Mesabi East  Nordic has high hopes for 2021

AURORA — Ready to tackle their first meet of the year today, the Mesabi East Area Nordic ski team has high hopes for the 2021 season, assuming everything goes according to plan.

Giants head coach Cheri Johnson says her varsity teams return many experienced skiers and that they look to be in good physical shape overall.

“The varsity kids are looking stronger than I thought they would be coming into practice last week,” Johnson said Tuesday. “The kids had a lot of time to get better on their own and maybe that wasn’t going at 100% like it should be, we’re very pleased as a coaching staff with the level of fitness they came into practice with.”

The girls team finished last season tied for second in Section 7, but a tiebreaker with co-runner-up Ely left them behind when it came to state qualifying. Despite missing out as a team, returning skiers Lydia Skelton and Bella Thomas advanced to state along with 2020 graduate Anna Greenlee. Skelton finished the state meet in 17th while Thomas earned 66th.

The pair will lead the girls squad while a large crop of experienced skiers return to aid them in hopes of finishing inside the top two at the section meet. Johnson named Liz and Kate Nelson, Wren Galloway, Mia Stark and Claire DeVries amongst the experienced skiers returning this season.

On just missing out as team qualifiers last year, Johnson says the team’s goals remain similar knowing how close they came in 2020.

“Because we were so close last year, we know that we’re going to be right back in there. We’ve only lost one girl and we’re sitting really well with all the girls coming back. We won’t be at full strength right away but we’re definitely motivated after the way last year ended.”

The boys team didn’t see any state qualifiers last year but they return many skiers as well and hope to improve upon their standing in 2021. Returning skiers include senior Nick Kangas, juniors Aaron Nelson and Noah Aagnes and sophomores Carter Skelton, Connor Matschiner and Ben Gornick.

“Nick has been around since the seventh grade so he’s definitely our leader on the team. Some of our guys missed some time last year and are happy to be back injury-free. Connor is coming in as a sophomore with last season being his first year and he’s really made big leaps in a short amount of time. He’s definitely one to watch. Noah is another who has been really moving forward with his technique and endurance.

“We have some younger kids moving up but we’re definitely not as deep on the boys side. We really need to pump up those numbers at some point.”

With many experienced skiers returning on both sides, Johnson says smaller corrections when it comes to equipment and technique can go a long way when it comes to improving times.

“Fine-tuning is a good word for it. We’re always working on that technique and finding ways to correct the little things that will make the skier go faster. Before every workout session, we start off with a little bit of technique work. The other important side to that is that everybody has the right equipment. You want to make sure that someone’s skis or poles aren’t working against them. If they’re working hard but the ski isn’t moving right, that’s something we need to take a look at. We’re always evaluating things like that and trying to find ways to make improvements.”

With the team consisting of athletes from Mesabi East, Eveleth-Gilbert, Virginia and Mountain Iron-Buhl, Johnson says there are some extra challenges with getting everyone together for a practice each day. Along with that, there are different risks to think about with regards to COVID-19.

“We did our best to prepare for COVID. We made a plan and we made sure it covered as much as possible regarding all of the different schools that come together to make this team possible. We’re practicing in our pods and doing what we can but people are struggling to keep the masks on for an entire practice. The weather has been warmer than normal so people don’t want to have their faces bundled up at all times.

“Another challenge is scheduling. We can only race against two other teams at a time now. Things might get stale so we’re trying to implement difference reaces to keep the kids motivated and in the groove.”

One such race is scheduled for today in Ely. As opposed to the typical 5K race for varsity skiers, racers will tackle a 9.5K race as part of a “distance challenge.”

“The routine has been disrupted but I think the kids are handling it fine. The coaches are the ones that might be struggling a bit more. The students are just happy to be out here together and skiing. You can tell they’re having a lot of fun at practice. I just think there’s this extra spark they have in them to make the most of everything because the next day, things could just be shut down.”

When it comes to setting individual goals for every team member, the process has been slowed down somewhat due to the first few weeks of practice taking on a different look.

“I know the kids just want to make the most of every practice. The kids want to improve their times and place well, of course, but right now they want to just be together as a team. We’re still trying to put all the pieces together when it comes to how to best run a practice so, until then, the setting of individual goals might take a back seat.”

Ahead of today’s 9K invite in Ely, Johnson hopes to see her athletes pace themselves and not underestimate a race nearly twice as long as a typical 5K.

“The No. 1 thing for us is to get back into the groove of racing. I want them to get out and cruise and not get bogged down by a 9K race. It’s a tough race to open with but I think they’re ready and definitely excited to finally get some races in.”

Today’s invitational is set to begin at 11 a.m. at the Ely Hidden Valley Chalet.

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