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WARRIORS ATHLETE OF WEEK: Baker cooks up wins on ski trails

By the time Zean Baker graduates next spring, he might rank as one of the best skiers who have ever competed in the Brainerd Warrior boys Nordic program.

The senior has won two races in December, adding to the three wins he registered in the last two years. Before winning the Grand Rapids Invite Dec. 8 and the St. Cloud Apollo Invite Dec. 11, Baker won Jan. 24, 2012, at Bemidji; he won the Central Lakes Conference classic race in 2012; and he joined teammate Riley Nelsen to win the Bemidji Relays in 2010.

After Justin Tyner won the Section 8 championship in 2007, a Warrior boy did not win a race until Baker and Nelsen combined in 2010.

“Zean deserves a mention in the rankings for state,” Warriors co-head coach Chris Hanson said. “A lot of times outstate skiers don’t get noticed until late in the season. Zean deserves to get a look.”

Baker won the Grand Rapids Invite at Mt. Itasca in Coleraine, an interval start race.

“It was an individual race so I had no idea where I was at compared to the other athletes,” Baker said. “There were ranked athletes there so I knew they would be good people. I just went out really hard and tried to hold on.”

Three days later, he won the Apollo Invite at Riverside Park in St. Cloud, a wave start race. Baker beat highly regarded Nick Proell of St. Cloud Tech to the finish line.

“Four skiers went out at a time,” Baker said. “I started with a ranked skier (Proell). We just went out hard, and I led the whole race. (Proell) was right there for most of it.”

In the season-opening St. Cloud Tech Invite Dec. 6 at Powder Ridge in Kimball, a mass start race, Proell was first followed by Baker.

“It went pretty good,” Baker said, “but we were there more to train and be on snow. The race was something we worked hard at, but it was more of a day on snow with the team and to practice.”

Last season, Baker pushed Nelsen for the team’s No. 1 skier slot.

“This is the year where Zean is the clear-cut leading skier on the team — scoring-wise,” Hanson said. “Kids are following his example, and that’s important when you have a contending team.

“We’re happy to have had him so long. We’re really glad to see him have some of the success that he’s worked so hard since sixth grade to have.”

This is Baker’s seventh season in the program, his fourth on the varsity.

“His commitment to Nordic skiing, and his love of skiing, is evident,” Warriors co-head coach Mary Claire Ryan said. “He’s worked very hard all the way up. He’s done things in the offseason to keep himself in shape, like rollerskiing. Those little things all add up.

“It’s just fun to see it all come together right now for him. Technique-wise, we’ve had to tweak one or two things, but keep reinforcing the good things. All the kids on the team certainly look up to him. He’s a great role model for us to have.”

Ryan pointed out that Baker started skiing during the 2006-07 season, which other than last winter may have been one of the worst winters for lack of snow.

“We spent a lot of time at Ski Gull (in 2006-07),” Ryan said. “That’s when Zean, Alli (Kosobud) and others started. If he fell in love with it then, he was hooked.

“He gets as excited as I do when it snows. A lot of people look at us like we’re nuts when it snows but we love it.”

Lack of snow didn’t deter Baker’s love for the sport.

“My first year we had a group of pretty good skiers that I saw doing well,” he said. “That’s something I wanted to do, be up at the top like they were.”

Baker, who’s also a standout in biathlon, is pursuing his fourth trip to the state Nordic meet. Last year, he finished third in the section and 63rd at state. In addition, he helped Brainerd’s team to its first boys state meet since 2005.

“It’s good to ski on the team with Noah, my brother,” Zean said. “It’s fun to have most of the guys back this year. There are no guarantees we will go back, but we’re going to try to go back again.”

Other notable efforts:

■ Justin Kuglin and Nick Goll, swimming, each won two events and were on two winning relays against Tech.

■ Jack Sauer, boys basketball, scored 31 points against St. Michael-Albertville.

■ Josh McKeag, swimming won two events and was on two first-place relays against Willmar.

MIKE BIALKA, sports editor, may be reached at 855-5861. Follow on Twitter at