A thrilling day of fast ski racing, high drama and intense competition ended with Northern Michigan and Alaska sharing the honors at the NCAA Central Region Championships in Houghton, Mich.
The Wildcats captured the region’s men’s and overall team titles, sweeping the podium on the men’s side in today’s 15K mass start free as George Cartwright, Erik Soderman and Kyle Bratrud finished first, second and third, respectively. The Nanooks, meanwhile, earned the women’s regional title and saw the red-hot Aly McPhetres win her third straight CCSA event, prevailing in the 10K skate.
It now becomes a waiting game for the CCSA coaches and skiers alike, as they wait for the scores to be tallied and the official announcement of NCAA berths, which is expected on Tuesday.
“In all my years of coaching, I have to say that this is just the most delightful team, both the men’s and women’s, that I’ve ever had,” Northern Michigan head coach Sten Fjeldheim said. “They are all very humble, push each other and work together as a team. It’s just a fun atmosphere to be in, and I think it leads to success as a team.”
Luckily, Sunday’s races largely avoided the waxing nightmare of the previous day, as steady cold temperatures and conditions made ski preparation fairly straightforward.
“I almost could have coached from an armchair today,” Fjeldheim joked. “Probably the trickiest part, if there was a tricky part, was getting the structure right.”
Fjeldheim’s strategy seemed to pay off, especially in the men’s race, as Cartwright, Soderman and Bratrud put the hammer down on the last climb to separate from the rest of the field, taking the top three spots and propelling the Wildcats to the men’s title.
“The long downhill was just so fast, any lead you had, the pack would just suck it right back in on that downhill,” Fjeldheim said. “So I told my guys that it was going to come down to that last climb, and that’s exactly what happened. It was really exciting to watch how tight the competition was today – it was like a mini national championship.”
Alaska’s Lex Treinen was the next across the line, taking fourth in the event just over five seconds off the Wildcats’ pace. Green Bay’s Matt Nichols produced his best race of the season, earning his first top-five with a time of 40:42.1.
Alaska Michael Fehrenbach finished at the tail end of the lead pack, taking sixth, while Saint Scholastica’s Paul Schommer finished seventh to earn his second top-ten in as many days, closing out an illness-plagued season on a positive note. Alaska’s Logan Hanneman (eighth) and Jonas Loffler (ninth) and Michigan Tech’s Matt Dugan (tenth) all earned all-region honors as well.
On the women’s side, it was equally as thrilling a conclusion, as McPhetres made her move on Northern Michigan’s Rosie Frankowski with 200 meters to go, passing the Wildcat junior and holding on for her third straight college win. Interestingly, McPhetres and Frankowski are already starting to build a friendly rivalry: the duo went 1-2 in last week’s freestyle race as well, working together to pull away from the field at Mt. Itasca.
“Aly just found another gear with 200 meters to go,” Alaska head coach Scott Jerome said. “She really seems to be enjoying herself out there, and I think it shows – she is skiing really well. Both races today were really exciting to watch.”
Northern Michigan Jordyn Ross landed a podium spot as well, taking third after finishing just nine-tenths of a second behind Frankowski. Alaska’s Crystal Pitney turned in an important fourth-place finish, scoring vital points for her team as well as well as boosting her own chances at a second straight NCAA spot.
“Crystal has just been really solid, just a rock for us this year,” Jerome said.
Michigan Tech’s Lynn Duijndam was next across the line, earning a top-five finish with her time of 31:27.7. Alaska’s third scoring skier, Rebecca Koneiczny, finished sixth, edging Saint Scholastica’s Sharmila Ahmed (who herself landed an important seventh-place finish in her quest to become the school’s first NCAA women’s qualifier) to wrap up the women’s crown for the Nanooks.
“I’m especially proud of Rebecca’s race today,” Jerome said. “She had bad skis yesterday because of the waxing and weather conditions, which probably knocked her out of contention for the NCAAs. But she didn’t feel sorry for herself. She just went out there today and raced for her team.”
Northern Michigan freshmen Mary Kate Cirelli and Hannah Boyer, along with Michigan Tech’s Sarah Daniels, rounded out the top ten and all-region spots, taking eighth, ninth and 10th respectively.
With the final NCAA qualifier complete, the CCSA now waits on Tuesday announcement, which will determine which seven men and six women represent the region at the NCAAs. This year’s national championships will be held March 6-9 in Middlebury, Vt.