ERZ Nordic ski building confidence for second-half run
Near the midway point of the season, Elk River/Rogers/Zimmerman Nordic ski coach Zach Varty is even more optimistic than he was heading into the season.
Boasting a talented boys and girls squad, Varty set some lofty goals for his teams prior to the season. Notably, a top-three finish in the Northwest Suburban Conference for both teams, while believing his Rogers boys team and Elk River/Zimmerman girls team could compete for a top-two spot at the Section 5 tournament, which would be enough to advance to state – Elk River/Zimmerman skiers and Rogers skiers split into two teams at sections.
And, after a few conference meets and strong showing at the Mesabi East Invitational, Varty has seen his teams show they can accomplish just that.
“The goals are the same as the start of the year, second at conference for boys and girls should be battling with Maple Grove for third. At sections, both Rogers boys and Elk River/Zimmerman girls have a real shot at state qualifying,” Varty said. “And I feel better about their chances now at halfway than I did at the beginning of the year.”
The teams’ performances at the Mesabi East Invitational was just further evidence to Varty that his teams have what it takes to make a run down the stretch.
The Mesabi East Invitational is the largest Nordic invite in the country, and ERZ split into two boys and girls teams, as they do at sections, with the Rogers boys taking 19th out of 53 teams (369 points), while the Elk River/Zimmerman girls took 16th out of 55 teams (378 points) at Giants Ridge in Biwabik on Jan. 5. The Elk River/Zimmerman boys team took 31st, while the Rogers girls team took 50th.
“The Mesabi Invite is a great experience for our teams. It gives us a chance to compete against stronger competition than our conference meets, and also ski against different teams, which is fun for the kids,” Varty said, noting Giants Ridge is the site of the state tournament. “I'm very pleased with our results this year. … We seemed to place very well when you break it down to just conference schools. We also fared well against Mora, who is one of the top section opponents.”
Zimmerman’s Cheresa Bouley led the way for Elk River/Zimmerman girls, placing third overall in the classic race with a time of 18:54.2, while Ethan Anderson had the highest finish for Rogers boys, placing 19th in 15:47.5 in the freestyle race.
Other skiers that factored into team scoring were Katelyn Gramstad (62nd in classic), Annica Carr (52nd in freestyle) and Ilus Gallay (65th in freestyle) for Elk River/Zimmerman girls and Tyler Davis (28th in freestyle), Alex Heidorn (42nd in classic) and Andy Huber (100th in classic) for Rogers boys. Elk River/Zimmerman boys were led by Jadon Purcell and Lucas Gustafson, who finished 50th and 51st in the freestyle race, respectively, while Anna Eich led the Rogers girls team with a 78th place finish in freestyle.
“It was fantastic to see my team perform so well at the largest Nordic invitational in the country. My team is a big deal,” Bouley said.
“It was very cool to be successful at the Mesabi invite,” Anderson said about the boys team’s performance. “It is interesting to see how our team and I stack up to other teams outside of our section.”
Bouley was the lone ERZ skier to make the podium by taking third out of 139 skiers and she said that’ll give her more confidence as she works towards returning to Giants Ridge at the end of the season for the state tournament. The senior skier has already made the state tourney the past two seasons, but has her sights set on finishing in the top-25 to claim all-state honors this season.
“Overall, the race went well. My technique was relatively clean up the hill, and I strategized well. The only downside was my fall coming down the hill, but I got up quickly and kept going,” Bouley said. “Finishing third at this meet gives me confidence that I can shoot for my goal of all-state.”
Anderson continued leading the way for the boys, as he has done in all conference meets to this point, while Davis was right behind him.
Varty said Bouley, Anderson and Davis have been tremendous assets for their teams this season.
"Cheresa and Ethan have been great leaders all year. They both work really hard and love skiing. It shows in practice and races," Varty said. "Tyler Davis has to be included with Ethan. The two of them have skied an unbelievable amount since last year. Tyler has improved more than anyone on our team by a long shot and has a great chance of qualifying for the state meet too."
While the trio can pave their way to state as individuals, their priority is leading their teams to a top finish in the conference and section. Like Varty, they feel like their teams are heading in the right direction.
So far, the boys have placed second in four conference meets, while the girls recently placed first in a conference meet on Jan. 2 following back-to-back third-place finishes.
“Our team is looking very strong this year. We have known since the beginning of the season that a high place finish in sections is a real possibility. But after the Mesabi Invite, we know that our odds are even higher,” Anderson said. “For conference, when Elk River/Zimmerman and Rogers are together, we plan on placing top-two.”
“Our team has had some great performances and our goal is to keep building on that as the season continues,” Bouley said about the girls squad. “We hope to place towards the top of the conference and section.”
Varty noted that on top of Mora – which the Elk River/Zimmerman girls team beat and Rogers boys team fell three spots short of – both teams bested another top section opponent in Maple Grove at the Mesabi East Invitational, showing they are legitimate state contenders. He added that the Elk River/Zimmerman boys team also has a chance to place well at sections, with Purcell and Gustafson in contention for state spots, while the Rogers girls team, which consists of only three skiers, continues to improve.
Varty said that they’ll just keep working on their speed and technique, as they look to put themselves in the best position at the end of the year.
“I feel great about where we are at,” Varty said. “Especially after skiing these tougher courses at Mesabi and seeing us perform better relative to our conference opponents.
“Our main focus the rest of the year will be on increasing speed workouts, with continued work on technique, especially classic technique.”
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