Dominating. That's about the only way to describe Russell Kennedy this season – in only his Sophomore year of High School. Except for a narrow 1 second loss to Daniel Gelso in last week's penultimate event in Kirkwood, Kennedy has won every event in the CNISSF Nordic League season, an astounding feat for so young a skier, especially in the boys' field.
One of the few skiers known to compete in both Junior National Championships in both Alpine and Cross Country skiing, Kennedy today is all-Nordic, all the time, having traveled to Soldier Hollow, Utah for last fall's SuperTour races and to the National Championships last month in Houghton, Michigan. He has channeled his enthusiasm for the sport to become inarguably the best young racer in the boys field in California.
After a season of racing rocked by poor weather, difficult travel, and canceled points races, it was a huge sigh of relief to conduct the State Championships in gorgeous, spring-like conditions. In Friday's Classic event at Auburn Ski Club, the first part of a two-race series to determine the State Champion, Kennedy served notice that he wasn't about to let his recent narrow defeat turn into a trend, winning the 5 kilometer, 2-lap event by a comfortable 15 seconds.
Saturday's weather dawned even brighter and warmer, and while the snow held up extremely well for the earlier High School races, competitors and spectators were treated to sun-bathing conditions for the championship event, another 5 kilometer race around the previous days course, only this time using Freestyle/Skating technique, and having the start occur in Pursuit format, where skiers start off according to their overall time differentials from the previous day. The first skier out the gate always has a large imaginary target on his back, but Kennedy quickly left no doubt that he wasn't about to be caught on Saturday, increasing his time differential throughout the course, and finishing with an overall combined time (classic & skate) of 31 minutes and 25 seconds, 33 seconds in front of Silver medalist Gelso (31:58). Kennedy combined his State Championship win with the overall victory in League Points (a combination of all the races up until Saturday). Third place for the boys was another classic battle between Miles Heapes of North Tahoe and Justin Ondry of Truckee. Starting 8 seconds behind, Heapes was able to slowly reel in his Truckee opponent and finish third with a time of 32:31, a mere two seconds in front of Ondry. Truckee boys took the overall Team championship by placing 6 out of the top 10 racers.
The Varsity Girls event was much less of a sure-thing for the overall victory, as 3 girls have split most of the races this season, and a fourth close behind. Truckee skiers Bernie Nelson and Annika Taylor, along with Mammoth High's Dayna Stimson, have each won races in 2008, and Truckee Sophie Aaron has been close behind. Friday's event went to Mammoth's Stimson, who eked out a close 3 second win over Taylor, with Aaron only a second behind. The top 4 girls were separated by less than 10 seconds starting out at Saturday's Skate race, and spectators were in for a treat, as the State Championship was completely up for grabs. By the start of the second lap, however, it was obvious that Truckee's Freshman Sensation Taylor was clearly up to the task, obliterating her competition with a 46 second differential and cruising to the championship with an overall time of 36:01. Stimson (36:44) managed to hold onto 3rd by increasing her distance over 3rd place Aaron (36:53). Nelson, the last freshman to win states two years ago, finished fourth with a time of 37:02. In all, the Truckee girls were able to dominate the Team Points competition, placing 6 out of the top 7 in the Varsity division.
In the Open (formerly JV) Division, it was a similar story line, with a Truckee boy dominating throughout the season and continuing onto the Championships in fine form, while the Open Girls was much more of battle throughout the season. Except for the Sprint Competition at Truckee High School, Truckee freshman Austin Meng was untouchable throughout the season, posting impressive wins in each distance race. Friday and Saturday were no exception, as Meng powered to a 49 second win at Friday's Classic event over Mammoth's Will Stimson, and reprised that performance with a 40 second margin on Saturday for an overall winning time of 35:05. Stimson (36:34) held onto second, and a hard-charging David Wise of South Lake Tahoe overtook Truckee's Ryan Zusy in the Skate race to finish 3rd in 37:35. Like all the skiers mentioned in the varsity recap, those top 3 boys will be making their first journey to Junior Nationals in Alaska next month.
The Open Girls division had been dominated throughout the season by points champion Michelle Cahill of North Tahoe High School, but on this weekend of racing, Truckee's Annika Deurlington decided to put it all together. Powering to an impressive 50 second win over Cahill in Friday's event, Deurlington knew she also had the proverbial “target” on her for the Skate race, but she never looked back and took the top time of the day on Saturday as well, finishing overall in 41 minutes and 56 seconds, a whopping one minute and 20 seconds ahead of Cahill's combined time. Coming in third was Truckee's Lauryl Rudolph, who was also the 3rd place points finisher in the overall League Standings.
The Middle School Championship was also on the docket for Saturday, with the junior division racing only the Skate event to determine the top skier. With only 3 points separating the top 4 skiers in the League title won by Mammoth Middle School's Alex Picken, it was anybody's race. As conditions turned from firm to slushy in the afternoon, skiers knew it was going to be a tough test around the 4 kilometer (2 lap) course. After one lap, there was a narrow margin between the top 3, with Picken, North Tahoe's Patrick McElravey, and Alder Creek Middle School's Jordan McElroy vying for the lead. As they entered the second lap, however, it was McElravey who sprinted ahead for the lead, and didn't look back until he crossed the line in first with a time of 13 minutes and 39 seconds, a comfortable 8 seconds ahead of Truckee's McElroy (13:47). Picken faded back to 3rd place, finishing in 14:12, followed by Alder Creek's Alex Kopytko (14:57) and North Tahoe's Garret Driller (15:05).
For the girls, it was anybody's guess as the winner of 2 out of the previous 3 league races, Allene Kennedy was out with illness. In the end, it was a hard-fought battle by last week's winner at Kirkwood, Mammoth Middle School's Laurel Fiddler, and North Tahoe's Tenaya Driller. Taking the early lead, Fiddler held off a hard charging Driller to finish with a State Championship time of 16 minutes and 13 seconds, less than 2 seconds in front. Alder Creek's Sarah Williams managed a 3rd place finish with a time of 16:38, followed closely by Emily Nall of North Tahoe (16:41) and Mammoth's Amanda Burke (16:56). Most importantly, Saturday marked the first time in anyone's recent memory that Alder Creek was defeated in the Team Championship, with North Tahoe, lead by McElravey, Driller, Niko Sabah, and Burke Deniz taking the Boys crown in a narrow win over Alder Creek, while a rare tie went to North Tahoe (led by Driller, Nall, Shelby Foster, and Alicia Pieper) and Mammoth (headed by Fiddler, Burke, Maren Hauter, and Joelle Romo). As consolation, Alder Creek managed to sweep the League Championship team points for 2008.
Although the CNISSF season is now complete, there are lots more very important races, both Junior and Adult, coming up soon. Junior Olympics for many of the top high school athletes begins March 10th in Anchorage, Alaska, and there are still a few important races left on the local schedule, including the Great Ski Race and the California Gold Rush. Up-to-the-minute details and results on all local Nordic racing events can be found by clicking to www.farwestnordic.org.