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Girls Nordic skiing: Warriors reload for another state run

The Brainerd Warriors are coming off a fifth-place showing at last year's state meet.

Boys and Girls Nordic Skiers
Brainerd girls Nordic skiers Ellie Brown, left, Alice Balsley, Katelyn Kennedy, Emma Balsley and Anja Storbakken practice at Forestview Middle School Monday, Nov. 28.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Two of Brainerd’s four top pursuit skiers from last year’s fifth-place state finish graduated, including 10th-place individual skier Lily Schaeffer, but the Brainerd Warriors aren’t too concerned.

In fact, the feeling among the team is it will simply reload.

And the reason for the optimism is because Brainerd can fill those spots with athletes who have state meet experience already.

But the Warriors do return senior Ellie Brown who finished 29th in last year’s state meet with a 42:16.4 pursuit time followed by freshman Annelise Baird’s 35th-place time of 42:50.3.

Also returning is Brainerd’s sprint relay team of juniors Addie Ryan and Isabelle Smith, which placed 14th in 19:21.44 to help the Warriors land in fifth in the final meet of the season.

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“Filling in for Lily will require some big shoes, but the good thing about it is we only lost two of the seven from our section team,” Brainerd co-head coach Mary Clarie Ryan said. “The rest of the team is coming back and our alternates from last year’s section team are all back so I think the girls are still going to be very competitive and hopefully do as well as last year.

“All these kids are improving. For example, a couple of the kids who in the past didn’t do much for training went out for fall activities. Izzy Smith went out for mountain biking and Ashtyn Kubista was running all fall so the girls are very focused on trying to be as successful as they were last year.”

Last year was the first year the Minnesota State High School League used the sprint relay format. With a year under their belt with that new format, Warrior co-head coaches Ryan and Chris Hanson believe they have a better understanding of where their athletes should compete.

“It was a big learning curve last year and the whole strategy with the relay and how it was scored and how it fit in with the pursuit was huge,” Ryan said. “One big difference was when you come out of sections, you have the section qualifying teams, but you also have sprint teams whose team did not advance, but they advanced as an individual unit. Those individual relays are usually pretty good skiers so it makes staging and trying to get the best sprint performance out of your kids very difficult because there are plenty of other teams that are loaded.

Boys and Girls Nordic Skiers
Brainerd girls Nordic skiers Ellie Brown, left, Alice Balsley, Katelyn Kennedy, Emma Balsley and Anja Storbakken practice at Forestview Middle School Monday, Nov. 28.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“Figuring out who your sprinters are going to be and then balancing it out with who will be your pursuit skiers was definitely a learning experience. Coach Hanson and I have been co-head coaching for 13 years and we both coached before that and we weren’t always sure where we were. The old format, I could tell you where we were to the second.”

The team of Ryan-Smith posted a third-place 18:55.1 in the section meet last year. But one, or both, or neither, might be on this year’s relay.

“Ellie Brown who was a pursuiter last year, just by sheer strength and stamina, she could have been a great sprinter as well,” Ryan said. “Kids can go either way and be good at either one, but when you look at the sprinters there has to be a strong level of mental toughness because it’s an all-out 1.2-kilometer event. Then you have the technique of handing off or tagging your teammate the correct way and not getting time penalties is involved there. Then being able to pause while your partner goes and then go again is hard. You have to have a certain mentality.

“Who our sprinters are going to be is still very much up in the air. Our race on Tuesday will be a sprint format. We’re putting Addie and Izzy together, but in terms of looking toward the future we’re not committed one way or another to who those sprinters will be.”

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Schaeffer was the Section 8 individual champion, but was followed by Baird in fourth place with a pursuit time of 34:32.1.

“We have several girls who were on (Brainerd’s) state cross-country team with Annelise, Bridget Collins, Katelyn Kennedy and Brooke Wenz,” Ryan said. “Those kids having that success are coming into this season in great shape. Plus, our girls’ teams over the last three years — of qualifying and getting to the state meet — really inspire kids to work hard. They like the routine of going to state.

“Annelise, I think her stronger sport is skiing. She loves to run as well, but she comes from a skiing family and she has set her goals high. It will be interesting to see where she is in the mix of things. She and Ellie (Brown) are going to be sprint partners (Tuesday). That will be a fast team.”

Brown finished seventh in the section meet with a 35:02.2.

“She’ll be a leader and one of our top skiers,” Ryan said. “There’s a West Yellowstone Jamboree over Thanksgiving week and five of our girls had the opportunity to go out there and ski for three or four days on great conditions. Ellie was one of those and her commitment to improve and be better is very obvious.”

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Kubista placed 26th at sections in 37:58.4.

“The first time you go to state it’s a learning experience,” Ryan said. “The state meet is entirely different than anything you’ve ever experienced or imagined. She’s got that experience under her belt and she went out for cross-country this last fall and dedicated herself to being in better shape this year. She has her goals set to make that section team.”

In the 2001 state meet, Brainerd finished tied for 15th, but on that state team were seniors Emma Balsley and Cally Robertson and junior Bridget Collins. Those three will battle for section roster sports again this year along with the five other seniors on the Warriors’ roster.

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“Katelyn Kennedy, who had an outstanding running season certainly has a shot at making the section team,” Ryan said. “To have this number of senior girls is not as common. Even today at practice, some of our captains weren’t there, and they were leading the practice. It’s a great group of senior girls, who love the sport and work hard.

“Caroline Holcomb-Smith was another girl last year who had injuries last season, but started out really well. If she can stay healthy, she might be a section skier. It’s a great plate of gals to work with.”

Brainerd missed the top four at state by two points. Ryan hopes the girls’ squad is to a point where they aren’t just satisfied making it to state anymore, but rather contending for top-five finishes all the time.

“What’s exciting is maybe Chris and I would get a team to state, but now it’s to the point where we’ve gotten both teams to state and that’s motivating for everybody,” Ryan said. “We're not just getting to state and finishing 14th or 15th. Now we’re fifth or eighth and we’re right in the mix. That’s rewarding for the kids and us as coaches.”

JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at 218-855-5856 or jeremy.millsop@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jeremymillsop.

Girls Nordic skiing

Coaches Nordic ski
Mary Claire Ryan

Co-head coaches: Chris Hanson, Mary Claire Ryan

2021-22 girls finish: First in Section 8, 5th in State

Returning state meet participants: Addie Ryan, Ellie Brown, Annelise Baird, Ashtyn Kubista, Isabelle Smith

Girls captains: Ellie Brown, Emma Balsley, Cally Robertson

Assistant coaches: Eric Storbakken, Mike Knapp, Kevin Robertson, Owen and Heather Baird (volunteer assistants)

Manager: Molly Cartwright

Warrior roster

Seniors: Emma Balsley, Emily Bastian, Ellie Brown, Hannah Hayes, Katelyn Kennedy, Ashtyn Kubista, Grace Loney, Gretchen Paysse, Cally Robertson

Juniors: Alice Balsley, Bridget Collins, Stella Hagen, Caroline Holcomb-Smith, Addie Ryan, Isabelle Smith, Anja Storbakken, McKenna Thesing

Sophomores: Kaya Anderson, Mya Frank, Elizabeth Rademacher, Brooke Wenz

Freshmen: Annelise Baird, Holly Bergin, Anne Marie Cady, Ava Capelle, Avery Duerr, Audrey Hastings, Myia Nelson, Sophia Porter

Warrior schedule

Tuesday, Nov. 29, in Moorhead Invite at Detroit Mountain

Dec. 6, in Detroit Lakes Invite at Detroit Mountain

Dec. 10, at Bemidji Invite

Dec. 15, in Fergus Falls Invite at Spidahl’s Ski Gard

Dec. 28, host Warrior Invite at Northland Arboretum

Jan. 3, in Moorhead Invite at Detroit Mountain

Jan. 7, in Mesabi East Invite at Giants Ridge

Jan. 12, in Detroit Lakes Invite at Maplelag

Jan. 17, in Alexandria Invite at Andes Tower Hills

Jan. 21, in Bemidji Invite at Buena Vista Ski Area

Jan. 26, in Little Falls Invite at Camp Ripley

Feb. 2, hosts Central Lakes Conference meet at Northland Arboretum 1 p.m.

Feb. 7, Section 8 meet at Maplelag

Feb. 15-16, State meet at Giants Ridge

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