HOUGHTON, Mich. — An exhausting day at the Michigan Tech Ski Trails ended in glory for Northern Michigan, as it captured both the men’s and overall team titles at the NCAA Central Region Championships on Saturday. The Wildcats swept the podium in the men’s 10K skate race in the morning, then scored three of the top four finishers in the afternoon’s men’s 10K classic to secure the regional title.
“I’m very proud of our team,” Northern Michigan head coach Sten Fjeldheim said. “It’s really cool to win the overall title. It was a team effort all around, everyone pitched in to help with testing, waxing, and everything. And we couldn’t have done it without assistant coach Jenny Ryan. To me, she’s the Assistant Coach of the Year without a doubt.”
It wasn’t to be all NMU on the day, however, as a solid Alaska-Fairbanks effort in the afternoon classic race broke open a tight race on the women’s side to hand the Nanooks a women’s regional crown as well.
Alaska-Fairbanks clung to just a one-point advantage after the morning skate, but a season-best second-place finish from Rebecca Konieczny, coupled with typically consistent performances from German duo Theresia Schnurr and Raphaela Sieber, gave the Blue and Gold a six-point margin of victory.
“It was a very solid team effort today,” Alaska-Fairbanks head coach Scott Jerome said. “The women did a great job, as did the men. They certainly have nothing to hang their heads about. It was really exciting to see some different people step up and have some good races.”
After Friday’s races were postponed due to what one coach labeled as “hurricane-force winds,” the CCSA athletes faced the daunting task of having a pair of high-profile, high-importance races contested within the span of a few hours. Despite the difficult circumstances, coaches were quick to downplay the impact of the change.
“I think the older student-athletes, the ones with a little bigger base, it wasn’t as much of a problem for them,” Fjeldheim said. “They actually were pretty excited about it, it was something different, a little bit of a challenge.”
“I just told the team that it was the same for everyone, we were all in the same boat,” Jerome said.
The grueling events did not seem to slow down the in-form Northern Michigan skiers, as the red-hot Martin Banerud and Andy Liebner raced to the top-two spots in both the freestyle and classic events. Banerud finished his skate in 26:11.3, with Liebner 10 seconds behind, and captured the classic title six seconds ahead of his teammate.
The Wildcats Erik Soderman took third in the freestyle event, followed closely by Alaska-Fairbanks’s David Norris, who returns to CCSA action for the first time since U.S. Nationals after competing in Europe.
“Erik really came on strong in the second lap,” Fjeldheim said. “He was probably ninth or 10th going into the second 5K. He’s just really solid for a freshman.”
Gustavus’ Jens Brabbit rounded out the top five for the men’s freestyle, while Alaska-Fairbanks’ Tyler Kornfield took sixth, all but securing a second consecutive NCAA berth for the sophomore.
In the men’s classical event, another Alaska skier, Erik Soederstroem, turned some heads with a third-place finish, just more than 13 seconds behind second-placed Liebner. Northern Michigan’s Chris Bowler continued his strong finish to the second with a fourth-place finish, followed closely by Alaska-Fairbanks’s David Norris and teammate Kevin Cutts.
On the women’s side, Alaska-Fairbanks’s Sieber earned her sixth victory of the season in the morning’s skate race, completing her 5K in 14:44.6. Northern’s Christina Turman took second, just more than seven seconds behind, and Green Bay’s Carolyn Freeman finished third.
Schnurr crossed the line in fourth-place as Alaska-Fairbanks’s second scoring skier, while a pair of Michigan Tech’s young rising stars, Alice Flanders and Lynn Duijndam, took fifth and sixth, respectively. NMU’s Ingrid Fjeldheim finished as her team’s second scoring skier in seventh place in 15:12.8, less than a second behind Duijndam.
In the women’s classical, however, there was no catching Freeman, as the Green Bay senior cruised to a comfortable 24-second victory against Konieczny. Northern’s Monica Markvardsen and Marie Soederman took third and fifth in the afternoon session to put the pressure on Alaska-Fairbanks, but a fourth-place finish for Schnurr and a sixth-place result for Sieber wrapped up the women’s regional title for the Nanooks.
Saint Scholastica’s Eleanor Magnuson took seventh in the afternoon event, wrapping up an outstanding afternoon for the junior, who also finished eighth in the freestyle race.
With the grueling CCSA season now behind them, the region’s skiers now await the final tally of points to find out who qualifies for the season’s ultimate prize: a trip to next month’s NCAA Championships.
While the final roster of skiers has yet to be announced, rest assured coaches are already getting prepared for the collegiate skiing centerpiece.
“We’ve got a few things we know we can work on to improve, both fitness-wise and a few technique things,” Fjeldheim said. “We will get together with all our skiers on Monday and get input from everyone on how to fix these things. I think we are still getting better and getting faster every weekend, and I am looking forward to the next two weeks.”