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Life of Riley: Nelsen motors way to state

Ask Brainerd Warriors Nordic skiing co-head coaches Chris Hanson and Mary Claire Ryan about junior Riley Nelsen and both issue the same assessment — his motor’s always running.

Nelsen, a cross country and track and field runner, transitions the skills from those sports to the trails in the winter and has qualified for Thursday’s state meet at Giants Ridge in Biwabik.

“He’s a well-conditioned athlete with a big aerobic engine,” Hanson said. “This year he brought those attributes into the skiing season, then his technique improved rapidly. That combination vaulted him into the top skiers in the section this year. 

“A lot to do with it was coming in prepared and fit and skiing with Zean Baker, our other top skier. That helped him technique-wise, which was exactly what he needed to do to do what he’s done.

“Riley’s a high-energy, high-motivation kid who’s willing to do the extra loop or extra set. At times his high effort and pace needs to be tempered a little bit, but he has high expectations for himself and high confidence.”

Said Ryan, “Last year he was pretty rough around the edges. He worked on his technique this year. He just has a great motor to go along with it. He progressed through the season. He and Zean went back and forth placing in different races and pushed each other as well.

“He’s got a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm and he’s receptive to what we tell him to do.”

Nelsen became a state qualifier in only his second season as a competitive skier, a feat Hanson said is rare. Nelsen, who placed third in the section pursuit, was encouraged by skiing friends Tim Nelson and Baker to join the team last year.

“I always kind of considered skiing to be a fun sport,” Nelsen said. “Last year, I was not too serious about the sport. It was not until midseason this year that I realized I had a shot to do well in the section and possibly do well at state.

“My goal from the beginning was to make it to state. It just hit me at midseason that I could do some damage, then it turned into a serious sport.”

In the section at Camp Ripley, Nelsen placed fourth in the classic at 17:22.

“It was a lot of double-poling,” he said. “It was a hard race. It was definitely a challenge, but I mustered through it to get to the skate race in reasonable positioning.”

He went on to record the third-fastest time in the freestyle (15:27).

“The whole race was a flow,” Nelsen said. “It was really a great-feeling skate race for me. Usually, classic is my strength. Through improving my technique this year skating is right up there with it.”

Eating properly between the classic and freestyle disciplines helped fuel Nelsen’s bid.

“Previously at the Little Falls Invite, I didn’t eat the right things,” he said. “I was just super bogged down and tired for the skate. My mom had a little nutrition plan for me so I did what she told me to do. I took some Gatorade, ate some food and everything was good.”

Other notable efforts:

• Mitch McLain, boys hockey, scored a hat trick against Fergus Falls and added four assists and a goal against Sauk Rapids.

• Josh Archibald, boys hockey, set the single-season points record with two assists against Fergus Falls and had two goals and two assists against Sauk Rapids.

• Blake Peterson, boys basketball, scored 27 points against Apollo.

• Katy Etterman, gymnastics, was all-conference in four events and the all-around.

• Bradyn Watson, Britton Murrey and Tyler Schneider, swimming and diving, were all-conference.

• Matt Pohlkamp, boys hockey, had a hat trick and assist against Sauk Rapids.

• Wes Blomberg, floor hockey, had a hat trick against Wayzata/Minnetonka.