Northern Michigan’s Fredrik Schwencke was crowned NCAA Champion, winning the men’s 20 kilometer mass start classic race on Friday in bold fashion, while NMU’s Felicia Gesior led the CCSA women, taking 13th in the women’s 15 kilometer event.
The men’s race began with Northern Michigan’s Kyle Bratrud skiing at the front of the race in bib number one. Fredrik Schwencke was originally assigned the leading bib, but after Schwencke reported feeling some cold symptoms, Northern Michigan Head Coach Sten Fjeldheim decided to have Schwencke exchange his number one bib for Bratrud’s number nine.
“That irritated him,” chuckled Fjeldheim. “It made him mad enough to want to come out and maybe make a point to me that he should have been bib number one.” With nine starting lanes, Schwencke still enjoyed a good position at the start and the bib number was more symbolic than a strategic advantage. Fjeldheim defended the decision to switch bibs, saying, “I think it took the pressure off of Freddy a little bit. He was a little under the weather, but I told him you don’t need your nose and throat to ski.”
The race began briskly, and as the racers skied through the stadium after their first 5 kilometer lap it was Bratrud and Schwencke leading the pack. As the pace increased in the second lap, Bratrud and his teammate Erik Soderman stayed toward the back of the leading pack of around 12 skiers, while Schwencke remained just behind the leaders.
Nearing the end of the third loop Bratrud crashed, skidding off the trail and into the powder. “Erik [Soderman] said he skied by him while [Bratrud] was sliding sideways and said he thought to himself, ‘I just hope he doesn’t hit a tree,’” Fjeldheim said.
Nevertheless, Bratrud quickly recovered from his setback and, Fjeldheim said, “within a kilometer or so he was back in the top ten.”
Heading through the stadium on the final lap of the race, there were just four men in the lead: Aku Nikander of New Mexico, who led much of the final lap; and a pair of skiers from the University of Colorado, Mads Ek Stroem and Rune Malo Oedegaard. NMU’s Schwencke skied most of the final lap in third place, appearing relaxed and skiing smoothly through the relentless climbing of the Mt. Van Hoevenberg trails.
“He skied really smart,” said Fjeldheim. “He didn’t take the lead, and he didn’t have to. He had good skis, solid wax, and he played it conservatively on the first three laps. Towards the end of the last lap he realized he had a chance to win.”
As the four skiers entered the stadium with some 300 meters left in the race, Schwencke deftly switched lanes, powerfully double poling between the two tracks to take the lead in the optimal position. It was a well-timed and well-executed move that won him the race as much as his determined sprint that began as soon as he found himself in the lead.
“There was a little bit of diagonal striding,” Fjeldheim said of Schwencke as he crested a slight rise that led into the finishing lane. “Then he had a really strong double pole into the finish.”
A thrilled Schwencke crossed the finish line in first, winning his first NCAA title, and the first for NMU since Soderman won the freestyle title in 2012. He appeared to be almost in disbelief at the finish line, before NMU assistant coach Haakon Stuge Baanerud lifted the triumphant Schwencke on his shoulders.
“Freddy was happily surprised,” Fjeldheim said. “Personally I wasn’t surprised. I knew that all three could do it, I just didn’t know who it would be.”
Bratrud finished 7th, and Soderman took 11th, just 3 seconds away from tenth. “I’m really happy with his race,” said Fjeldheim. The efforts of the NMU trio won them the men’s Nordic team title. “A great day for the Wildcats,” said Fjeldheim. “We’ve got the best men’s team in the country, I’m pretty dang proud.”
Logan Hanneman of Alaska Fairbanks skied to 20th place, while St. Olaf’s Jake Brown finished in 28th. “I thought he skied a smart race,” said St. Olaf Head Coach Tom Jorgenson. “It just shows how far he’s come in classic this season.”
Paul Schommer of St. Scholastica finished in 29th. Schommer noticed a ski mix up shortly before the race and the Saints coaching staff worked at top speed to fully prepare his skis in time for the start. “Miraculously, we got it done,” said St. Scholastica Head Coach Chad Salmela.
Schommer worked his way up the field, skiing in 22nd position heading into the long climb on the final lap when his kick wax, which hadn’t had time to set up properly, began to wear off and he slipped back into 29th. “Paul simply changed Saints skiing,” said Salmela. “He came so far so fast.”
Michigan Tech’s Thomas Bye finished 32nd, a result that pleased Joe Haggenmiller, Head Coach of Michigan Tech. “Tom being a freshman, a true freshman, it’s another level when you come to NCAAs,” said Haggenmiller. “Just to beat one or two guys is an accomplishment. So I was pretty happy with how Tom raced. We’ll look forward to next year with the experience he’s gained from World Juniors in Kazakhstan and now NCAAs.”
Fellow Michigan Tech teammate Haakon Hjelstuen finished in 34th, and Haggenmiller praised the Norwegian’s perseverance. “Haakon was battling pretty hard. His lower back was bothering him quite badly this week, and he said his legs just wouldn’t respond.” Despite the pain, Hjelstuen soldiered on. At the end of the third lap he was near the tail end of the race but a big push on the final lap saw him move up the results list. “I’m really glad he battled,” said Haggenmiller. “He was able to outsprint a couple of guys at the finish.”
Jonas Löffler of Alaska Fairbanks rounded out the CCSA men, finishing in 39th.
Felicia Gesior led the CCSA women in the final Nordic event of the NCAA Championships, taking 13th in the 15 kilometer classic event with a time of 49:43.7. “Amazing finish for Felicia,” said Fjeldheim. “It’s her first NCAAs, she showed today that she’s got what it takes.”
Kristen Bourne of NMU skied to 17th. “Today she started relaxed and kept working her way up, moving up, and up, and up,” Fjeldheim said. “She’s just a gutsy Minnesota girl, she toughed it out and skied a really smart race.”
Anita Kirvesniemi of St. Scholastica finished 18th, just edging Michigan Tech’s Deedra Irwin by a tenth of a second in a closely contested sprint to the finish. “It went solid,” said Salmela. “She was hoping for more, but it wasn’t a bad race. She skied really well.”
Deedra Irwin of Michigan Tech took 19th. “She skied fantastic, she skied hard,” said Haggenmiller. “The competition level at NCAAs is high: to make the top half of the field takes five years of hard work.”
In 27th for Michigan Tech was Alice Flanders. “I’m really a lot more excited at her 27th in classic than her 21st in skate,” Haggenmiller said. “I think she really skied well, some of the best classic skiing she’s skied. It was fun to see her battling out there.”
Both Flanders and Irwin are seniors at Michigan Tech and Haggenmiller toasted their final race for the Huskies. “I’m really proud of Alice and Deedra, I think they battled hard which is important for our region, and I think they went out on a day they can be proud of to finish their college careers.”
Sharmila Ahmed of St. Scholastica skied to 29th. “She skied really, really well, especially considering she had a cold all week,” Salmela said. “She started slow and conservative and then started to pick people off.” Salmela added that, “the impact of both [Kirvesniemi and Ahmed] is profound on the trajectory and history of this ski team.”
Jordyn Ross of NMU took 36th, and Anne-Tine Markset of the University of Alaska Fairbanks finished in 38th.
The classic race at Mt. Van Hoevenberg concludes the racing season for the CCSA athletes.
Full results can be found at www.barttiming.com