Zean Baker leads a caravan of three other Brainerd Warriors skiers to Thursday’s state Nordic ski meet at Giants Ridge in Biwabik.
Baker advanced to his first state meet as a freshman last year and placed 99th with a pursuit time of 34:08.4.
Warriors co-head coach Mary Claire Ryan expects a big leap forward for the sophomore.
“Last year’s experience will help him so much,” she said. “I know last year he didn’t ski as fast as he thought he was going to. He’s worked long and hard since then to get back to state and I know he has plans to improve his placing and I think he will.”
Going with Baker will be first-timers Riley Nelsen and sophomore girls Allison Kosobud and Sarah Fairbanks.
“I think Riley is going to have an awesome day,” Ryan said. “He has been on a tear lately. In his second year he’s improved his technique, which has got him where he’s at now. He’s motivated and loves to be in the mix and that should bode well for him.”
Fairbanks battled injuries all season, but is healthy. Ryan said Kosobud has been a consistent skier all season. Ryan hopes the state meet experience is both memorable and a stepping stone.
“With three first-time skiers the sky is the limit for them,” said Ryan. “I wouldn’t say we’re going there to be in the top 25, but I hope they go and have a good exposure to the state meet and gain experience because they are only sophomores and a junior. The upside is good.”
Both the Little Falls boys and girls teams will be on a mission. Last year both placed eighth and this year expectations are much higher.
“Most of our boys are seniors so they want to go out strong,” said Flyers head coach Terry Wasland. “I think they would love to finish fourth or fifth or in that range. Realistically, they will have to ski really well to finish in the top half, but they are a motivated crew.”
The Flyer boys are one of two teams returning from last year. Wayzata, which won Section 2, placed third last year and return four skiers from last year.
Little Falls returns five skiers from last year’s meet. Ricky Devine was the top finisher as he placed 84th with a pursuit time of 33:13.9. Junior Preston Zimny was 103rd in 34:29.5, senior Alex Houle was 110th in 36:14.7, junior Nathan Almen finished 114th in 38:02 and senior Ben Mushel was 116th in 39:06.4.
Seniors Adam Kempenich and Matt Masog will round out the Flyers’ roster with Brian McNamara and Will Marvin serving as alternates.
The other boys teams in the tournament are Eagan, Minnehaha Academy, Roseville, Andover, Minneapolis Southwest and Duluth East.
“We skied the Giants Ridge course on the first Saturday in January at the Mesabi East Invite and there is no other course we ski on that compares to it,” said Wasland. “It is a much more difficult course than anything else we see. It separates the skiers who can handle the steep technical terrain and those that can’t.
“Last year we were deer in the headlights because it was the boys’ first time there and the girls team was pretty young. This year we go there a little bit more ready for the shock and focused to ski well.”
The girls team has already made up its collective minds — podium or bust.
The Flyers’ goal is top three and they’re hoping last year’s experience will translate into success.
Senior Manon Gammon-Deering finished 65th in 38:27.8. Maria Hauer was 71st, Mattia Hendrickson 83rd, Kaitlin Geisenhof 97th, Chelsea Rutz 102nd and Sarah Andringa finished 113th.
Josie Lang rounds out the roster with Chloe Houle and Ingrid Floersheim as alternates.
Two other teams from last year’s state meet return with Wayzata (second) and Minneapolis Southwest (fourth). Other teams advancing this year are Lakeville North, St. Paul Highland Park, Roseville, Andover and Duluth East.
“I see the girls with a much better performance ahead of us,” said Wasland. “I truly believe they can compete with most of the elite teams in the state. They are going up there with a purpose of challenging for a spot on the podium. I think it’s within their grasp if they are healthy and we get our wax right.
“I overheard the girls on the bus the other night and they were saying ‘If we’re not going for the podium then why are we going?’”
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5856.