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Copper Country Ski Tigers place well at states

Members of the Copper Country Ski Tigers boys’ team are all smiles after winning a state title in the Nordic events earlier this month in Ishpeming. Members include (from left):  Josh You, Xavier Hutchinson, Vincent Gemelli, Augie Hamlin, Illya Velat, Lewis Vendlinski, Finnian O’Neill, and coach Tom Wood (missing: Birk Seagren). (Photo submitted)

ISHPEMING — The 2024 Michigan Nordic Skiing State Championships for high school skiers wrapped up over the weekend of Feb. 9-11 in Ishpeming, and this area’s local club did better than expected. The Copper Country Ski Tigers boys earned a top first-place spot on the podium – beating out six other regional teams. The Copper Country girls finished fourth overall, and the combined team placed third.

This year’s Ski Tigers Nordic team consisted of eight boys and four girls. The boys team was an all Houghton High School squad, while girls was a split between Houghton and Hancock. The team was under the direction of coach Tom Wood, who returned to the Tigers this season after a five-year hiatus.

He is convinced that the team’s attitude during training over the past few months was key to success in the state races.

“It was a strange year because of the weather,” he said. “There was just one week for us, after that January snowfall, where I was certain what we were going to be doing that week in terms of practice. Otherwise, I was having to adapt on the fly due to the weather of the day. However these kids were there on time and ready to go with a great attitude.”

Lack of snow, particularly in December, meant a lot of dry-land training, running with poles and roller skiing. While their home course and training grounds are the Michigan Tech Trails, they would also visit Swedetown in Calumet and Maasto Hiihto and Churning Rapids Nordic Ski Area in Hancock.

Members of this year’s Copper Country Ski Tigers recently stopped for a picture at the state finals in Ishpeming earlier this month. Members include (from left): Emily Moore, Rayna Towles, Robin Kisiel, Ayla Miller, Lewis Vendlinski, Finnian O’Neill, Illya Velat, Augie Hamlin, Josh You, Vincent Gemelli, Xavier Hutchinson, and coach Tom Wood (missing: Birk Seagren). (Photo submitted)

“Not ideal,” Wood added, “but the kids rolled with it and I think that attitude was a huge contributing factor in their success this past weekend.”

Teams from as far as Petoskey and Cadillac, and as close as Ispheming and Marquette, were among the competition for the three-day event.

More than 40 boys and girls competed in three races. On Friday afternoon, the event kicked off with a freestyle (skate-ski) sprint race. Top finishers in this one-kilometer race from the Ski Tigers included Illya Velat and Birk Seagren, who came in second and third respectively for the boys. On the girls’ side, Robin Kisiel came in second.

Saturday morning kicked off with a classic 5k distance race, in which Seagren came in third. Next was the freestyle 5k race. On the boys’ side, Seagren was third. Velat placed fourth. Kisiel placed fifth in the girls’ race.

In addition, Seagren and Velat were third and fifth-place finishers, respectively, in their combined times for their classic and freestyle races. As well, Kisiel placed finished sixth in the combo for the girls.

The weekend concluded on Sunday with a fun relay race among all the skiers there in the morning, and an awards ceremony was held at the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame and Museum in Ishpeming in the afternoon.

“Birk was a consistent third,” said Wood with a smile. “But Robin and Illya deserve a shout out as they worked hard all year, and it payed off. In fact, I think everybody on our team had some of their best times of the year.”

The Ski Tigers boys team all got first place medals for their top finish and a plaque on Sunday. While they stole the thunder from the perennial favorites – the Vasa Boys’ Ski Club (Traverse City), Woods added that the Copper Country girls’ fourth-place finish was equally impressive.

“We have just four girls on the team, and two had never competed Nordic skiing before,” he said.

Those two were Rayna Towles and Emily Moore of Hancock.

“Both of those girls are runners (cross country and track), and athletes, but they had to learn how to ski, and they did,” said Wood. “That really impressed me. The fact that they competed and finished about mid-pack in their races spoke volumes of their work ethic. In a nutshell, they embodied the spirit of this season which was a great one.”

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