Back to the big show
Nordic boys win section; return to state after one year away
After missing the section title by a single point last winter, the Stillwater boys’ nordic skiing team wanted to take this year’s title and advance to the state meet.
But, as Forest Lake head coach Deno Johnson said, his team needed to win last Wednesday’s Section 4 meet after missing the state meet last year for the first time since 2003.
The Ponies and Rangers raced to a thrilling finish at Trollhaugen. In the end, Forest Lake prevailed by three points to win its 14th section title in 16 years. The squad will compete at the state tournament at Giant’s Ridge in Biwabik today, Feb. 16.
“The guys were really focused on the task at hand,” Johnson said. “Coach Dave [Johnson] and I were really pleased with their work ethic, it was impeccable…
“To have such a young, talented squad head back to the state meet – we’re really fired up about that.”
The Ranger boys opened the 11-team, pursuit-format meet with a good showing in the classical-technique portion and opened up a six-point lead heading into the afternoon skate race. The classical technique was a point of emphasis for the Rangers this season after Johnson felt they lost some ground in it last winter.
Senior Joe Jackson led by 35 seconds going into the skate portion. Last year’s third-place state finisher opened his lead to nearly a full minute and won his second consecutive individual section title with a combined time of 25:11.
Meanwhile, his three closest teammates were each locked in their own dead heat coming down the stretch. Alex Kelley was stride-for-stride with Stillwater’s Sean Bjork in the race for second place. One week beforehand, Bjork, a mid-distance track star, had edged Kelley by a single second in the Suburban East Conference championships. This time, Kelley would have his revenge. The two got tangled up minutes from the finish line and came to a complete halt. Kelley kept his balance and was able to get ahead while the Pony junior fell. After a mad dash to the finish, the Ranger senior hit the line in 26:08, beating Bjork by one second.
“He is all grit, fire and hard work,” said Johnson of Kelley, who improved 11 spots from last winter’s section race. “He just wanted it. That was pure desire in its most basic form.”
Stillwater’s Nate Hanson came in 13 seconds behind Bjork, putting pressure on the final two Ranger scorers. Mounds Park Academy senior John Brooksbank then crossed the line to take fifth place.
Ranger junior Jacob Jankowski entered the afternoon in fifth place and hung on to place sixth in 26:38, beating Stillwater’s Eric Corcoran by two seconds. At the SEC meet, Corcoran had overcome a 20-second deficit to beat Jankowski, who had crashed.
Jankowski placed 18th in the section meet a year ago.
“Jacob is just a stellar student-athlete,” Johnson said. “He’s very disciplined, and it is great to see his hard work paying off.”
Forest Lake’s lead hung in the balance when Stillwater’s Ethan Anderson came in directly after Corcoran to close out the scoring for the Ponies. To clinch the win, the fourth Ranger scorer needed to be one of the next five to finish. Two opponents came through before Forest Lake’s Tommy Babcock finished in 27:46. The eighth-grader finished in style, lunging across the line just inches in front of an opponent from Mounds Park Academy. The Rangers had practiced lunges for the first time all season just days beforehand.
Babcock’s 10th-place effort came in his first varsity section race and is a program record for eighth-graders at sections.
“Tommy is [from a technical standpoint] the best eighth-grader we’ve had and it’s not even close,” Johnson said. “…He knew he was going to be counted on this year, and he’s made a big jump in his discipline.”
Ninth-grader Leo Hipp came in seven seconds after Babcock to finish 13th. Junior Jack Ebel placed 19th in 28:36. Ninth-grader Quinn Duffy rounded out the lineup in 24th place with a time of 30:05.
Most pundits ranked the Ponies ahead of the Rangers coming into the season. Johnson felt his team earned the upper hand, though, as the season went on. As usual for the storied program, the boys peaked at the right time.
“We found early on they are gamers and are up for any challenge,” Johnson said of the younger, untested team members. “They are not afraid of hard work. At 13, 14 or 15 [years old] that is something really special.”
Though the Rangers won state four times from 2005-09 and took second in 2007 and 2010, they are underdogs in today’s eight-team field. Duluth East returns to defend its title, while Roseville, Hopkins and Minnetonka are also contenders. SkinnySki.com has Roseville ranked first, Hopkins second, Duluth East third, Minnetonka fourth and the Rangers fifth. Eagan, St. Paul Central and Brainerd will also take part.
Senior Ben Saxton of Lakeville North is favored to defend his individual championship.
Jackson is expected to be in a deep field pushing Saxton. Besides last year’s third-place finish, Jackson also medaled in 2010, placing sixth. He is not ranked in the top 10 coming into state, but Johnson said the section race may have been Jackson’s best of the season. He expects Jackson to excel in the final race of a stellar career.
“He will surprise people,” Johnson said.