Coach Rod Olson was quick to admit the Rhinelander/Northland Pines Alpine ski and snowboard team needed a break after taking home a load of hardware from the Northern Conference finale earlier this month.
Rested and refreshed, the Hodags hope to fare well this weekend at the WIARA State Championships, which kick off with the snowboarding competition today at Mt. La Crosse.
Kids were tired following a schedule that saw the conference fit its entire five-race schedule into less than a three-week window. What's more, the team was dealing with illness that had swept through both schools.
"It's as good for us as that bye in the NFL playoffs," Olson said of the rest following the conference finale Feb. 1 at Ski Brule in Iron River, Mich. "It's something we need to mend, focus and kind of see if some of these younger performers for us feel confident enough to go to state, or we put some of the seniors (in)."
The Hodags will have three full teams in La Crosse for this weekend's events. The boys' skiing and snowboarding squads qualified on the strength of their Northern Conference championships while the girls' skiers advanced with a second-place finish in conference.
There will be both team and individual goals for the Hodags this year. Individually, siblings Ty and Tommie Jo Springer both enter with aspirations of performing very well this weekend, and perhaps making a run at an individual state championship if everything falls into place.
Ty Springer, a junior, was seventh at state a year ago and 13th as a freshman. Tommie Jo Springer is making her first official state appearance, but served as a forerunner in giant slalom last year as an eighth grader and posted a time that would have been third-fastest overall.
Both come in having dominated the Northern Conference this season. They combined to win 29 of the 30 varsity runs the conference had this season. Only a slip up in slalom during the first meet of the season Jan. 14 as Granite Peak in Wausau cost Ty Springer a perfect conference season. Tommie Jo Springer was head and shoulders faster than everyone else on the girls' side, with times that typically were fast enough to be in the top five overall in the boys' race.
"They've got a legitimate shot," Olson said. "I would not be boasting and be talking out of league by saying they are legitimate shots for podiums. They definitely are contenders, and deservedly so. I think they'll do well."
The Hodags will also be looking to fare better as a team in this year's state meet after placing 16th in a 21-team boys' ski field last year. However the team will have more depth this year, allowing a little more margin for error.
"I think the boys' team, if we perform and don't have any issues, I think we definitely can score a top 10. But, you know, it's ski racing. It's not just being the fastest. You've got to make it (to the finish line) and be the fastest," Olson said.
The boys' skiers will open their competition with giant slalom on Sunday and Olson said it is key for the team to fare well.
"The boys' giant slalom is always telltale," he said. "If you don't get four solid finishes there, it's very difficult to catch up in slalom, where there's always attrition. That first race kind of sets the tone. We're strategizing. We want to get some finishers."
Most of last year's state team is back on the boys' side, looking to improve their performance. Patrick Stemper was 44th a season ago, AJ Gillespie was 98th and Luke Fritz finished 100th. Daniel Ritchie was unable to compete at last year's state meet, but finished 48th overall two years ago as a sophomore.
As for the rest of the team, the state meet will be a new experience. The only other athletes with who have competed at state previously are girls' skier Marisa McGuire, boys' snowboarder Bailey Schwab and girls' snowboarder Kylee White.
Schuab is making his third state appearance, after placing 26th last year and 30th in 2018. McGuire was last at state in 2018 and finished 128th overall. White, who qualified for state as an individual, placed 23rd in girls' snowboarding as a freshman in 2018, but missed last year's state meet due to injury.
The entire snowboard competition - with slalom, giant slalom and boardercross - will take place today. The competition turns to the skiers tomorrow with girls' Super G, boys' giant slalom and girls' slalom. The meet concludes Monday with boys' slalom, girls' giant slalom and boys' Super G.
Jeremy Mayo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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