Team awards are given at Junior Nationals, based on results from individual races using the World Cup scoring system. The top girls’ team and the top boys’ team are awarded, and the team championship award is given to the club with the best overall score. What was really impressive this year is that on top of winning the overall award, SVSEF won both the boys’ and the girls’ championships; this is the first time SVSEF has accomplished this, and it does not happen often. SVSEF had seven different athletes win gold medals at JNs. Four different athletes won silver, and one bronze. Cumulatively, SVSEF had 34 top 10 finishes, and 14 out of 20 SVSEF athletes had top 10 results. “It’s obviously a really good week when anyone gets to the podium, but what’s really cool is we took a strong group of kids there, and while not all were at the top of the results list, it really felt like all the kids were charging the whole week,” said SVSEF Cross Country Program Director Rick Kapala. “Everyone had a race somewhere that they felt good about throughout the week. Racing at that level at a championship event, with the conditions of the course and the depth of the field, it’s sometimes hard to put together the race you know you can have. That our athletes as a team were able to pull together this level of racing at this time is exciting for us, and it is really important not just for the kids who receive medals, but for all of the kids from the team who weren’t at JNs. It’s a club championship award; what’s great about this is that it recognizes, in my opinion, our efforts from Striders up through the Gold Team. It speaks to the success of the entire club. We are from a small community, and we don’t always end up with the top programs in the country; we’re in there once in awhile. For us to be competitive in that category is cool because all of our coaches and kids in the program can feel good about this collective work. We are putting together a steady effort towards engaging kids and practicing sport, and once in a while it expresses itself in the form of an award like this.”
SVSEF won the team award with 1501 points. The second place club was Loppet Nordic with 1126 points, and third was Alaska Pacific University Nordic Center with 1005 points.
Junior National races were hosted by the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage on the extensive trail system at Kincaid Park.
Monday – Freestyle
Monday’s race was a freestyle 5km for all age classes of women (U16,U18, U20) and 5km for U16 Boys. U18 and U20 boys raced a 10km. The course was rolling with lots of quick transitions and offered our skiers a different feeling course than the big climbs common to our Intermountain courses. Conditions were fast on older transformed snow and the kids all said they really liked the course after the race. Johnny posted the second fastest time of the day among all boys, being bested only by Gus Schumacher of Alaska. Johnny and Gus skied together on the winning USA relay team at World Junior Championships. Johnny, who started on the course three minutes in front of Gus, said, “ I knew I had to take it out hard and try to get a gap because Gus finishes really fast.” Johnny had a slim lead over Gus with two kilometers to go, but true to form, Gus was able to claw back the time needed to slip by Johnny in the final stretches of the course. It was a really good race for Johnny no matter how you cut it.
Overall, the Sun Valley kids had a good start to the week, with eight different skiers earning top 10 in the US, led by Johnny Hagenbuch’s national championship in the U18 Boys. Johnny was joined on the podium for U20 Scott Schulz, who took second, and Scott was joined in the U20 men’s field by Adam Witkowski, who posted a ninth place finish. Also posting top 10s were Sammy Smith in fourth, Anja Grover in ninth and Logan Smith 10th for three SV gals in the top ten of the U16 girls. Sophia Mazzoni earned a top 10 with an eighth in the U18 women and Bjorn Halvorsen earned his first top ten medal with a ninth in the U16 boys.
Wednesday – Classic Sprint
Wednesday featured a classic individual sprint on a 1.4km course, with a really steep climb at the midway point followed by a high-speed plunging downhill and tight turn into the finish stretch. The days format was as follows: all skiers complete one all-out effort qualifying lap of the sprint course to try and post a top 30 time to get into the heats of their respective age classes. Once into the heats, the skiers are divided into five quarterfinals with six skiers per heat; the top two from each heat advance to the semifinals, along with the next two fastest skiers. Then the fastest two skiers from each semi advance along with the two fastest skiers to the finals.
Sun Valley skiers had an exceptional day in the sprint qualifier with a best ever 13 skiers making it into the afternoon heats. Leading the way for Sun Valley were Sophia Mazzoni (U18) and Logan Smith (U16) who both posted the fastest qualifying times in their age classes, along with Lily Brunelle (U20) who posted a second fastest qualifier for her class. The other SVSEF skiers who qualified for the heats included, on the girls side, Samantha Smith (U16), Sarah Morgan and Anja Jensen for U18 women, and Heidi Booher for U20 women. The boys who qualified for the heats included Scott Schulz, Adam Witkowski and Eli Eppolito (U20 men), Johnny Hagenbuch and Haydn Halvorsen (U18 men) and Bjorn Halvorsen, U16 men.
The afternoon brought challenging conditions as the course deteriorated into sugary deep snow, which made for tough climbing and tricky downhills. The Sun Valley kids though managed the conditions well, with again eight different SVSEF skiers posting top tens. Leading the way was Logan Smith who earned a national championship in the U16 Girls race. Logan successfully defended the sprint championship she won last year at the 2018 Junior Nationals held at Soldier Hollow. Joining her with podium finishes were Sarah Morgan who has the best the result of her season with a silver medal in the U18 women, and Johnny Hagenbuch, who returned to the podium for a second time with a third place in the U18 boys. Also earning top tens for our community were Scott Schulz in fourth and Adam Witkowski seventh in the U20 boys, Bjorn Halvorsen eighth in the U16 boys, Lily Brunelle fifth for U20 women and Samantha Smith fourth for U16 gals. This was Sammy’s second race finishing fourth, and it’s a really solid week so far as she is actually a U14 (13 years old) who is racing up into the U16 age class. She also just competed at Freestyle Junior Nationals held at Snowbird, Utah, immediately before the start of Cross Country Junior Nationals.
Also skiing at the Championships for Sun Valley are Ted Yewer and Sebi Radl Jones (U18 boys), Luci Ludwig (U16 girls) and Tia Vontver, Jenna Nurge and Ella Wolter (U18 girls) to round out the 20 SVSEF skiers who are in attendance.
Friday – Classic Mass Start
U16 boys and girls raced a 5km for their mass start event. Whenever you have a 5km mass start, it’s a bit dependent on seeding – the way they seed these kids is using their results from the first two days of racing at Junior Nationals. If you’re towards the middle or back, it can be problematic, as it’s really hard to get through the pack in just 5km. The course conditions were really good, and wax techs got a little bit lucky in that it ended up being the coldest day of the week, and it was overcast and really consistent throughout the day. Course conditions called for klister; with the consistency of the course, the race ended up being one based on what the kids were able to do. The way the course skied, there weren’t any hills that were in and of themselves big test pieces; it was a continually undulating course, a series of sprints uphill, followed by easy downhills for recovery. It was the kind of course that is a bit hard to make up ground on.
We had Bjorn Halvorsen take fourth in the U16 boys race, which was his best result of the season, and in some ways his best race of the year – he had previously been running around eighth or ninth. At one point, he was leading the pack, but they were grouped tightly, and it was anybody’s race until it was over. This was a capstone to a great week for Bjorn, who, racing last year for Sugarloaf, went from no top 10s last year at JNs to three top 10s this year.
The Smith sisters showed up again for U16 girls – Logan and a couple girls broke away early, and younger sister Sammy Smith fought furiously to bridge the gap and catch back up to the three leaders. Logan decisively won the 5km, which was a nice comeback from a ninth place finish on Monday. Sammy ended up sixth overall.
U18/20 girls raced a 10km mass start. The U18 race very quickly changed into a two skier affair, with top skier Kendall Kramer (who had a fourth place finish at Worlds) taking it out hot; the only skier who tried to go with her was SVSEF’s Sophia Mazzoni. Sophia dropped a third girl and was skiing solo in second, but worked her way to within five seconds of Kendall. It was a great race on her part; for her, it was a little bit of vindication after she won the qualifier in Wednesday’s sprint but got knocked out in quarterfinals. Ella Wolter notably posted her best result of her JN career with 23rd; she just kept steadily climbing and had a great race.
For U20 girls, Lily Brunelle and a skier from Colorado had a lead for the first few kilometers, but never shook the pack; they were both reabsorbed into a larger group. Lily ended up 10th, which was her best distance result at JNs, and added to her fifth place sprint medal. Lily deserves a lot of credit – she had an amazing set of races at the Soldier Hollow JNQ, winning both the sprint and classic races. Right after that she came down with an illness and also ended up having bursa irritation at the back of her heel; she’s battled some adversity in the second half of the season, but this was her best week of her Junior Nationals career; it was great to see.
It’s a really tough race now at JNs, as fields have taken another step forward. Our best kids are competing at Worlds, where they are skiing in the top 20, top 10, even, and are competitive in relays. At this year’s JNs, the kids who went to World Juniors were being challenged by skiers who didn’t go; you can see the collective effect of all the coaches and kids training hard and working hard. They believe they can be among the best now, because our better skiers are doing it. SVSEF had four boys in the U18 boys race, which was a 10km – the hammer was down from the beginning. Johnny Hagenbuch had been battling a cold, but wanted to be up front early. He and a few other guys were in the front controlling the race. Johnny is a really good distance skier – the race came down to skis and sprint capacity at the end; Johnny finished second behind Zanden McMullen, who also went to Worlds.
The boy with best race that day for us was Hayden Halvorsen – previously, he had been skiing in the teens, with a slow start to his season. Hayden really likes pack racing, and ended up posting a seventh place finish – it was a really good result, and built a bit of stoke in thinking forward to the relay on Saturday.
In the U20 race, Adam skied a really solid distance, finishing fourth; it may be his best in recent history.
Saturday – Freestyle Relays
The relays were tough, as conditions and the course were not ideal. It did not get very cold Friday night, and the snow on the course was sugary and up to athletes’ shins on the climbs. The athletes dealt with it well, although with such a short distance (3x3km) and the conditions, the course was not preferable for those athletes who are more reliant on power and glide over tempo. For U16 girls, IMD skier Sabine Wilson opened up for our number one team. It was a tough leg, and it didn’t look like we were in it. The team was back-loaded – Sammy Smith scorched an amazing leg to get us back up into third or fourth. Logan Smith took it from there and decisively skied back to the front, building a lead over the last few minutes and ending with a clear win by 30 or 40 meters. It was surprising and impressive, given those conditions, that the team was able to get back into the mix.
In the U18 girls race, Sophia Mazzoni brought her team into medal position in fifth as the anchor. Lily ran down a number of girls on her U20 leg, bringing her team into fourth. For U18 boys, it was great in that after the opening leg, it was anyone’s race – Hayden skied a great second leg, and Johnny left it all out there in the third and final leg to bring home a win. The U20 boys again had a solid race with Adam Witkowski and Eli Eppolito ending up fourth in their relay.