A light dusting of snow brought smiles to the faces of some area student-athletes this past week. As temperatures dropped, the East Ridge, Park and Woodbury Nordic ski teams’ seasons began to heat up. 

“The snow draws us in,” said East Ridge senior Madelyn Carpentier. “We’re all attracted to it. It makes you kind of giddy inside to see snow. It’s exciting.”

The PWER (Park, East Ridge and Woodbury) Nordic teams practice together, compete in identical races (except for the section race) and are administrated by the same staff, but race as individual high schools. 

When Joe Wacker took over the three teams three years ago things were fairly grim. The number of skiers in the program was in the 30s. When he started back in 2011, Wacker said his No. 1 goal was to get boost participation. Currently, the program has 110 skiers.

“I think we’ve made some huge strides,” Wacker said. “It’s still my goal to keep increasing the numbers. We’re really happy with this, though. It’s been good.”

Wacker said he gives a lot of credit to the athletes on the team for doing a good job recruiting.

“We try to give them a program and a sport that they can enjoy, but what matters is the kids talking to other kids, telling them how much they like it, what it’s all about and how it helps them in other sports,” Wacker said. “That’s been the biggest factor.”

Wacker brings 'liveliness' to team

Wacker, 25, is the fourth coach in the history of the Nordic program in District 833. A 2007 graduate of Park, Wacker replaced Will Stoltz, who was head coach for two seasons after taking over for longtime head coach James Kyes. Kyes stepped down following the 2008-09 season in order to move to Duluth. Park Athletic Hall of Famer Jerome Detviler was the program’s first coach. Wacker skied for Kyes at Park and then at St. Scholastica.

“Coach Wacker is really enthusiastic,” Carpentier said. “He’s young and he’s brought a new liveliness to the team. I think that’s why there’s been resurgence in Nordic pride.”

When current Park senior Evan Bonneson joined as a sophomore, he said there were only two boys on the team. But, he said he’s seen a big change since then.

“It’s been growing rapidly,” he said. “I’ve been recruiting like mad. It’s really nice to have more kids on the team this year. It’s a good time. Everyone is having a blast.”

For Carpentier, it’s her third year with the program after joining at the “spur of the moment” as a sophomore.

“I heard it was pretty cool,” she said. “I love it now. The greatest thing about the sport is you don’t have to be the best at it to enjoy it. It’s awesome.”

Park senior Charles Ruffin has been skiing cross country since he was 9 years old and competing in Nordic since he was a freshman. He transferred to Park last year and is skiing for the Wolfpack for a second consecutive season.

“I like it because this is a family to me,” Ruffin said. “The people here are all fun to be around. Nordic is just a really fun sport to me. I like being in the snow and getting outside.”

During the Thanksgiving break, the Nordic teams spent roughly six hours training on the snow at Afton Alps over a four-day period. 

“We have a lot of kids in this program that are driven naturally,” Wacker said. “We have a lot of AP students and scholars that know how to drive themselves academically and a handful of kids that are exceptional athletes and used to training an incredible amount.” 

The team captains this season are: Bonneson, East Ridge seniors Sam Boardman and Krystal Kleven and Woodbury senior Pauline Aamodt. 

“The team is super close and really fun to be with,” said Aamodt, who is on the Royals for a second straight year. “I like this sport. It’s fun to get out and be on snow in the winter when you usually have to be stuck inside. I want to make this a lifetime sport. This year I just want to improve and have some fun with it.”

This year East Ridge and Woodbury each have about 30-40 participants and make up about 80 percent of the program. Park has roughly 20 kids taking part. Wacker said he’d still like to see a better balance. 

“Park is as big as it’s been in years, but it’s still not as large as the other teams,” he said. “I’d like to see them be equal.”

Who can join Bonneson at state?

Last season, in the nine-team Suburban East Conference, the East Ridge boys earned seventh place, the Woodbury boys took eighth and the Park boys were ninth. In the girls meet, East Ridge was sixth, Woodbury earned seventh and Park took ninth. 

At last year’s Section 1 meet, the Park boys team took eighth place out of 12 teams and the Park girls were 10th place out of 11 teams. In the 10-team Section 4 race, the East Ridge girls took seventh place and the Woodbury girls placed ninth with 233 points. The East Ridge boys placed eighth and the Woodbury boys took 10th.

“This year we have a lot of kids who want to take the next step,” Wacker said. “Before they may have just been learning how to ski. Now they want to be more competitive. They’re ready to seize the opportunity.”

Individually, Bonneson - an all-conference honorable mention award winner last season - was the only skier from the three schools to reach last year’s state meet. He earned the trip to state after taking ninth at the Section 1 race. He was the first Park Nordic skier to reach the state race since 2009, going on to take 68th overall with a time of 33 minutes, 19.0 seconds in the 10-kilometer pursuit-style state race. 

With 32 seniors finishing ahead of him, Bonneson had the 36th best finish by an underclassman at the state meet.

“The section is a little more open this year, so I’d like to see if I can even place higher,” Bonneson said. “Some people graduated and I’ve learned to ski a bit more this year.”

Wacker said he hopes Bonneson will have company at the state race this winter.

“It’s important to get more kids into state and I think we will,” Wacker said. “It’s an important year for our program to have some success and use that as a springboard for other kids to look up to. We have some great leaders that are great role models. That’s kind of what we were lacking a few years ago.”

Returning is East Ridge senior Sam Boardman. Boardman was the program’s only all-conference skier in the highly competitive Suburban East Conference last year and finished in the top 10 in most every race. However, just before the Section 4 meet Boardman fell ill and was probably at less than 70 percent for the section race, where he finished in 16th place and didn’t qualify for state.

“Sam Boardman is our top skier,” Wacker said. “He just got sick at the wrong time last year and it really affected him at the conference race and at sections. But, there’s nothing you can do about that. He’s in a very tough section, too, but he’s a very talented skier.”

Wacker said another skier to watch this season is Woodbury sophomore Grant Davis, who was the Royals’ top skier at last year’s section meet.

“Grant Davis is just a 10th grader, so he’s young, but he is extremely powerful,” Wacker said. “He could make a run at a very successful season.”

Other top skiers back with the program include: Park senior Connor Gabbert, Woodbury senior Kathleen Danielson and East Ridge sophomores Keri McKenzie, Olivia Hummel and Megan Schiferl.

“They all started to turn the corner last year,” Wacker said. “They really look like skiers this year that could lay down some serious times. We have a good foundation.”

The Forest Lake boys will likely be the team to beat in Section 4 and in the Suburban East Conference. Wacker said the Rangers could be the state champions. For the girls, Stillwater is the favorite in Section 4 and in the SEC. Other strong conference teams are the White Bear Lake girls and Mounds View boys. In Section 1, the defending champion Eagan boys and Lakeville North girls will be favorites. 

“At think by the end of the year we’ll be stronger than we have been the past few years,” Wacker said. “I think we’ll have more individuals who’ll get some individual honors this year. As a team, we want to finish above where we did last year. We want to see them finishing closer to the big dogs points-wise and sneak up and beat a few teams we’re close to.”

-Patrick Johnson