LAKE ELMO — Taking nothing for granted, the Stillwater girls’ Nordic ski team followed through on what was generally expected to capture Wednesday’s Section 4 championship and qualify for next week’s state meet.
The Ponies removed much of the drama while watching five of the team’s skiers finish among the top nine to record a comfortable 380-366 victory over runner-up White Bear Lake (366) and the rest of the 10-team field at Green Acres.
“The girls had a terrific day of racing today,” Stillwater co-coach Kris Hansen said. “They skied smart, they skied fast, and they worked together — it was great to see them put it all together so nicely. We have a nice mix of state meet veterans and newbies and everyone is excited to have earned this opportunity to ski together as a team at Giants Ridge next week. At this time last year, I was looking at all the strong seniors we were about to lose and wondering what our team would be like without them. And now we have our answer: they look like section champions.”
The Stillwater boys, meanwhile, finished second behind Forest Lake to miss out on a state berth — although Sean Bjork, Paul Larson and Kellen Wessels each advanced as individuals. The Rangers mirrored the Stillwater girls and their impressive performance while placing four skiers in the top six and six in the top 13 to outscore the Ponies 387-363. White Bear Lake followed in third place at 335.
“I am proud of our boys’ performance today,” Ponies co-coach Torry Kraftson said. “This is a boys’ team that has shown confidence, maturity and dedication throughout the entire season. They have given themselves wholeheartedly to each and every work-out. I had hopes that this work ethic would pay in off in a trip to the state meet for our team. However, Forest Lake showed us that they, too, are a team built on hard work and had a little more in their reserves today.”
Vessa Pearsall (31:14) and Megan Weaver (31:31) placed fourth and fifth to pace the Stillwater girls in a race that was won by Mounds Park Academy’s Kristen Bourne in a time of 28:58.
Stillwater clinched the victory once Cela Peterson (32:20), Shelby Ahrendt (32:28) and Haley Beech (32:46) crossed the line within 26 seconds of each other in seventh through ninth place. In fact, the Ponies had five skiers in the chute before any other team’s third skier finished.
“I usually think of our team as being slightly stronger in classic, so I wasn’t surprised that the girls finished the morning in good position,” Hansen said. “Megan and Vessa were right together in the top five and Shelby, Cela and Haley were all in the top 12. The snow was a little slow and that works to our advantage because you need a little more power to move. Vessa and Megan are both strong double polers and they used that strength to leave most of the pack behind.
“Even though we had a good lead at the break, no one felt like we were out of the woods — we’ve fallen behind in the skate leg before — so the girls really geared up for a tough second half. Then they went and skied the freestyle pursuit beautifully. Everyone held their spot or moved up. Watching the girls finish the race, I felt a little silly for worrying about the outcome.”
Beech moved up three spots with a strong finish in the afternoon 5-kilometer freestyle race.
“Haley is a very dependable racer and she really let loose in the skate race,” Hansen said. “She just got stronger as the race progressed.”
Sofie Wicklund and Anya Nelson followed in 17th and 18th with strong performances to add depth for the Ponies.
“The course is laid out such that the athletes can see each other, in race order, several times during the race,” Hansen said. “I think the girls could tell that their teammates were doing well and sticking to the plan and that just made them work harder to do well and stick to the plan. That’s what team is all about.”
With the team’s success this season it’s easy to forget the Ponies graduated their top three finishers from last year’s group that placed fourth at state, including individual gold medalist Nora Gilbertson.
“This team has come a long way this season,” Hansen said. “They’ve really grown as skiers and as a team, a strong team. It’s going to be great to see them test their mettle against the best in the state next week. We’re kind of flying below the radar in that we aren’t ranked as one of the top three teams, so we have absolutely nothing to lose. During our cool down ski right after the race finished, the girls were already talking about their goals for state. I was so happy to see them looking ahead at the next challenge — that focus and drive made me really proud.
“After the race, one of the parents commented that we always seem to qualify a team for state,” Hansen said. “That’s not true, but it does happen a lot — today was Stillwater’s 59th section championship title under coach Bill Simpson. Torry and I get credit for coaching the varsity teams, but Bill heads up our JV program where all these great skiers get their start. He is the brains and the glue that hold the whole thing together. We are so lucky to have him and all of our dedicated volunteer coaches powering our program.”
Sean Bjork (27:27) and Paul Larson (28:38) finished third and ninth to earn repeat trips to the state meet and they will be joined by fellow senior Kellen Wessels, who was the first to the line in a furious charge between three skiers to grab one of the remaining two individual entries. Wessels finished with a time of 29:00, which was just one second in front of Davis Long (29:01) of Forest Lake and Mahtomedi’s Drew Campbell (29:01), who secured the final individual state bid.
“After these great morning races, we were sitting just five points behind Forest Lake,” Kraftson said. “With the tightly spaced results, we were optimistic about our chances to overtake Forest Lake in the freestyle pursuit. However, Forest Lake showed tremendous fitness and passion in the freestyle races and increased their margin in the afternoon. Most of our boys held their positions in the freestyle pursuit. Sean battled with a lead pack of three skiers throughout the race and finished just behind them in the sprint.
“Our boys had a particularly strong showing in the morning classical race,” Kraftson said. “The conditions changed rapidly as a snow squall began about 15 minutes prior to the start of the boys’ race. The conditions became slower with the fresh snowfall and the softer track provided a less responsive kick.
The Ponies were within striking distance of Forest Lake following the classical race in the morning, but were unable to keep pace in the freestyle pursuit.
“Paul, Sean, and Kellen were in the mix of the top skiers in the section and each had excellent performances. They used their powerful poling to battle for excellent positions. It was a tightly packed classical result sheet with the top six boys finishing within 10 seconds. Sean finished the classical race in third, just four seconds off the lead. Paul was just six seconds and three places behind Sean. Kellen narrowed the gap with Paul, finishing just over 30 seconds back of him in 11th overall.”
The Ponies placed all six of their skiers in the top 23, with sophomore Linder Wendt placing 17th in 29:37 and freshman Sam Hanson in 20th at 30:24. Seth Cattanach was the skier out in the classical race and that fresh snow made that a difficult challenge.
“Linder was our big story of the morning, finishing just 17 seconds behind Kellen in 13th place overall,” Kraftson said. “At many of our races this season, there have been significant gaps between our third and fourth skiers, so it was tremendous to see Linder rise to the occasion this morning. Sam and Luke were grouped tightly together in 20th and 21st position respectively.
“Linder added a great freestyle pursuit to his classical race and narrowly missed an individual qualifying position. Sam and Luke each held their positions, while Seth passed three skiers in his strong freestyle pursuit. As a team, there was a sense of loss, having missed out on a goal of qualifying for the state meet. However, we capped a very successful season with some great performances. Our big three, Paul, Sean, and Kellen, will represent us proudly at the state meet. For Seth, Linder and Sam, today was a great opportunity to experience racing in our competitive section and prepare for upcoming years of competition.”
Girls team standings
1. Stillwater 380; 2. White Bear Lake 366; 3. Forest Lake 353; 4. Mounds Park Academy 351; 5. Mahtomedi 319; 6. Tartan 271; 7. East Ridge 254; 8. Math & Science Academy 248; 9. Woodbury 233; 10. North St. Paul 79.
1. Kristen Bourne (MPA) 14:28-14:30—28:58; 2. Rocci Wohlk (FL) 14:48-14:26—29:14; 3. Allison Ternes (WBL) 15:18-14:48—30:06; 4. Vessa Pearsall (St) 16:04-15:10—31:14; 5. Megan Weaver (St) 16:07-15:24—31:31.
4. Vessa Pearsall 16:04-15:10—31:14; 5. Megan Weaver 16:07-15:24—31:31; 7. Cela Peterson 16:46-15:34—32:20; 8. Shelby Ahrendt 16:31-15:57—32:28; 9. Haley Beech 17:10-15:36—32:46; 17. Sofie Wicklund 17:54-16:44—34:38; 18. Anya Nelson 17:46-16:57—34:43.
Boys team standings
1. Forest Lake 387; 2. Stillwater 363; 3. White Bear Lake 335; 4. Mounds Park Academy 330; 5. Mahtomedi 310; 6. North St. Paul 277; 7. Math & Science Academy 260; 8. East Ridge 241; 9. Tartan 235; 10. Woodbury 233.
1. Nick Gardner (MPA) 14:29-12:42—27:11; 2. Jacob Jankowski (FL) 14:33-12:49—27:22; 3. Sean Bjork (St) 14:31-12:56—27:27; 4. Quinn Duffy (FL) 14:44-13:00—27:44; 5. Tommy Babcock (FL) 14:49-12:57—27:46.
3. Sean Bjork 14:31-12:56—27:27; 9. Paul Larson 14:37-14:01—28:38; 12. Kellen Wessels 15:13-13:47—29:00; 17. Linder Wendt 15:30-14:07—29:37; 20. Sam Hanson 15:58-14:26—30:24; 21. Luke Richie 16:03-15:07—31:10; 23. Seth Cattanach 17:14-14:21—31:35.