BIWABIK — For the Mesabi East girls’ Nordic ski team, missing out on advancing to the state meet as a team was a heartbreaker.
But three skiers placed high enough to qualify on their own and hope to do some damage once they get there Friday afternoon.
The Giants finished in a second-place tie with Section 7 runner-up Ely. A tiebreaker, gave the last team spot to the Timberwolves, and the difference between making it as a team came down to less than 10 seconds according to Mesabi East head coach Cheri Johnson.
“We were about six seconds off of getting ahead of them,” said Johnson Wednesday evening. “We had one of our four scorers sick the whole week before sections and they just kind of fell apart in the second race. But that’s just the way it rolls in a sport like skiing. I’d rather go out fighting than get blown out of the water.”
The three skiers advancing for the Giants include Lydia Skelton, Bella Thomas and Anna Greenlee. Skelton will be racing at state for the second time with Thomas and Greenlee making their first appearances.
Skelton finished last year’s meet in 46th place and Johnson thinks having that extra trip under her belt will do wonders for her on Friday.
“She definitely knows to how to take it to that next level. The first year was all about gaining that experience and dipping her toes in the water with how fast she can go and how much she can do. The second year, it’s been a world of difference with all the things she’s learned. She’s definitely ready.”
Finishing fourth overall at sections, Johnson believes Skelton has put herself in the conversation with the best of the best.
“She’s been skiing with the top of section 7, Gretchen Haggenmiller (Duluth East), Zoe Devine (Ely), girls like that. I think her making all-state, the top 25, is very achievable for her. She’s ready to go after it. She’s very solid mentally and has the ability to just keep pushing. She’s definitely a contender.”
Just a freshman, Bella Thomas has made great strides this season and will only continue to get better as she gains experience according to her coach.
“Skiing is all about technique and she’s really taken that to heart this year,” Johnson said of Thomas. “She’s out skiing all the time, trying to increase or capture that technique. We always say, the more time on skis, the better so she’s constantly improving herself.”
In addition, Thomas is familiar with state meets in other sports, namely cross country and track and field.
“The big thing we noticed is that she was already in shape when she came in to this season. Everyone on the team was dedicated to getting better in the offseason and using their past experiences to help them ski.”
Making her first state meet as a senior, Johnson said Anna Greenlee made every second count in her final season with the Giants.
“She spent much more time in the fitness center this summer and you can tell she has more tools in her toolbox this season with how well she’s skiing.
“Missing the state meet the last two years, she realized this is her last stop so she’s been building her confidence through the years and building that physical strength. She’s been so close so many times and this is the first time she’s gotten it so it’s exciting to see her go out this way in her senior year.”
Due to cold temperatures and poor weather predicted for today, the state meet was pushed back to Friday. A season with mild temperatures suddenly being affected by extreme cold wasn’t what Johnson and her team predicted, but she believes they’re ready to handle it.
“We’re used to juggling our schedule with cancellations and schedule changes. It’s not uncommon. We’ve had it very good this season. It’s been mild, perfect training and racing weather.
“But I think the kids aren’t too upset about having to wait one more day. They know how miserable it is to race in conditions like that and it’s not fun. It’s not easy. The skis don’t glide. We’re disappointed we can’t go to the Charlie Banks Relays, but we took it in stride.”
With the state meet in their backyard at Giants Ridge, Johnson says her squad should know what to expect, but the races will be tough.
“We love our trail system and we love Giants Ridge. We know we’re skiing on the best trails in the Midwest. But they’re very tough trails and tough courses. We try to capitalize on that as much as we can. We might not have a strong skiing background but we’re trying to build that up here with getting on our trails more and working on the strength training in the summer.”
In the end, Johnson just hopes her girls put forward their best effort to end the year.
“It’s going to be an exciting day. There’s a lot of strong skiers out there and I know our girls are ready for it.”
The State Nordic Ski Meet is set to kick off Friday at 1 p.m. at Giants Ridge.