COLERAINE — Despite a major winter storm and threatening sub-zero temperatures, the Mt. Itasca Nordic Ski Association successfully hosted the Mt. Itasca Invitational, a Junior National Qualifier, on Jan. 18 and 19, in Coleraine.

About 250 skiers participated each day.

The weekend’s races were part of a series of races through Central Cross Country Skiing, a regional arm of the US Ski and Snowboard Association that aims to foster cross country ski culture by creating opportunities for athletes and coaches—including these races that are part of the Junior National Team Qualifying system.

The athletes who were racing out at Mt. Itasca are the best Nordic skiers in Minnesota and beyond. The Central Collegiate Ski Association also sent its teams to the event, bringing some of the nation’s best collegiate skiers to the northland.

After a snowstorm dumped almost a foot of snow on Coleraine overnight, the conditions of the course on Jan. 18, were surprisingly good given the overnight work done by the Mt. Itasca groomers. The track was a little soft, but didn’t prevent these athletes from turning in impressive performances.

For the women’s 5 km race, NCAA skier Sarah Goble of Michigan Tech turned in the fastest race of the day. The girls’ U18 (under 18) race featured many of Minnesota’s top high school cross country skiers, with the state’s two top-ranked skiers – Lauren McCollor of Wayzata and Libby Tuttle of Stillwater – finishing in a tie.

Local athletes excelled as well. Emma Stertz of Grand Rapids and Annika Viren of Bovey, both skiing for the College of St. Scholastica, finished fourth and 18th in the U20 competition; former high school teammate Lucia Wyland of Grand Rapids, now a student-athlete at St. Olaf, finished 12th. In the U18 category, Grand Rapids High School skier Elsa Viren blazed to a sixth place finish. In the U16 category, Sanny Gangi of Coleraine finished 18th.

The men’s 10k competition was dominated by Scandinavians, with three Norwegian collegiate men finishing in the top five, with Kjetil Banerud of Northern Michigan University taking first place just one second faster than teammate Mathias Rolid. Somer Schrock of Grand Rapids, skiing for Michigan Tech, finished 27th in the collegiate competition. In the U18 category, Grand Rapids High School racer Sam Stertz skied to a strong 11th place finish. Fellow northland competitor Jasper Johnston of Ely took the top spot. In the U16 competition, Matej Cervenka of Grand Rapids skied to a 10th place finish.

The Jan. 19 races were shaping up to be in the icebox, but conditions were well above zero by the start of Sunday’s Classic Mass Start competition. The college men got the day off to an exciting start, with two skiers pulling away from the pack over the course of the 20k race, ultimately won by Mathias Rolid over fellow Norwegian skier Emil Book Bratbak of St. Scholastica.

Another Norwegian, Hilde Eide of Northern Michigan, won the women’s collegiate race; local athletes Emma Stertz finished 10th while Lucia Wyland came in 21st.

In the U18 boys’ 10k race, Sam Stertz started extremely strong and managed to hold on to an excellent seventh place finish. In the U20 girl’s 10k race, Annika Viren finished second, while her sister Elsa Viren was 14th in the U18 category. Matej Cervenka turned in an outstanding Classic ski performance finishing fourth in the U16 boys’ category, while Sanny Gangi finished 20th among the girls.

“It was a remarkable weekend of skiing,” said Mt. Itasca Nordic Ski Association President Jon Arntson. “The level of competition was off the charts. It’s a treat to see athletes of that caliber compete right out our back door.”

Arntson pointed out that the Mt. Itasca Nordic Ski Association is largely a volunteer organization. He wanted to thank those dedicated people. “We pull events like this off because we have people who love the sport, love the venue, and love our home,” he said. More than 30 volunteers helped with the event each day.

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