Kenai Peninsula skiers continued to show they are among the nation's best skiers Wednesday at the Junior Olympics cross-country skiing championships in Ishpeming, Mich., and at the NCAA Skiing Championships in Middlebury, Vt.
The peninsula picked up two top-10 finishes in the long-course freestyle races at the Junior Olympics, which showcases the nation's top high school skiers.
At the NCAA Championships, Seward High School graduate Aubrey Smith showed the peninsula produces some good college skiers, too, by placing third in the women's 5-kilometer classic race.
Smith, who races for Northern Michigan University, had a time of 16 minutes, 26.9 seconds. She was less than a second out of second place and about 27 seconds behind winner Katerina Hanusova.
Soldotna senior Andy Liebner paced peninsula skiers at the Junior Olympics with a third-place finish in the Junior 1 (born 1983 to 1984) Male 15-kilometer freestyle race, while Homer senior Ida Martin added a ninth-place finish in the Older Junior (born 1981 to 1982) Female 10-kilometer freestyle race.
Including top-10 finishes by Martin and Skyview senior Jacob Fellman in Monday's sprint races, the peninsula now has four top-10 finishes at the Junior Olympics.
The top-10 finishes are the first for the peninsula since 1994, when eventual Olympic biathlete Jay Hakkinen took a first and Krista Larson took a pair of fifths.
"It's a good group of kids," Fellman said via phone Wednesday of the peninsula contingent, which is the largest to ever represent the area at the Junior Olympics. "We're getting good results this year, but we've been working at it for four years.
"It's just coming around for everyone that's here. It's just coming together for us."
Liebner continued a solid senior year with his third-place finish Wednesday, the top showing by an Alaskan in the race. He had already won the state cross country running title in the fall and the Besh Cup -- awarded to Alaska's top Junior Olympic qualifier -- earlier this winter.
Liebner finished the 15 kilometers in 40:47, about 35 seconds behind winner Leif Zimmermann of Intermountain/Northern.
"I'm surprised, but I worked my butt off today in that 15-kilometer race," Liebner said. "It was a long race, and I'm good at that, and it was skating, and I'm good at that."
The race was held at a course called Suicide Bowl, and Liebner said the hills there were never-ending. However, he said good wax and the year-round training he does for running and skiing were able to carry him through.
"Our wax was way faster than any of the other teams," Liebner said. "I was passing loads of people on the downhills. Our coaches were waxing skis until 9 (o'clock) at night, then they got up at 5 (o'clock) in the morning and started waxing again. They're working their butts off for us."
Liebner and Fellman said another thing that helped them to their finishes is living in Alaska. A measure of the stiffness of competition the northernmost state provides is that Liebner was third in the Kenai Peninsula Borough classical race this year, third in a freestyle race at the state high school meet and now third in the nation in a freestyle race.
"There's tougher competition (in Alaska)," Liebner said. "If I had skied in the states, I probably would have been content to just pick up a lot of easy seconds."
Alaska's lofty status in the cross-country ski world was confirmed again Wednesday, as Team Alaska scored 417 points to take the lead in the race for the Alaska Cup, the award given to the region with the top Junior Olympics team. Alaska now has 765 points, while New England is in second with 527 points and Midwest is in third with 477 points.
"It's nice to know we've got the best skiers in the country," Fellman said.
In Wednesday's Junior 1 Male race, the peninsula took three of the top 14 spots. Behind Liebner, Soldotna junior Brent Knight was 11th, one slot ahead of state Skimeister Zach Hill of Service. Skyview senior Adam Tressler also chalked up a 14th-place finish for the peninsula in the Junior 1 race.
In Wednesday's Older Junior Female race, Martin claimed her second medal of the championships by freestyle skiing the 10-kilometer course in 33:17. Alaska had four of the top 10 finishers in that race. East senior Kikkan Randall won her second gold medal of the championships, putting up a time of 30:29 to hold off Service senior and four-time state Skimeister Tara Hamilton.
In the Older Junior Male 15-kilometer freestyle race, Fellman followed up his sixth-place finish in the freestyle sprint with a 20th-place finish. Alaska dominated the race, with Ben Crawford, Charlie Renfro and Nate Green taking the top three spots.
In the Junior 1 Female 10-kilometer freestyle race, Skyview senior Amy Lambe finished 17th with a time of 33:31. Kristina Trygstad-Saari of Intermountain/Northern won the race in 31:29, but Alaska put six finishers in the top 10.
Finally, in the 5-kilometer Junior 2 (born 1985 to 1986) Male race, New England's Bret Bedard picked up a win while Espen Haugen led Alaska by finishing seventh. In the 5-kilometer Junior 2 Male race, Midwest's Courtney Dauwalter took first while Tazlina Mannix paced fifth to lead Alaska.
The Junior Olympics continue with a classical race Friday and a relay race Saturday. The NCAA Championships will finish up for cross-country skiers Friday with a freestyle race.
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