In this Jan. 19, 2019 file photo, Rhinelander’s Anna Wood competes in the Ascension Hodag Nordic Challenge ski race at the Cedric A. Vig Outdoor Classroom in Rhinelander. Following improved results during the regular season the Hodag Nordic ski team is shooting to crack into the top seven in the team standings at this weekend’s WNSL State Championship in Cable. (Jeremy Mayo/River News)
2/8/2020 7:33:00 AM Hodag Nordic eager to climb the rankings at WNSL state meet
The strides the Rhinelander High School Nordic ski team has made during the 2019-2020 season will be put to the test in a tangible way this weekend.
The season culminates with the Wisconsin Nordic Ski League state championships in Cable as the Hodags' stated goal at the start of the season - a top-seven finish in the team standings - is still on the tip of the team's tongue.
"These kids are ready and they're anxious to meet their goals that they set way back when in November, and even going back as far as last April, to be seventh in the state," coach Charil Reis said last Saturday following the team's final tune-up in Bayfield.
The Hodags finished second in a limited field in both the boys' and girls' divisions of that event, and had a strong performance in another limited field at the Badger State Games the weekend prior in Wausau.
This weekend's races will be different as racers from 22 different programs throughout the state will converge on the starting area of the American Birkebeiner ski race for the seventh consecutive year. Of those programs, 19 are expected to have qualifying teams of three skiers or more in the boys' division and 14 are expected to have qualifying girls' teams.
It will be the largest field of racers the Hodags have had to compete against all season. The preliminary start list shows 142 high school boys and 121 high school girls set to take to the starting line this morning to begin the two-day event with a roughly 6 1/2-kilometer classic race. It's the largest field Rhinelander has competed against since the Ascension Hodag Nordic Challenge, where the team placed eighth in the girls' division and ninth in the boys' division.
Individually, the Hodags will be gunning for some of their best finishes at state over the last several years. Junior Zach Goodrich comes in off a 37th-place finish at state last year. He won the Ashwabay Summit race last weekend and Reis said it is possible he could take another big jump this weekend.
"I don't want to jinx anything, but he has the ability to pull off a top 20, even if it is No. 20," she said. "He's definitely got the speed for it this year. It will come down to mechanics, weather, how everyone else is doing that day. There's so much out of your control, but if it were up to him and all the controllable were in place, he could pull it off."
Twentieth is an important number as any returning skier who placed in the top 20 this year will be eligible to go off as an A-seeded skier at next year's state meet. That means an earlier starting time and, in theory, better trail conditions.
For Saturday's race, racers will be sent out in intervals 15 seconds apart in a time trial-style event. How the racers are sent out will be based on their seed, with A seeds getting preference over B seeds (skiers expected to finish in the top 40 by their coaches), C seeds (expected 41st-70th finish) and D seeds (the rest of the field).
Based on the seeds, Reis is confident in how her team will do. She assigned eight skiers (Goodrich, Travis White, Nicholas St. Pierre, Jenna Younker, Liana Teter, Gwyneth Lowry, Valerie Dalka and Anna Wood) B seeds and another 10 skiers (Levi Smith, Breckin Younker, Daniel Goldsworthy, Kyle Morien, Sam Rutkowski, Will Rutkowski, Abbey Henrichs, Olivia Gillen, Juliana Smith and Carleene Morien) C seeds.
"I know that it's possible some of them are gunning to (place) 20 or more positions higher than they did last year. They can do it," she said.
Saturday's results will set the starting lineup and the interval between skiers for Sunday's 6 1/2-kilometer freestyle pursuit where the first to the finish line wins.
While Rhinelander won't compete with powerhouse teams like Lakeland, Ashwaubenon and Peak Nordic for team titles, individual improvement from last year will be a goal. Reis said it will also be a goal to have their seniors ski as well as possible in their final scholastic meet.
"I can't believe I have seven seniors leaving us," she said. "It's bittersweet but they're all doing so well this season. I couldn't imagine a better outcome so far for them. I only can foresee having their best races happen for them at state."
When the starter yells "go," it will all be in the athlete's hands, but Reis said the pressure is also on the coaching staff and wax technicians to set up the skis to go as fast as possible. There should be fewer variables in place today, with sunshine a forecasted high temperature in the lower 20. However it's likely tomorrow's set up will be more challenging with a 50 percent chance of snow during the race.
"The adults and the wax team have put in the time to get the waxes right. I've done the research on the was. It seems like we've had a good year for waxing," she said. "I hope we can keep that rolling through this weekend because a lot depends on it."
The high school races begin today at 9 a.m. Tomorrow's high school pursuit races commence at 11:45 a.m.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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