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State nordic ski meet: Puppy powers Cloquet skier Maijala

BIWABIK -- Clinging to fourth place and about to enter the staging area for the classical race of Thursday's Minnesota high school Nordic meet at Giants Ridge, Anja Maijala was growing nervous.She couldn't find her dog.Just as the Cloquet junior ...

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Cloquet-Esko-Carlton’s Anja Maijala smiles as she crosses the finish line at the state Nordic skiing tournament at Giants Ridge in Biwabik on Thursday. Maijala finished in third place — the highest finish of any Northland skier Thursday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

BIWABIK - Clinging to fourth place and about to enter the staging area for the classical race of Thursday’s Minnesota high school Nordic meet at Giants Ridge, Anja Maijala was growing nervous.
She couldn’t find her dog.
Just as the Cloquet junior was about to depart civilian territory and make her way toward gate No. 4, there came Maijala’s mother and the family’s 6-month-old German shorthaired pointer, Jose.
“She said, ‘You know, it would really make my day if you could bring him down the hill to me,’ ” Yvette Maijala said. “I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do that, but I’ll try.’ ”
Assist, mom. Jose, too.
Buoyed by the rascally pup’s last-second leap into her lap, Anja Maijala moved up one spot over the afternoon 5K classical, passing Robbinsdale-Armstrong’s Hannah Rudd with about 1.5 kilometers remaining - not long after summiting the course’s final hill - for a podium finish and a twice-as-good improvement over last year’s sixth-place showing at the state meet, which Maijala had called the race of a lifetime.
“Last year I was still finding myself as a skier,” Maijala said. “And this year I’m trying to build on that athlete I found last year.”
It was about 12 degrees as Maijala spoke near the finish line, though it felt colder with a slight breeze blowing. She was plenty warm, though, after producing a third-place combined pursuit time of 33 minutes, 19 seconds. The leader of a strong Section 7 showing was behind only champion Margie Freed of Eastview (32:44.6) and Erin Moening of St. Paul Highland Park (32:59.4).
Not bad for an increasingly polished skier who came into Thursday with a modest goal of placing in the top 10. Others should have known better - Maijala’s goal a year ago was a top-25.
“I didn’t think I could keep up with those girls,” she said.
In between races, Maijala said her priority was staying calm and thinking “happy thoughts.” Listen to her talk, and it’s easy to tell that shouldn’t be much of a chore. Still, there can’t be a better pre-race strategy to deal with nerves than petting a puppy.
“I was like, ‘Please be there, please be there,’ ” Maijala recalled thinking as she searched for Jose.
Maijala was the first of four from the Northland appearing in the top 13. That included her Cloquet-Esko-Carlton teammate, Erika Fox, who was eighth at 34:07.2, one spot behind Mesabi East’s Anna Johnson (34:04.5) - who, along with classmates, got the meet started by singing the national anthem. Proctor-
Hermantown’s Hannah Bettendorf was 19th after the morning 5K freestyle before surging to 13th with a combined time of 34:40.3. And Ely’s Erin Bianco charged from 27th to 17th and came in at 34:53.7.
In the team standings, Duluth East, led by 21st-place Nora Vos (35:10.2), was fourth.
Robbinsdale-Armstrong was the team champ.

Fox, who goes to school at Carlton, was 14th last year as a sophomore. She was in sixth place after the Thursday morning skate. At that point, her main priority was staying warm. It was a typically chilly start - so much so that the day’s first race was delayed by a half-hour - before becoming at least bearable by the afternoon. Entering the classical portion of the pursuit event, Fox’s mindset was pretty simple.
“Try not to get passed, and when that didn’t happen just hold on as best I could,” she said.
While there was a bit of a home-snow advantage on the girls side, the same couldn’t be said for the boys. In fact, Ely’s Seth Prigge, 11th at the 2015 state meet, was 15th this time around in 30:19.2 to pace the local pack. Still, the senior was able to take solace in a strong classic performance that helped offset his 24th-place morning run. His Timberwolves teammate, Cole Helms, was 23rd after the first race and finished 26th overall (30:48.8).
“Little slow in the skate race,” said Prigge, who was ranked sixth in the state entering Thursday. “Definitely not where I wanted to be, but I think I kind of redeemed myself in the classic. I had a really good classic race and caught a lot of people. That’s always good.”
Proctor-Hermantown’s Sam Olson, the Section 7 champ, was 29th at 31:02.3.
On this day, however, they all were chasing precocious Bloomington Jefferson star Zak Ketterson. The senior’s combined time of 27:53.4 was, stunningly, more than a minute faster than second-place Patrick Acton of Eagan (28:58.7). Ketterson covered the 5K freestyle race in a course-record 13:29 to give himself a huge cushion for the afternoon. He never let up, though, double-poling his way down the final stretch, which he capped by taking a bow just before the finish line. It was Ketterson’s second state title in three seasons - he didn’t ski last year because he was with the U.S. Junior National team in Sweden. Indeed, his is both a national and international resume.
“He’s kind of in a league of his own,” Prigge said. “Couple years when he’s in the Olympics we’ll all be saying, ‘Hey, I skied with that guy.’ ”
Acton told the Minnesota State High School League: “Getting anywhere close to him is a good accomplishment.”
Ely was the top Northland boys team in fifth place.

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Ely’s Seth Prigge stumbles as he crosses the finish line for the classic race at the state Nordic ski tournament at Giants Ridge in Biwabik on Thursday. Prigge was the highest finishing Northland boy at the event, placing 15th. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

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