The stakes were high and the intensity higher at this weekend’s EISA Regional Championships at Middlebury, VT. The snow storm that hit a good portion of the east coast delayed races by a day, as the trail and slope crews busied themselves dealing with an onslaught of heavy, wet, snow.
Saturday’s classic races reflected the tail-end of the snow storm, as warm temperatures combined with wet snow squals provided a Vancouver-esque day at the Rikert Touring Center. The races were run around a 5.5 km loop: once for women and twice for men. The scramble to find a wax and ski combination that worked made for last-minute applications and left coaches more harried than the skis they attempted to prepare.
Much of the field – both men and women – ended up on waxless skis. The first half of both races were met with clear, glazed tracks which most racers had to slip, muscle, and double-pole through – while the second half of both fields encountered snow flurries which bettered the kick for some but slowed the tracks considerably.
Both race winners, UVM’s F Bernstein and Dartmouth’s Katie Bono, showed true grit as they both did what it took to get their skis down the track for the fastest finishing times.
Bono has had many top finishes this season but this was her first win. She said at first she thought, as had happened a few weekend’s ago, that she had been named the winner by mistake. Bono skied through the stadium at mid-course in an all-out double pole, even up the hills. Though the rest of the course had some sizeable climbs, Bono used her strength to pull herself to the top of the podium.
“I didn’t feel good out there – it was just kind of an awkward day, with the snow – but I’m a pretty strong double poler, so it was a good course for me.”
Bernstein, on the other hand, thought his skis worked well for most of the race.
“I was happy when it started snowing because I used zeros [waxless skis], and then on the second lap when it stopped snowing I think everyone had problems with that, but I was lucky to push on through and it worked out well,” said Bernstein, noting it was just at the end that the uphills got tough and he had to try forcing the kick and ski outside the track.
Dimitri Luthi of Williams finished in second place, working with teammate Keith Kantack who placed 6th in order for Williams to tie Middlebury for the second place team score behind an impressive finish by the seniors from Saint Lawrence University. Leading SLU was Eric Wolcott with a 3rd place finish, followed by teammates Zachary Wetherell in 5th and Ben Knowles in 7th. The trio has been strong all season but always just outside the very top spot, and on this weekend their hard efforts and patience finally returned huge dividends.
Zach Wetherell, on the bubble for NCAA qualifying, posted the first of two great results which solidified his qualification.
“I was happy with it, the biggest thing for me was just to stay really relaxed and smooth and, as tough as it was – with my skis icing up at the top of the hills from the klister – I just had to kick ‘em off, just really keep my head in it, and stay focused.
As far as the team goes, we’ve proved that we’ve been a pretty significant threat from the start and it was good to finally see it come together today. I’m really proud of my two buddies over here[indicating to Knowles and Wolcott] because they’re just a huge part of it – the three of us hammering it in there all season long – its good to see it finally pay off.”
Ida Sargent of Dartmouth who had yet to lose a classic race this season, finished 13 seconds back to Bono, and along with Rosie Brennan in 4th the Dartmouth women took the top team score of the day – again. Harvard women, led by Cara Sprague, took second.
Clare Egan, who was the third individual finisher of the day, was the surprise challenger of the weekend. Hailing from Wellesley College, which is outside of the EISA league, this weekend was Egan’s one chance to qualify for the NCAA’s for the eastern region. Egan did not let the pressure get to her, as she not only posted a qualifying finish in the classic race, but proved the conditions did not make allow for the fluke finish by earning an 11th place in Sunday’ skate race.
Sunday dawned cool and crisp, but blue skies and sunshine – though a welcome reprieve from the previous day’s elements – warmed the course considerably mid-way through the women’s race and made for a very long, hot, and brutally tough mass start skate race for both fields.
It was no surprise that the Dartmouth women led off the line and pulled away from the rest of the pack. Ida Sargent, Rosie Brennan, and Sophie Caldwell built a considerable lead on the rest of the field by working together and never letting the pace slow. Brennan said they hadn’t planned it that way, but since they were all in the front row in the mass start chevron, it was easy to stay ahead of the field.
“We were just skiing together, and Sophie took a good pull at the front and all of a sudden it was the three of us,” said Brennan, adding that the trio did not just sit on their lead and coast. “Whenever someone would get in the front we would just start hammering again, so it was actually really hard.”
Their blistering pace set them apart from the field by more than a minute and a half, Sargent finishing 2 minutes up on fourth place finisher Jennie Bender (who, though she had Katie Bono clicking at her heels for some time, had to ski much of the race by herself), with Brennan in second and Caldwell in third.
After the classic race Franz Bernstein had said that if conditions were as tough for the skate race he would “just want to survive,” but he added “I’ll see how it goes, I think I’m in good shape right now, so maybe a good result will come out.”
A good result did come out, and Bernstein seemed to be thriving, not surviving, as he took the lead almost from the beginning of the race and kept widening the gap – skiing alone – until the finish line. Even skiing the final 200 meters with a team flag to slow him down, Bernstein’s lead over the rest of the field was nearly 20 seconds.
Wyatt Fereday from Colby took second, repeating his skate finish from last weekend, to solidify his place in the top of the ranking list. Patrick Johnson of Middlebury took third, eleven seconds behind Fereday.
In another impressive culmination of team strength and focus, the three seniors from SLU stacked the top results for their second win of the weekend. Ben Knowles finished 4th, Eric Wolcott 5th, and Zach Wetherell – capturing the finish he needed in order to qualify for NCAA’s – placed 10th.
Ethan Townsend, coach of SLU, had been awarded the honor of EISA “Coach of the Year” at the pre-weekend banquet. He could not have been more proud of the three senior men who had worked so hard for such an incredible weekend. Not only did they place first as a team in both races, but all three qualified for NCAA’s in a very competitive field. Townsend first credits some of the team’s success to the fact that he has three assistant coaches – Bob Washo, Andrew Morehouse, and Bryan Pepper– traveling with the team to all the races.
He then praises Wolcott, Wetherell, and Knowles.
“They’re obviously very talented,” said Townsend, “and I think the last couple years they could kind of see that, individually, putting it together sometimes, and then not being very consistent, people getting sick here and there. But this year they all stayed healthy, they trained well through the fall. . . Zack and Eric are just incredible leaders and you’re really only as good as your captains, I think, and they’ve been just fantastic all year long – really good leadership in both training and racing.”
The top 13 women and 11 men from the EISA Ranking list have qualified to attend the NCAA competition in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The 5/10 classic race and 15/20 mass start skate race will be held on March 11th and 13th.
Other NCAA Women Qualifiers: Claire Egan (WC), Natasha Kullas (UNH), Lauren Fritz (MID), Alice Nelson (WIL), Anya Bean (UNH), Caitlin Curran (UVM)
Final Men’s NCAA Qualifier: Zach Wetherell, SLU