Rangers up to speed at state

Seniors lead the way, but youth is also served as FL boys rise to fourth; Wohlk places third in girls’ race

Senior Joe Jackson finished his Ranger career in fine fashion at the state meet last week. (Photo submitted)

Clint Riese
Sports Editor

The Ranger boys’ nordic skiing program put itself back in the sport’s limelight with a fourth-place showing at the state meet last Thursday at Giant’s Ridge. While Roseville won the eight-team event, the Rangers came away nearly as thrilled as their Suburban East Conference rivals.

Forest Lake entered the meet unranked and feeling no pressure after winning the Section 4 title by just three points.

“We were in a position to just go in there and have a good time, get some experience for the younger guys and send the older guys off in the best way possible, and that’s exactly what happened,” said coach Deno Johnson.

The Rangers sat in fourth place after the morning’s skate race and padded their cushion over Minnetonka by three points in the afternoon classic race which finished the pursuit. Hopkins leapfrogged Duluth East in the latter segment to place second.

Senior Joe Jackson entered the classic portion in eighth place and finished 11th with a combined time of 30:26. Lakeville North senior Ben Saxton easily defended his title. His time of 28:52 was 50 seconds better than runner-up Jake Richards, a senior from Detroit Lakes.

Jackson’s effort earned his third all-state honor out of four trips to state. He placed 32nd as a ninth-grader, sixth as a sophomore and third as a junior.

“I think that’s right about where he was,” Johnson said of Jackson’s finish. “He fought hard all the way. It was really cool that he could get back there with the team one more time. He’s been a great competitor over the years. I think he felt pretty good about his race.”

The team’s other senior, Alex Kelley, soared to 20th place and all-state honors after placing 98th in 2010 and just missing the final spot for individual qualifiers in 2011. Kelley blazed to the team’s fastest classic leg. His time of 15:47 in that discipline was just 18 seconds slower than his skate time and was the 13th fastest of all 119 racers.

Johnson said Kelley’s development throughout the years is an ideal example of why the Ranger program has found so much success. He improved by leaps and bounds every year and saved his best for last.

“That is what the Forest Lake boys’ team is all about right there,” Johnson said.

Jacob Jankowski was fourth on the team after the morning race, but climbed the standings with a strong afternoon showing. He finished his first state meet in 36th place with a time of 31:53.

Calling the junior humble and a hard-worker, Johnson fully expected Jankowski to rebound in the classic portion.

“He shows up and gets it done,” Johnson said. “He was firing on all cylinders in the second race.”

Eighth-grader Tommy Babcock had the performance of his young career in the morning segment. He entered the mid-day break in 44th place. Babcock finished the pursuit in 65th place and closed the scoring for the squad. His time of 32:52 was the fastest among all racers under ninth grade.

Right on his heels was Leo Hipp, a ninth-grader in his first year in the sport. Hipp took 69th in 33:07.

The team’s other two competitors will also be back next winter. Junior Jack Ebel finished 91st (34:12) and ninth-grader Quinn Duffy took 104th (35:39).

Johnson said his first-time state racers were caught off-guard by the meet’s enormity, but they did not let it affect their performance.

“They were just fearless,” he said.

Given the team’s composition, one can’t help but look ahead despite the upcoming graduation of its top two skiers. The development of this crew of youngsters compares favorably to past groups which went on to lead state championship teams. Johnson said the underclassmen were immediately sorting through the state results to see where they would stand coming in next winter.

“The enthusiasm right now is sky-high,” he said.

Girls’ Trio Impresses

The Ranger girls once again sent several skiers to state individually. Like the boys, their performance can be regarded only as a success. Rocci Wohlk capped a tremendous season by placing third overall, while Cassie Thobe took 18th and Holly Winberg 46th.

Rocci Wohlk (third from right) stands with the other individual medal-winners after the state meet last week. Wohlk, a ninth-grader, finished in third place. (Photo submitted)

Just a ninth-grader, Wohlk scored her second all-state honor. She placed 12th last winter in her first state meet. This time, she came in among a large field of state title contenders and finished just 11 seconds back of champ Nora Gilbertson, a senior from Stillwater. Wayzata sophomore Alayna Sonnesyn took second place.

Wohlk covered the skate segment in 16:48, good for sixth place. Her classic time of 17:17 was the best in the field. Her third-place finish matched her ranking on Skinnyski.com.

“One thing that has been true all year is that she has been very consistent,” said Johnson. “She hasn’t had any bad days – not one.”

What Wohlk lacks in size she makes up for with unmatched form. Her classic technique is “so smooth and elegant,” Johnson said, that it was no surprise to see her make up ground in the afternoon. She became the sixth Ranger to post the fastest classic time at state. (Separate classic and skate winners were awarded state medals until the current pursuit format was instituted in 2007.)

Thobe reached her goal of making the all-state team in her third state appearance. She placed 48th in 2010. Last year, she sat in all-state position after the morning session but fell to 43rd. This time, the senior was equally solid in both races and finished in 35:56.

“It was the end of the search for her own holy grail,” Johnson joked. “She really deserved it. She had a really good day and I couldn’t be happier for her.”

Winberg, a senior, impressed in her first trip to state, especially because she took up the sport just two seasons ago. She took to the classic technique immediately and has labored to improve her skate ability.

“She is an awesome student of the game and is very willing to learn,” Johnson said. “Her finish was another cherry on top for everybody.”

Minus Thobe and Winberg, the girls will need breakthrough performances next year to keep up with Stillwater, which took fourth place at state. Johnson feels he has a talented supporting cast waiting in the wings, including Kate Schaaf, Jess Greeley and Molly Meed.