HATCHER PASS — The Palmer girls and Colony boys stood out among the racers at Government Peak Recreation Area last weekend for the Region III Northern Championships, even if they only featured skiers from three schools in the Mat-Su Borough School District.
In the third race of the year for Valley skiers, Palmer swept the top three spots in the girls races on both Friday’s classic race and Saturday’s skate race at GPRA. Over 40 athletes from Palmer, Colony and one Susitna Valley High School skier competed in the 2021 region meet, and the ASAA/First National Bank Nordic Ski State Championships will also be held at GPRA starting on Thursday.
“It’s definitely a weird experience not having the stands lined with parents and athletes because we’re used to having all the [Kenai] Peninsula schools here too, like even coming up up Eska was really weird not having so many people cheering you on which I think makes it a little more difficult to ski too, which is just not having as many people out on the course and cheering you on,” said Palmer’s Aila Berrigan.
Berrigan took third in both the classic and skate races and finished with a combined time of 35:21. Palmer’s Rosie Whittington-Evans won Friday’s classic race with a time of 17:17, just 17 seconds ahead of teammate Katey Houser. Houser won Saturday’s skate race with a time of 15:37.6, extending her lead over Whittington-Evans for the overall Region Title with a combined time of 33:16.
“Some of my favorite parts of skiing is the crowds, I live for that. You pull energy from the people who are cheering and it fills you up and you can put that extra bit, but on days like this you have to like find it in yourself, imagine the crowds, you have to be your own cheerleader,” said Houser.
Colony’s Lydia Bushey finished in 4th place overall, followed by Ellie Henneman from Palmer in fifth. Palmer also placed Brittyn Werner 8th overall with a combined time of 41:43. Colony’s Lucy Shea was sixth, Anna Bell finished in seventh, Nicole Bell finished in ninth and Abby Novak rounded out 10th place.
“I think all the ladies stepped up today and they did that and I think you can only be proud of the maturity, the discipline, the focus, the poise that they show when they go to the line because this is not easy,” said Palmer head coach Mikey Evans.
In the boys races, Noah Hanestad won the Friday classic race by nearly 30 seconds over teammate Garrett Streit with a time of 15:47. On Saturday, it was Jayden Rice’s turn. Rice beat Hanestad by 21 seconds to take first place in the skate race, but couldn’t overtake Hanestad for the overall title. Hanestad’s combined time of 37:09.6 was just seven seconds faster than Rice. The Knights placed seven skiers in the top 10. Garrett Streit finished fifth, followed by Layne Buchanan, Isaak Kristich, Jack Klayum, Tobias Buchanan, and Su Valley High School’s Thomas MacDonald in 10th overall.
Palmer’s Jaxson Lee took home second place in the classic race and fourth place on Saturday for a third place overall finish with a combined time of 38:04.8. Lee’s teammate Tom Merritt took sixth on Friday and finished Saturday with a third place time of 21:37.5, finishing fourth overall.
“In the short time that I’ve gotten to work with Tom, that kid is such a hard worker, he is so disciplined, he is so coachable that he has just continued to ski better and better and better every time he puts the boots on,” said Evans. “Every team needs a Jaxson Lee, that kid just keeps you on your toes. He keeps you guessing, he keeps you rethinking the way you coach and work with athletes because he’s such a unique individual and a fun kid to work with and yesterday he set some big goals for himself this year and he showed that he is willing to do the work to chive those goals and yesterday he skied really well.”
Skiers in the MSBSD have been able to compete at GPRA three times this year at the Colony Invite on Jan 9, the GPRA Invite on Jan 23 and Regions last weekend. The upcoming State Ski Meet at GPRA on Thursday will be highly anticipated, despite the unique circumstances.
“It’s a big deal to have state,” said Evans. “I’m just happy that they get to compete. I’m happy that they get an opportunity to cash in on 11 months of training and not much racing so I’m excited for all the kids and I’m really excited for the Mat-Su Ski Club to have state out here because this venue is just so amazing and the Mat-Su Ski Club has done a terrific job this year of being super flexible, of being willing to step up at a moments notice and put on really quality races.”
Evans thanked Mat-Su Ski Club members Lori and Tony Berrigan, Steven Merritt, and other volunteers who have worked to put on races for skiers this winter, despite the limited number of participants.
“That’s what I love about the sport is it takes an army of volunteers, it takes a community who loves the lifelong aspect of this sport to make it happen and as a coach I just get to benefit from all that so I’m excited to get to see them do it again and enjoy the fruit of all that labor. It’s really cool, it’s exciting, it’s a great time to be a Mat-Su skier and I just hope it continues,” said Evans.
Following a painful race on a particularly cold Saturday morning, Berrigan, Houser, and Whittington-Evans were proud of the opportunity to host state on their home course.
“It’s to our advantage because we ski out here every single day and it’s like those Anchorage kids are like oh my god, hills,” said Whittington-Evans.
Houser interrupts her teammate to finish her thought.
“These are our hills.”