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Prep Nordic skiing: Johnston, Hutchinson to have Duel at the Ridge

Ely, Marshall skiers to square off at Giants Ridge.

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Ely’s Jasper Johnston starts the classic pursuit race at the 2020 Section 7 Nordic ski meet at Giants Ridge. He is hoping to repeat as champion in today's meet. (File / News Tribune)

Seniors Jasper Johnston and Declan Hutchinson are good friends who will continue to be so no matter who bests the other in Wednesday’s Section 7 Nordic meet.

But it depends on who you ask as to how close the competition will be at Giants Ridge in Biwabik.

Ely’s Johnston is the defending section champion, while Duluth Marshall’s Hutchinson was fourth at last season’s meet.

Johnston, ranked fourth in the state by skinnyski.com , had the edge in the duo’s lone high school matchup this season, though the sixth-ranked Hutchinson has been his equal during the Junior National Qualifiers season.

“We’re pretty even some of the time,” Hutchinson said.

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Johnston beat Hutchinson by about 20 seconds in that lone high school matchup at Mount Itasca in Grand Rapids and isn’t ready to concede his advantage.

“I don’t know about that,” Johnston said of Hutchinson catching up to him. “He is a little closer this season but we’ve only raced once in a (high school) regular-season format, and I did beat him by 20 seconds there. He’ll be working as hard as he can, so we will have to see what happens.”

The section race will be over 4 kilometers, one fewer than usual. Hutchinson won twice in JNQ races at 5K and 10K and says he typically does better in distance races.

“I don’t know over the shorter distance who will have the edge,” Marshall coach Dave Johnson said. “Last year, Jasper was beating Declan by a minute-and-a-half. Declan really worked his tail off this summer. He was involved with a local training group from the Duluth Nordic North Stars. He was really dedicated, and it paid off. He’s a different skier. He was technically a beautiful skier last year, but his endurance and his strength and grit and resolve went through the roof.”

Hutchinson, who played soccer in the fall, says that early season training of roller-skiing and running raised his conditioning level.

“That made a bigger difference than in previous years, and I found myself catching up to some guys that I was farther back from last year,” he said.

Both are expected to qualify for next week’s state meet, also at Giants Ridge, and are hoping to bring their teams with them.

“I am hoping to win again and make it to state,” said Johnston, who is part of a team that has the minimum of four skiers. “Our team is right on the edge of making it to state, too, so if we all have good days it’s definitely a possibility.”

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Johnson says Hutchinson has been an inspiration to teammates, including younger brother Riley and younger sister Naida, and could raise the team’s level enough to qualify.

“The other kids on the team have this role model and they know what a state-ranked skier looks like,” he said. “It’s right there in front of them. They know what they have to do to be that fast.”

Duluth East is the Northland favorite in both the boys and girls races. The winner of the morning and afternoon sessions, along with the top five individuals not from those teams, will qualify for the state meet.

East coach Bonnie Fuller-Kask is relying on young stalwarts to push her teams across the finish line.

The boys team, headed by junior Ian Morse, is composed of one senior, three sophomores and two freshmen. Junior Lily Brown leads a girls team that also has a sophomore, four freshmen and an eighth-grader.

“We have strong competition from Cloquet, Ely, Marshall, Grand Rapids,” Fuller-Kask said. “The kids have to be ready and focused and go for it.”

The format of the races has changed with it no longer being a pursuit event. Skiers will race the morning first leg in classical style before switching to freestyle in the afternoon. With a new timing outfit handling the race, the hope is to know the order of finish from the first leg before starting the second.

“If we don’t, it would be like playing a basketball game and keeping track on paper and not letting anyone else know the score,” Fuller-Kask said.

Related Topics: ELYDULUTH
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