tremendously fierce," Olson says. "This is one of those years, because of our youth, that it’s going to be difficult for us to qualify anyone for nationals. This is going to be a formative year. It’s going to be tough, and we’re going to struggle at times, but the goal is to lay a good foundation for the next few years."

Olson isn’t ready to concede, however, that national berths are out of reach for the best of his young skiers. "One of last year’s freshmen, one of the guys who decided not to ski this season, came within one good finish of qualifying for nationals, so it can be done," he says. "He finished seventh in the slalom at the regional championships. Had he pulled off one other top 10 finish earlier in the season, he would have made it to nationals."

For now, Olson plans to keep his skiers focused on the next race, and on having fun while competing. "We need to keep our perspective focused and not take the early results too seriously," he says. "If we do that, improvements and results will follow in due time. We can make a difference as coaches, if the athletes want to work hard. We’ve had skiers at Whitman make tremendous improvements in their point profiles from one season to the next."

Whitman Women’s Alpine Team

Whitman returns the most alpine experience on the women’s side of the ledger, where sophomores Emily Baker, Lauren Parsons and Lucia Paciotti are ready to build on good results from a year ago. Olson also expects immediate contributions from Allison Rood, a sophomore transfer from the University of Colorado, and first-year skier Liza Allen.

"Most of our women certainly have the potential to place between 20th and 30th in any given race during the regular season," Olson says. "And it’s not unrealistic to think that they can break into the top 20. We may not be ultra-fast at this point, but we’re solid and competitive."

Despite a range of health issues last season, both Parsons (Ketchum, Idaho; Wood River HS) and Baker (Boulder, Colo.; Fairview HS) showed signs of good things to come. "Lauren and Emily have a lot to contribute," Olson says. "It’s up to those two, along with Lucia Paciotti, to lead the team. Lucia has good ability in both the slalom and giant slalom."

While senior Rachel Walker was capping her college career by placing 12th in the slalom at last year’s regional championships, Parsons was finishing 20th and Paciotti 23rd. In that day’s team scoring, the Whitman women placed sixth in a nine- school field, outpointing the University of New Mexico, Montana State and Western State.

"Lauren had problems with her back last year, and she still does," Olson says. "It’s a chronic condition, and it makes it difficult for her to get consistent results in the slalom, where there is so much twisting and torque. But Lauren is our best giant slalom skier as long as she keeps from tweaking her back. There are times when she might only take one or two training runs, instead of the six or eight the other skiers might take."

Baker, who was slowed by a persistent sinus infection last season, is "probably our No. 1 slalom skier at this point, but I also think Liza Allen can challenge her a little bit," Olson adds. "Emily might be the better all-around skier, but we’ll have to wait and see. Liza is a talented young skier."

Allen (Lincoln, Vt.; Mount Abraham Union HS) should also fit into Whitman’s top three in the giant slalom, Olson says. "Lauren, Emily and Liza could bounce around in our top three in the giant slalom, and Lucia should be right there as well."

Paciotti (Poulsbo, Wash.; North Kitsap HS) was one of Whitman’s more durable and consistent women last season, starting and finishing all but two events.

Rood (Warren, Vt.; Green Mountain Valley School), who transferred to Whitman at the semester break, should make her best contributions in the slalom, Olson says. "Allison went to a good high school ski academy, and she could be our No. 3 skier in the slalom. She won’t compete for us next weekend, but she will be ready to go for the University of Utah Invitational in two weeks."

Kellie Lawrence (Bellevue, Wash.; Bellevue HS), a first-year skier, rounds out the Whitman women’s roster. "Kellie is working hard, but she doesn’t have much racing experience," Olson says. "She might not travel with us until the regional championships."

Whitman Men’s Alpine Team

With a few of Whitman’s older skiers falling by the wayside, newcomer Tim Bak inherits the No. 1 spot on the Missionary men’s roster. Bak, a freshman from Stowe, Vt., honed his skills at the same ski academy (Vermont’s Green Mountain Valley School) that Allison Rood attended.

"Tim is a very good young skier, and he’s been pushed by some good coaches," Olson says. "He’s by far our best skier on the men’s side in both the slalom and giant slalom. He’s athletic with good balance and coordination. His only downside is that he’s not especially big or strong. We’re trying to put a little more meat on his bones. He got stronger over the course of the fall semester, but he’s nowhere near his limit in terms of strength and size."

"One point to remember about Tim is that he’s a traditional freshman, probably only 18 years old," Olson adds. "It’s going to be a challenge when he competes against 24-year-old World Cup skiers from the larger schools. There’s a huge difference in maturity levels and physical and mental development."

As much as anyone on his alpine rosters, Bak has the potential to pick off a berth to nationals, Olson says. "Tim has talent and a lot of potential. His goal as a freshman is to finish races consistently and to get faster over time."

John David Davidson and Ryon Campbell, two freshmen from Ketchum, Idaho, round out the men’s roster. "John David is No. 2 skier at this point," Olson says. "Ryon played varsity soccer for Whitman in the fall and has a lot of athletic ability."

"We’re low on numbers, especially on the men’s side," Olson says. "It’s a building year, and we’re going to make the best of it."