Nordic skiing | Far West squad ties its second-best result ever at Junior Nationals
Special to the Sun
On the biggest stage of the year, the Far West Junior National team turned in standout performances across four races at the Junior National XC Skiing Championships last week at Soldier Hollow, Utah, to finish as the sixth-best regional team in the nation.
Racing against the top juniors from across the country, Far West skiers brought home seven medals for top-10 individual finishes, including two podium results and two medals for top-five relay finishes.
and#8220;I think it’s a true testament to our skiers that we had more finishing in the top half of the field than we’ve ever had,and#8221; said head Far West coach Ben Grasseschi. and#8220;Despite our size, the depth of our team is stronger than ever.and#8221;
Competing against teams with more than 50 skiers, Far West, fielding 30 athletes this year, had a lot to prove. Grasseschi said they did just that.
and#8220;I’m very proud of the kids,and#8221; he said. and#8220;I think that they really stepped it up. It was one of the best performances as a whole that Far West has had.and#8221;
The racing began with a 1.3-kilometer classic sprint race. All competitors raced a preliminary round for time, with the 30 fastest finishers moving on to head-to-head heats to vie for coveted medal positions.
Far West sent skiers to the heats in every age group, with Bria Riggs (Sugar Bowl Academy), Dylan Syben (Auburn Ski Club) and Peter Holmes (Tahoe Cross Country Ski Education Association) moving on in the J2 field; Patrick McElravey (ASC) and Katrin Larusson (SBA) qualifying among J1s; and Annika Taylor (ASC/University of New Hampshire) and Austin Meng (ASC/St. Lawrence University) making the OJ heats.
In the men’s J2 race, Holmes narrowly missed a spot in the semifinal heats and a shot at the medal stand, but finished the day in 13th place and#8212; an exceptional performance in his Junior National debut. Syben fought a tough battle of his own in his respective quarterfinal, but also missed out on a semifinal spot. He finished the day in 22nd place. Among women, Riggs settled for 30th place, as she was unable to race her quarterfinal due to a knee injury.
In the men’s J1 field, McElravey finished fourth in his quarterfinal, putting him in a solid 21st place on the day. Among women, Larusson appeared to have a great shot at the semis until she was tripped up in the finishing stretch of her quarterfinal, costing precious seconds. She ended the day in 23rd place.
The performance of the day came from Taylor, who rejoined her former Far West teammates for last week’s event. In the final race of the day, the FOJ’s, Taylor moved easily through her quarterfinal heat and on to the semis, where she secured herself a spot in the and#8220;Band#8221; final. Despite declining snow conditions, Taylor jumped out to a commanding lead in the race and rode it all the way in. Her B final win earned her seventh place overall, and a Junior Nationals medal to prove it. Meanwhile, Meng turned in an impressive performance among OJ men, finishing 19th to earn valuable points for his team.
Day two of competition brought the mass-start distance freestyle races. With up to 90 racers starting together at the same time, the races were an all-out battle for the finish, and never short of excitement.
The day started off with a bang for Far West, as Holmes turned in an impressive podium performance in the men’s J2 5K race, crossing the line in third place after a sprint to the finish. Syben just missed out on a medal of his own, as he came in to the final climb in fourth place, but crashed at the bottom. He fought his way back to 31st place, the second Far West racer across the line. Just behind was SBA’s Sam Zabell in 35th. In the women’s J2 race, ASC’s Skyler Flora led the way for Far West in 35th place, followed closely by Gabrielle Rinne in 37th.
Riding the momentum from the J2 results, the Far West crew rallied to earn three more medals on the day, and several more solid top-30 age group performances.
ASC’s McElravey proved he is in top form, skiing his way to a career-best eighth-place finish in the men’s J1 field, the biggest of the event. The next two Far West racers across the line were TCCSEA’s Shane Christian (47th) and ASC’s Alex Kopytko (74th). In the women’s J1 race, Larusson fought all the way to the finish to earn the field’s final medal, placing 10th. Also turning in strong performances were SBA’s Laurel Fiddler in 26th and teammate Cassidy Cichowicz in 47th. Among OJ women, Taylor raced her way to a solid 14th place, while ASC’s Melanie Swick finished 30th.
The J1 men and J1 and OJ women each skied 10 kilometers, completing two laps of the challenging 5K course. But Meng and the other OJ men raced a grueling three laps. Pushing for his first career top-10 at a Junior Nationals event, Meng gave everything he had, and came away with the eighth-place, medal-winning finish he’s been longing for.
The interval-start distance classic races came next and#8212; the skiers’ third race in five days. Facing challenging waxing conditions and the same difficult course from the freestyle event, it was a tougher day for Far West on the whole, but some fantastic results were still achieved.
Holmes proved his freestyle result had been no fluke, putting in a fierce charge late in the race to once again finish third among J2 men. Syben improved on both of his earlier results, placing 20th, while Zabell finished 33rd. Among women, the Eastern Sierra’s Amanda Kirkeby led the way for Far West, placing 35th. Flora was close behind in an impressive 39th place, while Rinne rounded out the top three Far West skiers, placing 45th.
In the J1 and OJ women’s race, also 5 kilometers, Taylor turned in the top result, placing 13th among OJ women to cap off a solid individual showing. Swick placed 38th. In the J1 field, Larusson again led the Far West charge, finishing in 34th. SBA’s Joelle Romo turned in a strong result as the region’s next finisher, placing 50th, followed by Fiddler in 54th.
Meanwhile, the J1 and OJ men each raced 10 kilometers in a great display of speed, strength and finesse. Meng once again turned in a top-10 performance, accelerating tremendously on lap two to finish sixth among OJs. McElravey led the Far West J1 squad for the third time in as many races, placing 23rd in the field. Truckee’s Jordan McElroy, who had to skip the freestyle race due to illness, bounced back to finish a solid 46th place. Christian was Far West’s next finisher, in 61st.
With all individual races complete, Saturday brought the highlight of the week and#8212; the relay races. With each age group racing a quick 3- by 3-kilometer format, and the J1 and OJ fields starting together, the races were an all-out, sometimes chaotic effort. With a short course and consistent sprint finishes, spectators were delighted. Far West fared well on the final day, with two relay teams earning medals for top-five finishes.
The J2 boys team of Syben, Zabell and Holmes placed fifth in their field, as did the OJ women’s team of Larusson (racing up), Taylor and Joanne Reid, a University of Colorado skier who joined Far West for the final day after racing at the NCAA Championship earlier in the week.
The men’s OJ team of Meng, McElravey (racing up) and McElroy (racing up) also scored points for the Far West squad with their ninth-place finish.
In the end, Far West earned the sixth-highest point total among all teams, tying its second-best result of all time (the team placed fifth at Auburn Ski Club in 2005).
and#8220;The kids had a really amazing attitude all season considering they didn’t have great snow conditions,and#8221; said Grasseschi. and#8220;They spent the whole month of January rollerskiing. And to still get back on snow and pull it off and#8212; to do so well and#8212; is really impressive.and#8221;
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