A few years ago, Ben Croft got a call from a friend working for Rex Ski Wax.

A group of boys from the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Nordic ski team had been participating in some U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association races. The boys had approached the Finnish company about sponsoring their team so they could purchase ski suits for their USSSA races because they weren’t supposed to wear their CEC suits for those events.

The group was mostly ninth and 10th graders at the time.

“I was talking, and they were giggling in the corner,” Croft said. “I said, ‘Well, what’s the name? What are you guys going to go with?’ They said ‘Croft’s Crew’ and it kind of evolved out of that.”

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RELATED: CEC boys advance to the state Nordic meet

The group includes CEC seniors A.J. Maijala, Benjamin Bauer and Josh Sanders, as well as junior Cale Prosen. Carlton graduate Spencer Hoeffling continues to ski with the group when he’s not in class at Vermilion Community College.

Since they created the name, Hoeffling designed a logo for Croft’s Crew. They’ve sold T-shirts and other gear to help raise money to travel to races in the Twin Cities, Wisconsin, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and elsewhere.

The group of five formed the core of a Lumberjack team that advanced to the state Nordic meet for the first time in 30 years, Bauer said. All five of the boys credited their work with Croft as part of the reason they advanced to state in 2020, though sometimes he may come off a little gruff.

Spencer Hoeffling (left) and Josh Sanders practice at Pine Valley Park Thursday, Dec. 17, in Cloquet. The pair are wearing some of the gear they had made for their USSSA team "Croft's Crew." (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)
Spencer Hoeffling (left) and Josh Sanders practice at Pine Valley Park Thursday, Dec. 17, in Cloquet. The pair are wearing some of the gear they had made for their USSSA team "Croft's Crew." (Jamey Malcomb / Pine Journal)

“If you ever watch a cop movie, he’s like the grumpy cop, but really he’s super nice and wholesome,” Maijala said. “That’s what he’s like, — he’s really meticulous about our form and he really got us working good.”

Croft coached Nordic skiing on the Iron Range for nearly 30 years before coming to Cloquet as a volunteer coach. He said USSSA races are more of a challenge than the typical high school race. The endurance races are typically 10 kilometers — twice the distance of a high school race — or sprints, and the competition is much stronger.

“They’re not anxious going into a big race because every other weekend they see the top competitors ... the nerves don't get to them,” Croft said.

The challenge of the USSSA races matches or exceeds the intensity of the state Nordic meet.

“It’s like having a state meet multiple weekends every winter,” Sanders said. “The experiences we get out of these races are unparalleled in any high school race we do.”

Maijala also learned a good life lesson.

“I found out it’s probably not a good idea to eat a gas station muffin and a Slim Jim right before the race,” he said.

The group is close on and off the ski trails, even doing some volunteer work — at Croft’s gentle suggestion.

“I called them and told them they adopted a highway,” Croft said.

The stretch of road on 14th Street in Cloquet near Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College is sponsored by Croft's Crew. The group spends a day or two at least twice a year cleaning trash off the road.

Members of the USSSA ski team "Croft's Crew" get ready to clean the section of 14th Street in Cloquet they adopted. (Photo courtesy of Ben Croft)
Members of the USSSA ski team "Croft's Crew" get ready to clean the section of 14th Street in Cloquet they adopted. (Photo courtesy of Ben Croft)

“It’s nice to give back and it’s a road we drive every day, so it’s nice to see it clean,” Sanders said.

With their work together on the ski trails and competing at USSSA races, Croft’s Crew — along with fellow CEC senior Henry Slater — could power the Lumberjacks to a repeat trip to the state meet once the Nordic season starts in January.

While skiing and racing is fun, the bond the boys have built is something that goes far beyond ski trails and volunteer work.

“Races are great, but Croft’s Crew means something more to me,” Bauer said. “It’s about the camaraderie between a great group of friends.”