New wave of talent washes over local Nordic scene
Special to the Sun
One of the greatest aspects of Nordic ski racing ” school-league style ” is its yearly changeover and state of flux.
“Top dogs” from years past move on to the college level, and fresh-faced youngsters move in to eagerly take their place. Some are willing to be patient, putting in their time at the junior level, honing their racing skills while the more experienced, faster racers bring in the glory at the varsity level.
Others burst onto the scene like a highly recruited McDonald’s All-American basketball player, ready to take over the mantle of team leader from earliest competitions ” and let’s be thankful that the Nordic scene doesn’t have the commensurate early departures, business agents and NCAA regulations.
So, as we prepare for the 2007-08 CNISSF (California-Nevada Interscholastic Ski and Snowboard Federation) Nordic race season, all eyes turn once again to these dedicated high school and middle school athletes, who juggle their academic (and often musical) schedules with hours of training in one of the most demanding of all school sports.
Many of them are training year-round ” mostly with the Auburn Ski Club Junior Nordic teams ” and have set themselves higher goals than even the local school schedule, as they are also setting their sights on this year’s Far West Junior Olympic Nordic Ski Team, scheduled to head to Anchorage, Alaska, in March.
The CNISSF season officially opens individual competition today at Royal Gorge Cross Country with a 4-kilometer Freestyle (skating) race. After this, races will take place every Friday for the next month, and culminate with the State Championship Meet at Auburn Ski Club on Feb. 15-16.
One race not to miss is the Truckee Sprints, scheduled for Friday, Jan. 18 at Truckee’s Surprise Stadium. Winding its way from the football field to the practice field, the sprints are fast and furious competition, and sure to be fan-friendly from the stadium bleachers.
Once again, the team from Truckee High is the one to beat, with top skiers throughout both its boys and girls varsity team, and a depth that reaches down through the “Open Division” (formerly Junior Varsity).
Truckee Head Coach Jon Halvorsen believes his team is as deep as it has been in years, and the competition for the coveted spots on the varsity squad is incredibly heated. And, of course, those who don’t ski up to varsity only serve to make the open team a formidable force in league competition.
On the boys team, Truckee lost only two skiers from the top 10 overall placements from 2007, including State Champion Spencer Wood, now skiing for Montana State University. In their place are a plethora of challengers, including preseason favorites Daniel Gelso and Russell Kennedy, who finished two-three in the league standings last season. Other Truckee top spots will come from returning Juniors Drew Deurlington ” whom Halvorsen considers the team’s inspirational leader ” Stefan Benier and Adam Wright.
“The girls team should be especially strong this year,” Halvorsen said. “We have a great mix of experienced veterans along with some strong newcomers, and I’m looking for some great results based on our early season races.”
Led by Bernie Nelson, a nationally ranked Junior racer, the girls team from Truckee is the overwhelming favorite, with returning skiers Angela Raso, Kelsey Dion, Sophie Aaron, and Robyn Bath, along with freshman wunderkind Annika Taylor, who may just be setting her sights on becoming the first freshman girl since Nelson to win States. The biggest question regarding Truckee’s dominance is with regards to the health of the team, with some of the top skiers (including Gelso and Nelson) coming off of injuries and illness.
Playing the “underdog” role in league competition, the North Tahoe Lakers boast one of their deepest squads as well.
Led by sophomore Miles Heapes, the North Tahoe varsity team promises to push the Truckee team to the limit on the boys’ side.
Junior Tom McElravey will also compete for some of the top spots in league competition. Elyah Gordon, head coach of the Lakers, believes that he has the horses to challenge Truckee’s dominance, especially with depth in the boys’ field with veterans Joey Griffo and Logan Greenwood.
In the case of the North Tahoe girls, there is a bit more of the unknown, with veterans Morgan Paulson and Emily McNair leading the way. Gordon feels like there is some hidden talent in his squad, just waiting for the league races to unleash their potential.
Once again, the Nordic teams at Truckee and North Tahoe are significantly larger than those from the foothills and the Eastern Sierra, but those areas still boast some serious contenders.
Top on that list would be last year’s State Champion Dayna Stimson of Mammoth High School. On a team of just a handful of athletes, Stimson’s dedication to cross country ski racing is unparalleled in the state. Stimson’s first place at State last year was just a precursor to a couple of eye-opening races at Junior Nationals in 2007, and she is looking to repeat as champion this year in both the overall League Division and as State Champion.
Her teammate, Matthew Picken, is also a veteran of multiple National Championship meets, and can be expected to vie for one of the very top spots in each race.
Even farther south, Bishop’s Bryce Tiernan has trained hard all summer and fall to put himself within striking distance of the top skiers from the North. And with teammates Brad Johnston-Cox and Heith Jones, he can be expected to make the Bishop boys team a threat in any race.
Finally, South Tahoe’s David Wise has shown a dedication to the sport not seen from the southern half of the Lake in a few years, and is hoping to use his high school racing experience as a springboard to qualify for this year’s Junior Olympic squad from the Far West division.
In the foothills, Colfax High’s Clark Webb hopes to be a contender for one of the top 10 spots on the high school circuit.
This veteran of the Truckee High girls team is more of a question mark than in years past due to an injury-ridden summer and fall. But Nelson feels she’s on the mend, and says that “I’m doing good right now, I’m finally healed up and good to go. I trained really hard over the winter break, and I hope the season will turn out better than I was expecting this fall when I was injured.” A veteran of four Junior National Championships, as well the State Champion as a freshman in 2006, Nelson was dethroned at State last year ” although she narrowly won the Overall League Standings in 2007 ” and is looking for revenge in 2008.
Dion is one of those racers who has shown steady improvement throughout her Nordic career, and is now on the brink of putting it all together for high placements in League competition. She’s considered, along with fellow senior Angela Raso, the heart of the girls team by Coach Halvorsen, and is the dedicated leader of the squad. Dion considers her senior season a stepping stone to skiing for a top college team next year.
Raso is another racer, like Dion, who has steadily improved each season throughout her Nordic career, and is now the co-leader as a senior with her teammate. With a fourth-place finish at last year’s State Championships, she’s ready to accept the challenge of an even higher placing this year, along with desiring to impress college ski programs. She’s freshly returned, along with Russell Kennedy, from the U.S. Senior National Championships in Houghton, Mich.
Although he’s only in his second year at the high school level, Kennedy has proven himself the one to beat in league competition this year. With a tremendous work ethic throughout the Summer training months, Kennedy has made himself into the front-runner for the overall title. A former Junior Olympian in Alpine skiing, Kennedy is one of the few successful “crossover” athletes between skiing disciplines, and is also a veteran of three Nordic junior national championship meets.
One of the fastest racers in the Far West Nordic division, Gelso follows in the footsteps of his older brother Matthew in attempting to achieve status as Nordic State Champion. Gelso hopes to have shaken off some health problems and is planning on giving Kennedy and Heapes of North Tahoe a run for their money. His second-place finish at State in 2007 makes him a popular choice for the top spot in 2008.
With a work ethic that rivals anyone on the local Nordic squads, Heapes is hoping to turn a season of intense training into top results on the high school circuit. Skiing junior varsity last year, Heapes was unchallenged, often winning his races by minutes over his nearest competition, and was the top JV league skier last season. This year, moving up to varsity, Heapes hopes that, in addition to the North Tahoe mantra of “ski fast, have fun,” he can lead his team to challenge Truckee’s dominance. His coach considers him the unquestioned team leader because of his overall dedication to the sport.
McElravey is another of the North Tahoe racers who has moved up through the ranks, and is now one of the leaders of the squad. A veteran of three Junior Olympics, McElravey’s fifth-place finish in last year’s League Points race serves to give notice of high placings to come in 2008. A former league JV champion in 2006, last year’s varsity leader for North Tahoe isn’t likely to yield his top spot willingly. So look for a vibrant competition on the tracks this season between McElravey and Heapes.
An autumn of specific training for cross country ski racing has gained Paulson the top spot on the North Tahoe girls varsity squad. Skiing varsity last year, Paulson gained the necessary experience of racing at the front of the pack to ready her for leading her team in 2008. Coach Gordon is counting on her to gain those precious points in league competition to help North Tahoe compete for the top spots.
Moving up to the varsity level this year for the first time, McNair also concentrated more on Nordic training this summer and fall, hoping to parlay that effort into some top results on the high school circuit in this, her last year of competition in the CNISSF league. With a fifth place in last year’s overall League and State Championship competitions, McNair seems ready to take her skiing to the next level and compete at the front of the pack.
With intense competition on the varsity squads at Truckee High this year, breaking through to the upper level as a freshman is a daunting task.
But both Annika Taylor and Justin Ondry are good bets to not only compete on the varsity squad, but both have the potential to do some serious damage in league competition.
Taylor, especially, promises to have the veterans looking over their shoulders, and with a couple of sizzling early-season finishes on the local race circuit, she’s given notice that just making varsity is only a stepping stone to top results.
Ondry has combined a dedicated work ethic with natural talent to become one of the top contenders in his junior age division, and both freshman are veterans of last year’s National Championships in Soldier Hollow, Utah.
Other freshman to look for in the Open division competition include Austin Meng, Annika Deurlington, Kelsey Porter and Rachell Nadell of Truckee, and Michelle Cahill and Nicole Ramm of North Tahoe.
With almost 60 racers on the Alder Creek Middle School Nordic team, Truckee is well-represented on the Junior Circuit ” making up almost half the league participants itself.
Coach Brian Kehoe manages to keep the ball rolling each year, re-stocking with fresh-faced sixth-graders to add to his team of “veteran” seventh- and eighth-grade student-athletes.
“The enthusiasm on the team this year is astounding,” Kehoe said. “In past years, we had to prod kids to ski more. This year, we have to rein them in to get them from skiing too far.”
Led by eighth-grader Jordan McElroy and his seventh-grade teammate Alex Kopytko, Alder Creek is the unquestioned favorite to repeat as League and State Champions this year in both the boys and the girls divisions. The top skiers for the Truckee girls this year are expected to be Sarah Williams and Allene Kennedy, but newcomers abound and could surprise.
At North Tahoe, eighth-grader Shelby Foster promises to lead her team with help from Tenaya Driller. Patrick McElravey, if his injured foot heals in time, will contend for the top overall spot in the boys division. Farther south in Mammoth, Alex Picken for the boys and Laurel Fiddler for the girls figure to be strong contenders for the overall title.
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