Team closes out season at Aspen
[ by Than Acuff ]
The Crested Butte Nordic Team (CBNT) wrapped up their racing season as a team with their final Junior National Qualifier (JNQ) of the season in Aspen on Saturday and Sunday, February 25-26. Now, with points from the season from the four JNQ events totaled up, it looks like five CBNT athletes are qualified for the USSA Cross Country Ski Junior National Championships in Fairbanks, Alaska March 13-16.
Eleven members of the CBNT race team and six from the DEVO team made the trip to Aspen and while the final race of the season can bring stress, coach Ben Theyerl kept it all in perspective for his athletes.
“Kids can go into the last weekend with a lot of pressure,” says Theyerl. “The emphasis was to keep it fun and celebrate all the work they’ve put in over the past five months.”
Part of the celebration does involve hard work though and the team opened the weekend with classic sprint races on Saturday. Crested Butte has often struggled with the sprint events and the format opens with a qualifier race from which skiers are seeded for the knockout stages throughout the day with the top two advancing. In addition, a couple of third place finishers with the top times out of all the heats also advance, dubbed the “lucky loser.” Theyerl laid it out for all of his racers as they prepared for the sprint day.
“My big goal was for them to be confident in themselves,” says Theyerl. “I wanted all of them to have a great qualifier race and they did that.”
As the day progressed and skiers battled through the heats three CBNT athletes continued advancing and eventually made it to the finals in their respective races.
“I think it’s the first time we’ve put multiple kids in the finals in sprints,” says Theyerl.
Finn Veit overcame some adversity in both the quarterfinals and semifinals, including a fall in the semifinal, in the u16 boys races to reach the finals and finished the day fourth overall.
“He skied a great race in the finals and just missed out on the podium,” says Theyerl.
Sophia Bender made her way into the quarterfinals and skied away from her opponents to ease into the semifinals where she redeemed herself from last year making the cut to the finals after finishing third in the semis, but fast enough to move on.
“She was in third but pushed hard all the way to the line and was the ‘lucky loser’,” explains Theyerl.
Bender finished her day with a fifth place finish.
After surviving chaos in the quarterfinals and semifinals to win both of those races, she then lined up against some heavy hitters and pushed her way to a fourth place finish.
“There were falls all around her in the heats and really, really fast girls back from racing in Europe and she wasn’t fazed at all,” says Theyerl.
The DEVO kids had a strong day as well posting a second place and fourth place finish in the younger age classes.
The team then rested, recovered and booted back up for 7.5-kilometer mass start skate races on Sunday for all of the racers from u16 up, all at the same time.
“It was the first time all season the u16s raced with the older kids,” says Theyerl. “It was a little surprise for our kids, but I just told them to go into Sunday and have one more good race.”
Ezzell kicked it off for the CBNT crew and since she was already in for Junior Nationals, Theyerl gave her a challenge to go out as hard as she could and let the chips fall where they may.
“I told her to stay with the lead pack and if you blow up, you blow up,” says Theyerl.
Ezzell did that and did not blow up. While the lead group did eventually pull away, Ezzell hung on to finish fourth and earn a spot on the Rocky Mountain Nordic all-state team.
U18 skiers Piper and Katie O’Neill worked with each other throughout the course and Piper made one final push on the final hill to the finish line which would pay off in the end as she was named as an alternate to the Rocky Mountain Division team headed to Junior Nationals.
“She had a great race to end the season,” says Theyerl.
Bender was in the mix among the older racers as well and closed out the weekend placing eighth among her u16 peers and is also headed to Junior Nationals.
Veit left it all out on the course chasing after the older skiers to place ninth overall, fourth among the u16 athletes. Meanwhile, a passing of the buck happened among two other CBNT skiers. U18 athlete Oliver White helped usher u16 athlete Jake Pendy through the flesh mass of racers, enough so that Pendy earned a spot at Junior Nationals with his result.
“It was the older skier helping the younger skier to reach the next level,” says Theyerl. “That race sealed Jake’s qualifier spot. It was really cool.”
The DEVO team shined again with two CBNT skiers winning their races and two others placing first and second in their race.
Ezzell, Veit, Bender, Pendy and O’Neill now turn their attention to Junior Nationals. Theyerl has one more training block in store for them but really, it’s all about one more practice with the entire team and then resting for Junior Nationals.
“We’re going into a nice taper,” says Theyerl. “It’s been a great season.”