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Ely senior wins girls race, leads Timberwolves to first team title

Erin Bianco of Ely celebrates with Anna Nelson (left) and Lily Pylka both of Ely near the finish line of the MSHSL State Nordic Meet at Giants Ridge in Biwabik Thursday afternoon. Bianco was the first place finisher at the girls state Nordic meet. Clint Austin / Forum News Service1 / 4
Erin Bianco of Ely reacts at the finish line of the MSHSL State Nordic Meet at Giants Ridge in Biwabik Thursday afternoon. Bianco was the first place finisher at the girls state Nordic meet. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service2 / 4
Adian Ripp of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton skis during the MSHSL State Nordic Meet at Giants Ridge in Biwabik Thursday afternoon. Ripp was the top local finisher at the boys state Nordic meet. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service3 / 4
Anja Maijala of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton skis during the MSHSL State Nordic Meet at Giants Ridge in Biwabik Thursday afternoon. Maijala was the second place finisher at the girls state Nordic meet. Clint Austin / Forum News Service4 / 4

BIWABIK, Minn. — Ely senior Erin Bianco and the other top finishers at the Nordic ski state meet were whisked away to a news conference immediately after crossing the finish line Thursday at Giants Ridge.

Bianco was polite, answering all the questions thrown her way, but she soon wanted to be somewhere else — celebrating with teammates.

Bianco held off Cloquet-Esko-Carlton senior Anja Maijala to win the girls classic pursuit. The victory was sweeter in more ways than one as it also lifted the Timberwolves to the girls team championship. The Ely girls had never accomplished either feat.

"I'm so proud of all of them," Bianco said. "We came into this as the underdogs, so we had no clue this was going to happen. It was awesome. There isn't a better way to go out. I feel like I could go to college right now — I'm good."

Bianco also said she had no clue she would win, and for good reason.

While she was making her sixth straight state appearance, the season-ending meet had never been good to her. Until now. She has fallen, and she has been sick. Her previous high finish was 17th last year, but she skied her best during the second half of this season.

Bianco finished her two 5-kilometer races, the freestyle in the morning and the classic in the afternoon, in a combined 32 minutes, 20 seconds.

"She peaked at the right time," Ely coach Paula Anderson said. "She kept gaining more and more confidence and, as we all know, confidence is a huge part of the game."

But to win the state title Bianco had to ski past Maijala.

Maijala was third a year ago but dislocated her left shoulder racing last month and is still recovering. After winning the freestyle in the morning, she had a four-second lead over Bianco to start the pursuit but could only hold it for about 400 meters. She finished in 32:26.7, 6.7 seconds behind Bianco.

Maijala claimed she was just hoping for a top-50 finish, but she clearly was stronger than at last week's Section 7 meet. She faded to fifth in classical skiing, with the "double pole" technique being harder on her shoulder.

"I had no idea how it was going to go," Maijala said. "My shoulder was kind of bothering me after the skate race, and I stayed with her until we got to the uphill, and then she just flew down the hill. I wouldn't have wanted to lose to anyone else. She has been the top skier in the area since I started skiing. I didn't really get into it until my sophomore and junior years, and her and (Mesabi East senior) Anna Johnson are who I looked up to. She really deserves this."

The state meet looked like a redo of the Section 7 meet for the girls, with Maijala, Bianco and Johnson starting the final 1-2-3. That says a lot about the state of skiing in the Northland.

Anderson said Ely is the smallest school in the state to field a Nordic team.

"Skiing is big up north," Anderson said. "Section 7 has always been deep, but this group of seniors and juniors, there are like six girls who are head and shoulders above the rest. They duke it out every single week."

Proctor-Hermantown junior Hannah Bettendorf (sixth) and Johnson (10th) also cracked the top 10. Ely juniors Emma Terwilliger (11th), Ryne Prigge (18th) and Laura Pasmick, in the race of her life, vaulted from 48th to 29th as Ely (enrollment 139) held off Robbinsdale Armstrong (enrollment 1,707) in the team standings.

"That's where it's won, on the third and fourth skiers," Anderson said.

As soon as the news conference was complete, Bianco hopped the fence to join her teammates. She plans on attending St. Olaf in Northfield, Minn., where she will run but not ski competitively. She's leaving on top.

"I've never thought I could win state, ever," she said. "My goal this year was to get top 10, so I'm really surprised. The difference was just knowing the past couple weeks that these were my final two races, and having people to push you. I couldn't have raced that way without Anja. She really pushed me."

Ripp makes his mark

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's Aidan Ripp could have qualified for his first state meet as a freshman last year, but he wouldn't have been able to compete because of a conflict with his No. 1 interest, Nordic combined, which features cross country skiing and ski jumping.

So after talking it over with his coach, he dialed it back at sections.

"We didn't want to take somebody else's spot at state," he said.

That wasn't the case this year as Ripp followed up a third-place finish at last week's Section 7 meet with an 11th on Thursday, with the sophomore coming in as the Northland's top boys finisher in a combined 29:26.9. Spring Lake Park/St. Anthony senior Xavier Mansfield won in 28:23.2, while Minneapolis Southwest captured the boys team title.

Ripp has competed in Nordic combined since he was 7. He does about three national races a winter and another seven or eight Central Division races. He has competed in Norway, and with his blonde hair and ponytail, it looks like he'd fit right in in the old country.

Ripp has jumped as far as 93 meters in practice and 87 in competition. Ripp is one of a dying breed, with Duluth's once rich tradition of ski jumping disappearing. Ripp appreciates the history.

"Duluth was like a national center for ski jumping, but at least we still have a ski jump in Cloquet, at Pine Valley," Ripp said. "And Itasca has one."

Ripp wouldn't trade it.

"I just think it's the best thing in the world, the combination of jumping in the morning and skiing in the afternoon," he said. "It just doesn't get any better than that. It's hard to say which one I like more. I definitely like cross country because it's so relaxing, and you can go anywhere. Ski jumping is a little more focused just on that area, but it's so much fun. You feel like you can fly."

Warm, but not too warm

The temperature was in the low 20s in the morning before climbing to 37 at the start of the girls classic pursuit in the afternoon. While the boys messed up the course a bit for the girls who came after, it was a great day for skiing.

"Conditions were perfect," Ripp said. "It doesn't get much better than this. You weren't freezing, but it wasn't so warm where the snow was bad. We didn't have the slush."

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