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Our Neighbors: Lumberjacks Nordic coach headed into Hall of Fame

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Actions speak louder than words. But face paint also helps.

All a person had to do was look at the faces of the skiers on the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Nordic ski team in January 2015 to know that they adored their head coach, Glen Sorenson, who was in the fight of his life against prostate cancer.

It was literally written across their faces.

Most had “GLEN Strong” — one word on each cheek — while a few sported phrases like “Glide for Glen,” or “Kick Cancer.” By the end of the day, nearly every kid at that invitational ski meet in Coleraine had his or her face painted with encouraging words for the CEC coach, who was at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester while they raced.

Now Sorenson will be inducted into the Minnesota State High School Nordic Ski Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Oct. 29 in Mora, Minn., along with Dave Johnson (former Duluth East coach, current Marshall coach) and Robert Klungness of Bloomington-Jefferson.

The award comes as no surprise to the people Sorenson’s coached, their parents or his fellow coaches.

“Glen has an incredibly positive attitude about the successes and challenges in life,” said Ken Ripp, an avid Nordic skier whose sons, Nolan and Aidan, have both been coached by Sorenson. “He exudes that positivity and it is absorbed by the skiers lucky enough to be coached by him. He sees all the skiers on the team as important. He challenges them to grow as athletes but also as individual people.”

That theme of caring for every member of the team — not just the stars or the funny kids — comes up repeatedly when people are asked about Sorenson.

“He definitely cares about the individual kid,” said Jim Vos, the current Proctor-Hermantown Nordic ski coach who started as an assistant under Sorenson. “He’s not a coach who goes out and says, ‘Here’s what everybody’s gonna do, here’s what’s right for everybody, go do it.’ I’ve always known him to really want to sit down with skiers and hear what they need, hear what’s going to be best for them and work on what they need to work on. No matter how many kids we had on the team and how few assistants we had, he wanted to work with individual kids.”

The Hall of Fame banquet will be a shining Kodachrome moment in Sorenson’s long career as a Nordic ski coach. It’s a career with several chapters, all of them in the Northland but only the latest one in Cloquet. Skiing, of course, is only part of the book but that’s the part this story deals with.

His Proctor chapter came first, and lasted the longest. Sorenson started the Proctor High School girls Nordic ski team in 1979. Title IX, a federal law that basically said girls were to be given equal opportunities as boys, had been passed seven years before and Sorenson said Northland schools were looking to increase the number of girls athletic teams.

Although he’d been a science teacher at Proctor since 1976, in 1982 Sorenson was basically let go for a year. So he went to teach at Cathedral (now Marshall), where he started both a boys and girls Nordic ski team. However, he went back to Proctor and his girls Nordic team the next year, and eventually started the boys Nordic program at Proctor in 1989. He remained at Proctor — teaching science and coaching — until his retirement in 2010.

Over his career, three girls teams coached by Sorenson won section championships and four boys teams did the same, along with numerous conference championships, including the CEC girls the past two years.

Not bad for a guy who never raced as a teenager, although he and his four brothers did grow up on skis.

“We lived kind of in the woods (next to a mink farm) and we didn’t call it cross country, downhill or jumping, but we did all three,” said the White Bear Lake native. “We’d cross country ski to the hill, build a jump out of snow, put up a slalom course and we’d ski and jump and then we’d ski home. We just skied.”

A college gymnast, Sorenson raced for the first time in about 1973, on a pair of “hairies,” skis with hair on the bottom to provide glide and stick (instead of wax). He didn’t win, he said, but he enjoyed it.

Sorenson smiles a lot, whether he’s showing up to cheer his skiers on during a cross country meet on a glorious fall day or explaining exactly what kind of wax a skier wants to use on a certain kind of snow in a certain temperature.

He takes coaching seriously though. When asked if a happy team culture automatically comes with the sport of Nordic skiing, Sorenson says “no.”

“Any sport can be someone’s favorite. And any sport can be someone’s worst,” he said. “It’s the way it’s coached, I believe. The kids feel safe and like they’re getting better at something. They see rewards for hard work, yet we still have fun.”

He expects his skiers to have their priorities straight. Family first, then school (including play practice), then skiing.

“There are two things more important, but skiing is still pretty high,” he said. “That means they’d better not skip practice to get a haircut.”

He admitted it took some pushing his first year in Cloquet to get the kids on board with completing the longer workouts Sorenson was giving them. But it must have been OK, because numbers grew from 17 the first year to 55 last year, in just three years.

He tells prospective skiers that they need to like to be outside in the winter, and not be afraid to ski in the dark under lights in cold weather. They don’t have to have experience or very good equipment (as a beginner).

“If you’re not afraid to work hard, we want you,” he said. “No matter what skill level. I want to teach these kids how to ski because it’s something they can do the rest of their life.”

Sorenson came to the CEC team almost by accident. He knew the team needed a coach. He’d been watching Carlton’s Erika Fox ski at meets. He knew Erika and her parents; he was the been best man at their wedding. He stopped by Cloquet High School one day to talk to Activities Director Tom Lenarz and found out no one had applied from within the school district.
“Then [Tom] said, ‘Why, do you want it?” Glen recalled with a chuckle. “It was about a five-minute job interview and I didn’t even go in looking for it. It’s been unbelievable with these Cloquet kids, their parents, Pine Valley itself.

“But I can’t do this forever.”

This year will be his last, Sorenson said.

ONE OF MANY HONORS

His entry into the Hall of Fame won’t be the first time Sorenson is recognized by his fellow coaches.

He was Minnesota Coach of the Year in the mid-1990s, and Assistant Coach of the Year his last year in Proctor, when he and Vos switched positions.

Just under two years ago, the same year that he was diagnosed with cancer, Sorenson, assistant coach Ben Croft and volunteer Brent Smith — who took over coaching duties seamlessly while Sorenson was being treated — were voted Section 7 Coaches and Volunteer of the Year by their peers. The trio was later voted Coaches and Volunteer of the Year for the entire state.

Vos nominated Sorenson that year. In turn, Sorenson nominated Croft and Croft nominated Smith. Both Croft and Smith had been head coaches before.

“[We] three have been around for 30 years, coaching different teams, and we’ve been friends that long, too,” Croft said. “It’s nice to coach together.”

In typical fashion, all three coaches were modest about the state awards in 2015:

“The three of us are so old that all the coaches know who we are,” Sorenson said. “I think they felt sorry for us.”

In his nomination, Vos talked about how Croft refused to let Sorenson step down, and how Smith came out of retirement to assist. He noted how Sorenson kept in touch with his players from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and his recovery at home via YouTube video, emails and even speaker phone.

“His absence seems to have no effect on his ability to inspire,” Vos wrote. “On more than one occasion this year I have congratulated a CEC skier on a good race only to have them say ‘Thanks! I’m skiing for Glen.’

“I guess kids have been doing that for about 35 years.”

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