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Wild Rumpus Sports

Anchorage Takes Alaska Nordic Cup Over Fairbanks for Third Straight Year

GOVERNMENT PEAK RECREATION AREA and HATCHER PASS, Alaska — The University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks may “Rule the North,” as their race suits proclaim, but for the third year in a row it’s their neighbors to the south, the University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves, who are the dominant NCAA ski program in Alaska.

Fairbanks and Anchorage, or UAF and UAA, have met annually in the Alaska Nordic Cup, a low-key early-season dual meet, for the last 16 years, dating to when the two schools were in separate ski conferences and would only face each other at NCAA Championships. (Both schools are now members of the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association, or RMISA.) The location of the two-day meet generally rotates between Interior and Southcentral Alaska each year, subject to snow conditions in each region. While UAF still holds the all-time edge at 9–6–1, this weekend marked UAA’s third straight victory in the series.

Saturday morning brought interval-start freestyle races, 10 kilometers for the men and 5 kilometers for the women. The race course was the Competition Loop at Government Peak Recreation Area, a 5-kilometer, homologation-pending loop whose meters of climbing per kilometer (36m/km) and overall Height Difference (101 meters) stack up favorably against those of the recent World Cup courses in Ruka (33.2m/km and 56m) or Lillehammer (40m and 74m).

At 10:30:30 a.m., amid temps in the high 20s and a light wind, this reporter led the field of 17 men out onto the course, which pitches up into a 35-meter climb immediately upon leaving the start. The average ski speed on course soon substantially increased when he was followed by the next starter, Gus Schumacher (Alaska Winter Stars/USST D-Team). A total of 14 collegiate men, six for UAA and eight for UAF, soon followed.

Two laps and 370 meters of climbing later, Schumacher continued his dominance of this race series when he crossed the line with the day’s fastest time of 26:48.0. Schumacher, who skied alone for the final 22 minutes after blowing by this reporter soon after the start, posted the fastest relay leg time in the 2017 Alaska Nordic Cup, when he was described as a “17-year-old phenom.” He won both days of the meet at the 2018 Alaska Nordic Cup, by which point he had a World Juniors medal to his name. And he took both races this year, now racing as a two-time World Juniors medalist and 19-year-old member of the USST D-Team.

Among the collegiate field, UAA dominance was the theme of the day. Magnus Norøy took second overall/first collegiate skier in 27:18.1, followed by teammates JC Schoonmaker, Espen Persen, Austin Huneck, and Everett Cason. Mike Ophoff (29:13.2), sixth collegian and seventh overall, was the first UAF skier on Saturday.

A field of 13 women – four for UAA, nine for UAF, and one from nearby Eagle River Nordic Ski Club – headed out on course at 10:41 a.m., soon after the final men’s starter. The women raced a single lap of the 5-kilometer course.

UAA showed its depth on the women’s side, placing all four of its skiers in the top six, but UAF took the overall win. Mariel Pulles (UAF) was first in 15:28.4, over twenty seconds clear of UAA skier Jenna DiFolco (+23.9). UAA teammates Anna Darnell and Michaela Keller-Miller were third and fourth, with UAF skier Anya Maijala in fifth. Catherine Reed-Metayer, seventh overall, was the third UAA skier on the day.

Pulles raced for Estonia last season in international competition, including at U23 World Championships in Lahti and World Championships in Seefeld. She was 30th in the skate sprint in Seefeld, and won the Estonian National Championships in the 10 k classic.

UAF Athletics summarized the day-one math of combined times, which showed the UAA women with a slight lead and the UAA men with a substantial lead, as follows: “UAA holds the advantage after day one, as their top-three individual times combined for each gender come out faster than Alaska’s. In the women’s 5k, UAA won with a combined time of 47:43.6, defeating the Nanook’s combined time of 48:23.6. In the men’s 10k, Anchorage won with a combined time of 84:01.4, over Alaska’s time of 89:26.1.”

Day two brought mass-start classic races as well as a move up the mountain to Independence Mine at Hatcher Pass (elevation 3,500 feet), with warm weather and rain making skiing at Government Peak (elevation 1,000 feet) less tenable on Sunday morning.

The location may have changed, and the opening hill made several times larger, but the end result was the same: An overall victory for Schumacher, and strong team showings by both the UAA men and women.

UAA skier Natalie Hynes, who had not raced on Saturday, was the first racer across the line on Sunday, after a race of roughly 10 kilometers in 34:25.6. She was followed by teammates Keller-Miller (+36.5), DiFolco (+1:07.9), and Darnell (+1:36.5) in second, fourth, and fifth. Pulles, who was third (+59.9), interrupted the string of Seawolves.

Thirteen women raced on Sunday.

For the men, it was once again Schumacher in first, covering roughly 15 kilometers in 36:41.5. He was followed by Noroey (UAA, +1:17.5) in second, Schoonmaker (UAA, +1:31.8) in third, Ophoff (UAF, +1:34.3) in fourth, and Persen (UAA, +1:58.7) in fifth.

For the men, UAA again had a lower top-three combined time on Sunday, 1:54:53 to UAF’s 1:56:43. The gap was slightly larger for the women, 1:45:01 to 1:48:57, advantage UAA once more.

UAA, which had the lowest combined time for both men and women on both days, handily captured its third Alaska Nordic Cup in a row.

Both teams officially return to competition at U.S. Nationals in Houghton in January. Many of the athletes are likely to race at the first Besh Cup weekend of Junior Nationals qualifying races on December 21-22, officially set for Anchorage but likely to be held in one of Anchorage, Government Peak, or Fairbanks, depending upon snow conditions later this month.

Results: Saturday | Sunday

Disclosure: This reporter competed in Saturday’s skate race on behalf of the Alaska Pacific University Nordic Ski Club masters team. He paid his own entry fee out of pocket.

— Gavin Kentch

Related on FasterSkier:

2016: Patterson, Yeaton, UAF Take Victories at Alaska Nordic Cup

2017: UAA Takes Alaska Nordic Cup Over UAF