Young and hungry
Losing your head coach to a rival school might seem like a bad break. But for Eagle River’s Nordic ski team, the departure of Mikey Evans to Chugiak has made room for an up-and-coming young coach to take the helm of a rapidly developing prep program.
“I’m loving it,” said first-year head coach Liz Turner, a 2004 Chugiak graduate who skied collegiately at Division I University of Wyoming and served as an assistant to Evans last season.
Chugiak is a already an established state power, and Turner said she thinks Eagle River has the athletes and enthusiasm for the sport to take the Wolves’ program to that same level.
“The kids seem really excited,” she said.
About 40 skiers turned out for the program this season, she said, roughly evenly divided between the boys’ and girls’ teams.
Over the summer, Turner said she saw a big change in how some of her athletes prepared for the season. Coaches will tell you good Nordic skiers are made in July, not Janurary, and Turner said she was impressed by how many of her returning skiers were working out on roller skis.
“A lot of our girls are starting to train year-round,” she said.
Eagle River’s girls team is loaded with talented returning skiers, including junior Hannah Stevens, who finished 28th at the state meet last season to lead the team to a 10th place showing. Seniors Jackie Klecka, Brenna Wheeler and Sarah Frankl will join Stevens to make up the nucleus of a veteran squad that looks poised to improve on last year’s seventh place Cook Inlet Conference finish.
Stevens looks like the most likely candidate to challenge for top conference and state honors. After finishing 28th at state last season, the junior cross country running star showed she’s a skier to watch with a 17th place showing at last weekend’s Lynx Loppet races.
On the boys side, Turner said the loss of top seniors Brandon Blackley and Cam Johnson will be tempered by a huge influx of fresh legs. Of the team’s top six varsity skiers, only one — Evan Fisher — is a senior.
“We have a pretty young team this year,” she said.
Juniors Ben Smith and Will Timmons both skied at the state meet last season to help the Wolves finish 10th in Fairbanks. This year, those upperclassmen will be joined at the front of the varsity pack by the likes of freshmen William Hail, Ben Hall and Alex Smith, along with sophomore Sam Erickson.
Although they’re rivals on the course, Eagle River and Chugiak’s skiers and coaches are intimately familiar with one another, Evans said. He believes that if the Wolves can develop their young talent, Eagle River should become a force in the coming years.
“If we can just keep those guys racing, it’s going to be really good,” he said.
Turner said she’s added several volunteer assistants this year who have helped breathe even more new life into the program.
“We have a great coaching staff,” she said. “They’re fantastic.”
While the Wolves likely won’t challenge for titles this season, Turner said the hope is that the team can eventually emulate the success of their rivals from north of the river.
“We’re just trying to build the team up this year,” she said.
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or [email protected]