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Members of the Willmar Cardinals Nordic ski teams pause before hitting the trails at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center last Friday. From left, Aileen Clarke, Kaia Halbritter, Danielle Erickson, Tom LaPatka, Catey LaPatka and Anna Burns. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton

Willmar nordic ski team to show off 'home course' for CLC meet: On the fly

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Spurred by a few parents and backed by school administrators, cross-country skiing emerged here as a varsity sport in 1998-99.

On the 10th anniversary of the program, the Cardinals will for the first time host the Central Lakes Conference meet.

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Today's meet starts at 2 p.m. on the carefully-groomed trails of the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center.

Seven of the 10 schools in the Central Lakes Conference will participate.

The rolling terrain, south of Lake Florida, is protected from the worst of the wind and pleasingly isolated -- perfect for a nordic ski meet.  

The Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center is one of four trail networks available in times of good snow to the Cardinal nordic team. But these trails, about 10 miles northwest of the high school, are favored.

"It's been wonderful to ski on good snow this year," said head coach Brad Haugen. "Our skiers get a chance to really work on technique and build endurance."

Haugen said the meet couldn't be held here with out the help of the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center staff.

The Cardinals other "home course" is the Swan Lake Trail, developed by the Nordic Ski Club. A basic trail is sometimes available on the gently rolling, but wide-open prairie at the senior high school.

For a really strenuous workout, the team can attack the steeper trails at Sibley State Park. Last January, Willmar hosted an invitational there with three visiting teams.

Race headquarters today is in the old homestead at the end of a serpentine access road of hard-pack snow. The first quarter-mile off Kandiyohi County Road 29 is paved to the Westby Observatory.

At practice Friday, the Cardinal team captains were asked what they get from cross-country skiing? After all, the other varsity sports are all indoors while they train and compete in often hostile weather.

Junior Tom LaPatka: "You meet all these amazing people. It's so much fun, though the races can be tough, because you do one 5k and then in 30 minutes you do another. The hard thing is when there is no snow. It's just a lot of conditioning. Cross-country skiing is very hard to simulate."

Junior Danielle Erickson: "I like the physical activity and working together with teammates. We all love (the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center). It's the best in the world and always groomed."

Senior Garrett Erickson: "There's no bench in this sport. Everyone gets to compete at their ability level."

Junior Anna Burns: "Well, I don't like basketball and I can't skate. This is an option. I like being with friends and its not high pressure."

Garrett and Danielle are brother and sister and also distance runners. LaPatka has a younger sister on the team, Catey, a freshman. The captains are all in at least their third year and some in their fifth season of nordic ski competition.

Nordic races can be the classical style in pre-set grooves or freestyle (skating) on a packed trail. Each race today is a measured 5k (3.1 miles). Each team may send out four skiers for both the classic and skate. The top two times in each race is totaled for the team time.

The girls varsity classic starts at 2 p.m., followed by the varsity boys at 2:30 p.m. At 3 p.m., the JV classic boys and girls go off five minutes apart.

Right behind, the Prairie Woods Envoronmental Learning Center tractor-groomer will hustle out to smooth the race track for the freestyle division. Winter is no time to just be standing around.

? Matt Weitzel, a junior at Willmar, has been selected as Performer of the Week in boys Nordic skiing by the Central Lakes Conference. He skied a personal-best skate time of 19:28.3 at the Giants Ridge Invitational.

? Concordia College senior hockey forward Mandi Samuelson is second on the Cobbers in scoring with six points and six goals.

? The Willmar boys basketball team plays today in Fergus Falls, a team coming off a 66-64 loss on Tuesday to Moorhead. The Otters (4-5) are coached by 1968 Willmar graduate Dave Lehrke. Derek Hanson, who quarterbacked the Otters to the CLC football championship, recently had a 31-point game. ??

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