CLOQUET—While waxing his skis inside the Pine Valley chalet prior to Monday afternoon's Nordic ski practice as the snow fell outside, coach Glen Sorenson recalled having about a baker's dozen worth of skiers out for his Cloquet-Esko-Carlton program when he began.
Four winters later, Sorenson saw his Lumberjacks land almost that many on the All-Conference team.
In fact, CEC counted 10 skiers with such honors, as they crowded the podium at last Friday afternoon's Lake Superior Conference meet at Snowflake Nordic Ski Center in Duluth.
"We had a bunch," said Sorenson, who is in his fourth season leading the Lumberjacks, but has been involved with the outdoor sport for 38 years, since beginning Proctor's program in 1979.
Their skiing success has led to an exponential growth in numbers. While fewer than 15 kids were out for the team in Sorenson's first season, 30 came out a year after that, 45 last winter and they're up to 60 or so this year.
Sorenson noted they now take two buses to meets and had to purchase new uniforms this year.
"It's a great thing," said Sorenson, standing in the sizable Pine Valley chalet that has plenty of room for kids, backpacks, waxing, skis and most importantly — warmth. "Not many schools are lucky enough to have a place like this. I've had to wax skis in the basement of a school before."
Waxing helps skis glide better on the paths, repelling snow, and helps skiers go faster. Such was evident last week when the CEC girls swept the podium with Carlton senior Erika Fox winning the conference crown, followed by runner-up Cloquet senior Anja Maijala and Cloquet junior Franny Slater coming in third.
The talented trio never trailed, carrying their morning 5,000-meter skate success into the afternoon's 5K classical pursuit. Followed by Slater in All-Conference honors was senior Sylvie Deters (sixth), sophomore Jade Maki (ninth) and Elise Pickar (10th). The Lumberjacks' 392 points was trailed by Duluth Denfeld's 369, while Proctor-Hermantown and Duluth Marshall rounded out the field.
The boys' side was much closer, as CEC edged the Rails 384-381, while the Hilltoppers and Hunters followed in third and fourth. Although senior Parker Sinkkonen was the only Lumberjack present on the podium as runner-up, junior Tyler Northey (fourth), senior Quinn Erkkila (fifth) and senior Isaac Boedigheimer (ninth) all were honorees.
Many other Lumberjack names littered the results page afterward, too. But it's not their times and finishes that mean most. In this program, it's evident that the coaches and skiers care for one another more than anything.
Plenty of smiles circulated in the chalet prior to practice Monday, as skiers swapped school backpacks for skis and poles, bundled up and headed for the trails.
"We're all super close — some of my best friends are on this team," said Slater, now in her third season with the varsity program. "You're always together. Especially if you're at the same pace."
That's exactly where you'll find Slater, Deters and close friend and senior Emma Waugh. You'll often find the trio together everywhere, even when they're not skiing.
Not long after their interviews Monday, Slater and Deters went out together to get their workout in for the day.
The same could be said about Fox and Maijala. While Fox is from Carlton and Maijala Cloquet, both are incredibly athletic. Each were Nordic state qualifiers in seasons past, and they both excel — and have been to state for several years — in cross country and track and field, too. So going 1-2 last Monday wasn't a surprise.
"They're nice to have," said Slater. "I can't keep up with them very often."
Both athletes and bright students are visiting schools across the country, as Fox will be in Montana soon, while Maijala — who has been along the East Coast already — will trek up to Fairbanks, Alaska, for a school visit.
Maijala actually is battling a shoulder injury sustained at a recent national Nordic competition in Utah. There, a competitor accidentally stepped on her pole, she fell, and dislocated her shoulder. Sorensen said she barely finished the classical pursuit last week.
"It was terrifying," Sorenson said. "She didn't want to fall again."
Luckily, she didn't, and was able to celebrate with her teammates afterward. Boys and girls included.
Like many of the boys and girls on the team, a good majority began the sport when they were young. Grandparents and parents got them hooked and likewise will be the case when these teenagers grow up and have families.
"This is a lifelong sport," said Sorenson, who loves the outdoors and will be taking part again in this year's 44th annual American Birkebeiner in Hayward later this month. "They're going to do this after graduation and eventually teach their kids how to ski. It's a family affair."
That's how Deters grew up, going with her family. The same for Slater, who was part of the Cloquet Kids Ski program. Sophomore Aidan Ripp's father skied all over at the most elite of levels. And Sinkkonen skied first when learning from his Finnish grandfather. Sinkkonen still dons a blue and white Finnish-flag winter hat when going out on the trails.
Deters joined the team in eighth grade with Waugh and she's happy she did.
"I think skiing really brings us all together," said Deters, in her fifth and final season with the team. "I'm not only going to miss this sport, but the team. They're kind of like a family. We all just get along so well. It's so positive."
Deters' classmate Sinkkonen would agree, now in his sixth season since joining as a scrawny seventh-grader. He's come a long way, however, and may even join Michigan Tech's team next winter in Houghton, Mich.
Sinkkonen, also who runs cross country and track, spoke highly of Sorenson, one who has played a big role in turning Sinkkonen into a potential collegiate skier. The 64-year-old Sorenson, who beat prostate cancer just a couple years ago, is everything to the cooperative program along with fellow coach Ben Croft. You can hear it in his voice that he cares so much and wants the best for all kids who put on their skis. He takes the time to talk to everyone. He skis. He instructs. And at meets, he encourages — often from atop a hill in the middle of the course — to help shave seconds of their times.
"I love working and I love teaching," Sorenson said. "I think a good coach is a good teacher."
"He does everything for us," said Sinkkonen. "When you see Glen, you pick it up and kick it in. We love him."
This is likely Sorenson's final season as head coach for CEC. He noted that his newest assistant Arne Maijala (Anja's father and the Cloquet long distance running coach) will be taking over if not next year, very soon. That's fine by Sorenson, who knows the program will continue in good hands. However, you can bet that the outdoorsman will often be there to assist at future practices.
Ken Ripp, Aidan's father, also helps often with the program. A decorated skier himself — even competing semi-professionally according to Aidan — Ripp has helped turn his son into quite the athlete. Aidan missed the conference meet last week due to illness, but was checking the results from his home. He's the top skier on the boys end and has a shot — along with Sinkkonen and perhaps one or two others — to qualify for the Feb. 16 state meet at Giants Ridge. The Section 7 meet is next Thursday, also at Giants Ridge.
Aidan has traveled across the country to compete also in Nordic Combined, which combines cross country skiing and ski jumping. He's trained, competed and attempted to qualify for teams at the national level and is only getting better. He's been to half a dozen states and even Europe to compete.
When asked if he could beat his dad, though, he took a second to respond.
"It'd be interesting," Aidan admitted with a laugh. "In a longer race, he'd definitely get me, I know that much. I don't know about a sprint."
One thing is certain, though. Aidan will be around for awhile still, and although Sorenson may be gone, one can bet the numbers and success will continue down the road.
"I really enjoy skiing and getting these kids," said Sorenson, still waxing his skis and getting ready to go ski himself. "We're just about maxed."