Northern Michigan hosts CCSA Championships at Al Quaal in Ishpeming

MARQUETTE – Northern Michigan University Nordic ski coach Sten Fjeldheim experienced a bit of a nightmare Tuesday.

Temperatures in Ishpeming hit a high of 36 degrees, causing the fresh, wet, packed blanket of snow that had fallen overnight at the Al Quaal Recreation Area to slowly melt.

Less than 24 hours later, Fjeldheim’s nightmare turned into a pleasant dream. Wednesday’s winter storm and the ensuing lake effect on Thursday dumped over a half-foot of snow onto the Al Quaal cross country skiing stadium, setting up an exciting weekend for racers and fans.

“Tuesday was a little bit scary, but looking at the weather, we knew it was going to get cold. We had a good base,” Fjeldheim said.

“The trail conditions should be excellent.”

Al Quaal and NMU will host the first half of the Central Collegiate Ski Association Championships starting at noon on Saturday and at 10 a.m. on Sunday.

The second leg will be hosted by Gustavus Adolphus College on Feb. 16-17 at Mount Itasca in Minnesota.

While GAC hosts the traditional individual classic and freestyle distance races – men’s 10-kilometer classic and 20-K freestyle, women’s 5-K classic and 15-K freestyle – Northern will put on a series of 1.5-K freestyle sprint races on Saturday at the cross country skiing stadium, as well as three-person classic relays on Saturday that takes racers back into the forest.

The individual preliminaries for the freestyle sprints begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, followed by heats leading up to the finals.

On Sunday, the women’s 3-by-5K classic relays begin at 10 a.m., with the men’s 3-by-10K classic relays to follow at noon.

None of the events taking place at Al Quaal are NCAA championship events, so a bad weekend can’t hurt a racer’s postseason chances, Fjeldheim said.

It’s for that reason the veteran NMU coach believes his Wildcats and their opponents will take chances not normally seen at traditional races.

“The athletes, not just at NMU, but all around the region, are really looking forward to this weekend because it’s really the only weekend we have where there isn’t anything on the line for qualifying for the NCAA,” Fjeldheim said.

“The kids can take a little bit more risk, put the hammer down and see what they can do.”

Fjeldheim said he expects his men’s and women’s racers to excel in the classic relays because he typically doesn’t recruit sprinters.

Because the NCAA only holds championships in the distance races, Fjeldheim said he focuses on the endurance athletes.

That doesn’t mean Northern is lacking in sprinters, however.

On the men’s side, Fjeldheim pointed to senior Chris Bowler and junior Ben Hugus, both of Wausau, Wis., as the top male sprinters.

Fjeldheim said a week ago at the Saints Invitational in Minnesota, NMU juniors George Cartwright of Wyoming and Erik Soderman of Sweden showed they had some sprinter in them.

Cartwright edged out St. Scholastica’s Jeremy Hecker by one-tenth of a second and Soderman by two-tenths to win the 20.5-K freestyle race.

Fjeldheim said not to sleep on either Cartwright or Soderman in the sprints, especially on the 1.5-K Al Quaal sprint course, which includes two big climbs.

“I don’t really count Erik out, but he doesn’t consider himself a sprinter,” Fjeldheim said. “George is much more of a sprinter than Erik is.”

NMU’s top two female sprinters – senior Monica Markvardsen and sophomore Felicia Gesior – are redshirting this season. But Fjeldheim does have two freshmen he said are “decent” sprinters in Hannah Boyer of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Mary Kate Cirelli of Rutland, Vt.

Boyer is coming off a 5.8-K classic win at the Saints Invitational, while Cirelli’s best finish in her rookie campaign was taking first in the 5-K classic at the Michigan Tech Opener in Houghton.

“Mary Kate has an incredible engine, just an unbelievable work ethic. She is super fit. Working with her technique, she’s only going to get better,” Fjeldheim said.

“Hannah Boyer is more of a technician and needs to keep working on her fitness and strength.

“So it’s kind of unique. If I could take Hannah’s technique and give it to MK for a race, she’d be unstoppable.”

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.