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WARRIORS ATHLETE OF WEEK: Nordic state qualifier initially wanted to go down hills

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A few weeks into his sixth-grade Nordic skiing season Riley Nelsen decided the sport wasn’t for him. As a cross country runner he was accustomed to running primarily on flat terrain.

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“It just wasn’t my thing in sixth grade,” he said. “I was still trying to get over not wanting to go up hills, so I decided to try downhill skiing.

“My sophomore year of cross country running Zean Baker and Tim Nelson talked me into going out for (Nordic) skiing. And, I have to give credit to (Nordic co-head coach) Mary Claire Ryan. She was at every arboretum cross country meet, telling me to go out for skiing so I decided to give it another try.”

As a sophomore Nelsen made the varsity Nordic team and finished 18th in pursuit in the Section 8 meet. Last season he qualified for state at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, where he finished 63rd in pursuit and he will return there for another state meet Thursday.

Nelsen qualified this season by taking third in the section freestyle and second in classic for an overall pursuit finish of second. Nelsen believes previous state experience can and can’t be an advantage.

“Last year was very different than it’s going to be this year,” he said. “It will still be warm this year. Last year it was 54 degrees the day before the race. People were skiing around in swim suits, it was pretty crazy.

“This year it will be around 35 or so, so it’s definitely a good experience, knowing what you have to do different in the race in order to be in position for the second race. It’s anybody’s race, for anybody who’s willing to push it.”

The efforts of Nelsen and teammates in the section resulted in Brainerd capturing its first title since the 2004-05 season. He said the emphasis this season was on qualifying as a team, rather than having a few individuals advance to state.

“The team we’ve assembled, with me and Gerrit (Garberich) moving up the past two years, and the Baker brothers (Zean and Noah) always being in the sport and being good, we pulled it all together this year,” Nelsen said. “We all really wanted to go to state as a team.”

Ryan thought qualifying the boys team for state was a realistic goal.

“Some coaches would say those are good goals to have but let’s see how things pan out,” she said. “But they stuck with it. Getting off the bus at the section Riley was sitting there and I told him, ‘This is what you’ve gotten up early for, to ski on ice, dirt, lakes, and roller skis. Go put it all out there.”

Co-head coach Chris Hanson has coached Nelsen in either cross country running or skiing for seven years.

“It’s been exciting and rewarding see to him develop into the captain and athlete he is now,” Hanson said.

“Riley is a fierce competitor,” Hanson added. “It will be interesting to see him compete in longer distances in the future because he seems to have limitless energy, in practice and races.

“Riley has matured as a team leader and has done a great job as captain this year. Knowing he had the skills and fitness to advance to the state meet as an individual, he earlier this season stated that ‘Going to state as an individual isn’t good enough; I want to go as a team.’ His work ethic and competitive fire and leadership helped that goal become a reality.”

The Warriors defeated runner-up Bemidji by 12 points for the section title. Nelsen, the Bakers and Garberich finished in the top 11. This year the section skied the freestyle race before the classic.

“We had four guys in the top 10 coming into the classic,” Nelsen said, “so we knew we would have to hold those positions to make sure Bemidji didn’t have a comeback and beat us because they were better in classic than we were.”

Nelsen considers classic his strength, a discipline that he narrowly beat Zean Baker in the section.

“I caught Zean about the middle of the classic race,” he said, “and we kind of battled. Early in the season in a meet at Detroit Lakes he caught me when the skate was last so I got a little revenge catching him in the classic leg. I got him by about four seconds.”

Other notable efforts:

• Savannah Stone, Thor Linnerooth, Mara Williams, Alex Stone, Alpine skiing, qualified for state.

• Madison Grausam and Rachel Hoffman, gymnastics, were named all-conference.

• Justin Kuglin, Josh McKeag, Tyler Schneider, Sam Dellacecca, swimming, were named all-conference.

• Mitch McLain, boys hockey, had a hat trick and assist against Roseau.

• Gretchen Kletscher, girls basketball, scored 21 points against Buffalo.

• Kayla Kraemer, girls basketball, scored 21 points against Apollo and 22 against Rocori, where she made all 10 of her field goal attempts.

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