BIWABIK — A longshot for the medal stand entering Thursday’s competition and also following the morning freestyle race, the Stillwater girls’ Nordic ski team finished strong in the classical pursuit to lock up a fourth-place finish in the state meet at Giants Ridge.
The fifth-ranked Ponies posted a score of 331 points to finish behind the three pre-race favorites Wayzata (365), Duluth East (362) and Suburban East Conference rival Roseville (351). It was a gratifying finish for a team that also placed fourth a year ago, but graduated each of its top three finishers, including individual state champion Nora Gilbertson.
“I keep saying that I didn’t really know what to expect from this team in November when we started,” Ponies co-head coach Kris Hansen said. “Leaving the state meet, I felt almost giddy about our finish: fourth behind three very talented teams is a great accomplishment — especially when you consider that six out of seven will be back next year.”
This winter has offered both extremes in the weather department, but there were no complaints on Thursday.
“It was perfect weather for racing: a little cold with fresh snow and bright sunshine,” Hansen said. “With all the crazy weather we’ve put up with this year, it was really nice to have an absolutely average winter day for racing. No slush, no ice, no frostbite. I’m really very satisfied with our performance at state. The girls were all so solid — no pretension, no excuses, just good hard racing. Aside from a few small mistakes, and they really were very small, I think everyone went home feeling good about their performance.”
The Stillwater boys were represented by three individuals after placing second at the Section 4 meet behind third-place state finisher Forest Lake. Sean Bjork earned all-state honors while placing 14th and senior teammates Paul Larson and Kellen Wessels followed in 53rd and 70th.
The Ponies bunched up in the girls’ race with Vessa Pearsall (36:36.8) and Megan Weaver (36:38.6) finishing less than two seconds part in 29th and 30th place in the pursuit. Both skiers moved up after the 5-kilometer freestyle race in the morning and each passed several skiers in the 5K classical pursuit.
“We had third place in our sights as our team stretch goal, but we knew that was a big stretch,” Hansen said. “At the break, we were sitting in fourth, just three points ahead of Hopkins and 36 points down on Roseville, in third. We knew the gap between us and Roseville was too big to close, but the girls went after it anyway.”
Cela Peterson (38:07.7) and Shelby Ahrendt (38:14.6), who is the only senior in Stillwater’s state lineup, were separated by just seven seconds while finishing 51st and 53rd to complete the scoring.
“We had a very solid start in the morning with the freestyle event,” Hansen said. “Megan and Vessa were in 38th and 42nd, respectively, but less than 20 seconds out of 30th. Cela, Haley and Shelby were a few places back, but all stacked together, right in the middle of the pack. In the afternoon, we skied our strength in the classic event. Vessa and Megan both moved up nicely and Shelby had a great afternoon and moved up 10 spots, finishing with Cela, just out of the top 50. In the end, we got to within 20 points of Roseville and built our lead over fifth place by a couple of points. It was fun to see both Vessa and Megan and Shelby and Cela skiing together. You know there’s some good energy being created.”
Haley Beech (39:01.9) followed in 69th for the Ponies while teammates Sofie Wicklund (40:32.1) and Anya Nelson (41:44.4) finished 95th and 107th in their state debuts.
“Today was a great experience for Sofie and Anya. All I wanted them to do today was experience the state meet, to be part of the energy and the excitement. Hopefully today just made them hungry to come back next year. I know that was the effect it had on me,” said Hansen, a two-time individual state champion for the Ponies in 1985 and 1986.
“The state meet is also fun because it pulls generations of Stillwater skiers together, emotionally, if not physically. We got good luck wishes and congratulations from Stillwater skiers across the country, including two former state champions. We even got a shout out from Jessie Diggins, in the middle of her World Cup season in Davos Switzerland. On days like today, I really recognize and am thankful for the strong community support and deep, deep roots we have with our Stillwater Nordic racing team.”
Bjork moved up 12 spots after placing 26th in the state pursuit a year ago and also climbed from 16th to 14th during the classical pursuit in the afternoon, finishing with a time of 31:02.4.
“Sean has been getting stronger and stronger since being sick before the conference meet and that trend continued today,” Stillwater co-head coach Torry Kraftson said. “He looked smooth and strong in the freestyle race where he finished with a tight group of competitors both ahead and behind him. Sean aggressively gained two places in the afternoon classical pursuit and his all-state performance capped a successful high school career.”
Larson and Wessels took different routes to their eventual destinations of 53rd and 70th place on Thursday, with Wessels delivering an impressive performance in the freestyle race but fading slightly in the pursuit to finish in 33:21.8. Wessels ranked 58th going into the pursuit while Larson, meanwhile, moved up 26 spots in the event’s second half to finish with an overall time of 32:49.4.
“Kellen brought a lot of energy to the freestyle race,” Kraftson said. “Kellen passed skiers in the early part of the classical pursuit and ran low on reserves toward the finish to end. Paul brought passion to the classical pursuit, passing competitors steadily throughout the race. He passed 26 skiers to finish in 53rd place.”
Wessels was competing at state for the first time while Larson finished 56th in last year’s state meet.
“All three boys had great races and represented us well,” Kraftson said.
l The Stillwater boys finished third in Wednesday’s Charlie Banks Relay, which is a four-person relay for athletes not competing in the state meet on Thursday.
“Our four entrants gave it everything they had,” Kraftson said. “Luke (Richie) started us out with a sixth place lead-off classical leg and was followed by Linder (Wendt), whose classical leg powered us up into fifth position. In the freestyle legs, Seth (Cattanach) moved us up to fourth and Sam (Hanson) anchored us up to a third-place finish. This podium finish relay bodes well for the future of the boys’ program.”
Sammi Potts, Kristen Diederichs, Maria Kalambokidis and Morgan McBride combined to place 15th in the girls’ race.
Girls team standings
1. Wayzata 365; 2. Duluth East 362; 3. Roseville 351; 4. Stillwater 331; 5. Little Falls 326; 6. Hopkins 324; 7. Burnsville 313; 8. Lakeville North 230.
1. Anna Kubek (Duluth East) 16:39-17:19.9—33:58.9; 2. Vivian Hett (Burnsville) 17:11-17:10—34:21.6; 3. Kristen Bourne (Mounds Park Academy) 17:27-16:54.6—34:21.6; 4. Nicolette Reker (Roseville) 16:56-17:38.9—34:34.9; 5. Mattie Watts (Irondale) 17:27-17:18.1—34:45.1.
29. Vessa Pearsall 18:40-17:56.8—36:36.8; 30. Megan Weaver 18:32-18:06.6—36:38.6; 51. Cela Peterson 18:56-19:11.7—38:07.7; 53. Shelby Ahrendt 19:21-18:53.6—38:14.6; 69. Haley Beech 18:58-20:03.9—39:01.9; 95. Sofie Wicklund 19:44-20:48.1—40:32.1; 107. Anya Nelson 20:18-21:26.4—41:44.4.
Boys team standings
1. Eden Prairie 378; 2. Ely 358; 3. Forest Lake 345; 4. St. Cloud Tech 342; 5. Irondale 341; 6. Hopkins 325; 7. Eagan 304; 8. St. Paul Central 258.
1. Jakob Ellingson (Hopkins) 14:41-14:43.4—29:24.4; 2. Thomas Bye (Eden Prairie) 14:46-14:39.6—29:25.6; 3. Zak Ketterson (Bloomington Jefferson) 14:59-14:50.7—29:49.7; 4. Luke Brown (Minnehaha Academy) 15:19-14:48.0—30:07.0; 5. Tyler Gilbert (Irondale) 15:18-15:11.3—30:29.3.
14. Sean Bjork 15:42-15:20.4—31:02.4; 53. Paul Larson 16:45-16:04.4—32:49.4; 70. Kellen Wessels 16:21-17:00.8—33:21.8.