Chugiak's third-leg skier Kryston McPhetres (above) tags anchor leg Kinsey Loan during the ASAA State High School Cross Country Skiing Championships girls 4X3-kilometer relay race Feb. 26 at Fairbanks' Birch Hill Recreation Area.
PHOTOs by ERIC ENGMAN / News-Miner
Chugiak's high school Nordic ski team is the best in Alaska. Just ask one of their biggest rivals.
Following the conclusion of the Alaska State Championships on Feb. 26 in Fairbanks, Eagle River senior Brandon Blackley was looking over the final results when he decided to do a little math. By combining the times of both boys' and girls' teams, Blackley figured that Chugiak's combined co-ed time over three days of racing was better than any school in the competition.
"That's pretty cool," said Chugiak coach Gretchen Carrick.
Chugiak's girls team earned the school's first-ever team cross country title by placing first in both the team freestyle and relay events, while the Chugiak boys finished third overall behind CIC rivals Service and South.
Eagle River coach Mike Evans said Blackley's impromptu deduction was typical of the high-achieving world of Nordic skiing, where 4.0 grade-point averages go hand-in-hand with friendly competition.
"Most kids would say, 'we lost, this sucks,'" Evans said. "Nordic skiers, they look at the results and go, 'hey, they're the fastest school, that's really cool.'"
Chugiak's Kinsey Loan failed in her bid to win a second state Skimeister title in three seasons but not for lack of trying.
Loan, who won the overall title at the Cook Inlet Conference meet last month, struggled in the Day 1 classic technique race, finishing in fourth place, more than 43 seconds behind West Valley junior Hannah Boyer. But the Chugiak senior roared back on Day 2, winning the freestyle race by more than 15 seconds to close in on third place in the individual rankings behind Boyer and Dimond sophomore Marion Woods.
"It would have been nice to get the Skimeister, but I just didn't have my best race the first day," Loan said.
Loan's senior teammate Krysti McPhetres finished fourth in the classic race and wound up one spot behind Loan in the overall Skimeister rankings, which combine the individual classic and freestyle times.
Loan and McPhetres, along with freshman Sarissa Lammers and sophomore Sam Hartke, turned their attention to the team title in the Day 3 relay race. Heading into the event, the Mustangs held a 1:46.6 lead over South. With Loan skiing the anchor leg, the Mustangs pulled away in the final event, winning the relay by 6.9 seconds to put an exclamation point on their title.
The team victory, Loan said, was bigger than any individual accomplishment she could have earned herself.
"It was super exciting," she said. "I would rather have our team win than get another Skimeister. It was really awesome, we have a really great team this year."
Lammers was the top freshman girl in the Skimeister standings, finishing ninth overall, while Harke was 22nd in the rankings and fifth among underclassmen in the race. Junior Amy Hartke (32nd) and senior Kristen Lessard (46th) gave the Mustang girls five skiers in the top 50 spots.
"People can pop some really good races in Fairbanks," Loan said.
Isaac Lammers led the third-place Chugiak boys with a sixth-place showing in the Skimeister standings. Chugiak's relay team of Lammers, Alex Loan, Kenny Brewer and Ben Fitzgerald finished second in the boys relay race to place third in the team standings.
Lathrop's Logan Hanneman won the boys Skimeister title, beating Service's Silas Talbot by nearly 40 seconds.
Alex Loan, a sophomore, had his best showing of the season, finishing 10th in the Skimeister race. Brewer was 13th, freshman David McPhetres was 19th, Peter Brewer was 20th and Fitzgerald was 25th.
Carrick said she was proud of her team's accomplishments this season. Many of the skiers on the team are seniors who came up through the junior ranks before joining forces at Chugiak to turn the school into a powerhouse.
"This is a group of kids that grew up together, has been friends on the course, off the course," she said.
The team's tight-knit nature, she said, has created a culture where hard work isn't just expected, but enjoyed.
"They go into a training session and it's like fun for them," she said.
And while she's sad to see her senior stars go, Carrick said she's buoyed by the fact that several of the younger Mustangs have begun to assert themselves among the state's best.
"We're hoping that the results we had at state will help spur some of those younger skiers on," she said.
Eagle River's Evans said developing a culture of hard work and athlete buy-in is key to fielding a team that can compete on the ultra-tough Alaska prep scene.
"It's just unfortunate that it's so dang hard, that turns a lot of people off on it," he said.
Evans said Nordic skiing simply isn't a sport that can be picked up on a whim. He pointed to Blackley a champion speed skater who only this season turned his attention to serious Nordic competition, finishing a team-high 33rd overall for the Eagle River boys.
"You have to take your hat off to him," Evans said. "He's a phenomenal athlete to come in and do that."
Senior Cam Johnson finished 42nd in the Skimeister rankings for the Eagle River boys, who finished 10th out of 19 teams at the championships. Sophomore Will Timmons was 51st overall, junior Evan Fisher was 63rd, sophomore Ben Smith placed 69th and senior Jacob Timmons was 87th.
Sophomore Hannah Stevens was Eagle River's top individual competitor over the weekend. She placed 28th for the Wolves' girls, who also placed 10th.
"For a program our size, for having been around as long as we have, I'm really pleased with the way the kids skied," Evans said.
Junior Meri Vihavainen was 54th for Eagle River, junior Brenna Wheeler was 55th, junior Jackie Klecka was 61st, senior Hayley Patin was 96th and senior Richelle Johnson placed 100th.
Evans said he would eventually like to have a team that can compete for titles, but knows that he needs more athletes willing to dedicate themselves to the year-round grind that is competitive Nordic skiing.
"You just plant that seed early and you remind them often that while they may have a ton of talent, hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard," he said.
And when talent and work meet, that's when the fun starts. Just look at the Chugiak Mustangs.
"They work hard," said Carrick. "But they have a fun time doing it."
Other Chugiak/Eagle River 22. Sam Hartke, Chu, 48:42.1; 28. Hannah Stevens, ER, 50:09.9; 32. Amelia Hartke, 51:32.9; 46. Kristen Lessard, Chu, 53:21.9; 54. Meri Vihavainen, ER, 54:23.5; 55. Brenna Wheeler, ER, 54:31.5; 61. Jackie Klecka, 55:21.8; 96. Hayley Patin, ER, 1:04:34.0; 100. Richelle Johnson, ER, 1:05:48.9.
Boys Top 10 (7.5K classic, 10K freestyle) 1. Logan Hanneman, Lat, 53:12.3; 2. Silas Talbot, Ser, 53:50.8; 3. Peter Mamrol, Ser, 54:33.3; 4. Jack Novak, Sou, 54:53.6; 5. Vanya Rybkin, WV, 54:57.9; 6. Isaac Lammers, Chu, 55:03.8; 7. Forrest Mahlen, South, 55:28.0; 8. Kyle Hanson, Lat, 56:03.6; 9. Austin Hess, Ser, 56:30.3; 10. Alex Loan, Chu, 56:49.9.
Other Chugiak/Eagle River 13. Kenny Brewer, Chu, 57:11.8; 19. David McPhetres, Chu, 59:16.7; 20. Peter Brewer, Chu, 59:17.0; 25. Ben Fitzgerald, Chu, 1:00:01.9; 33. Brandon Blackley, ER, 1:01:31.6; 46. Cameron Johnson, ER, 1:03:36.9; 51. William Timmons, ER, 1:04:37.6; 63. Evan Fisher, ER, 1:05:55.4; 69. Ben Smith, ER, 1:06:45.8; 87. Jacob Timmons, ER, 1:08:58.5
* For complete rankings, visit www.asaa.org and follow the link to Nordic ski state tournament results.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, March 2, 2011.