Jeff's call: Mucha highlights the opportunities Alaska skiing offers
I'll admit to being surprised, and a bit incredulous, when I heard Butch Reimer, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay Nordic skiing coach, tell me in an interview that he was more excited about Kenai Central senior Kailey Mucha than any recruit he's had.
After all, the Phoenix are an NCAA Division I program with some nice credentials. This year, UWGB's Santiago Ocariz finished 10th in the NCAA National Skiing Championships.
And it's not like Reimer has a limited pool of recruits to use to size up Mucha. He coached the Phoenix from 1988 to 1998 and just completed the fourth year of his second stint leading UWGB. Reimer currently has 12 girls and 10 guys on scholarship at the school, although not all are the full-ride scholarship that Mucha earned.
For an experienced NCAA Division I coach in any sport to place such a superlative on a Kenai Peninsula athlete is extremely rare.
So after Reimer did place the superlative on Mucha, I asked him again just to make sure.
"I'm most excited about her," he said.
My incredulity gone, I pondered this tribute a bit before one thing came to mind that made it make instant sense -- Alaska's place on the American cross-country skiing scene.
It's rare, but there have been athletes in other sports from the Kenai Peninsula with accomplishments similar to Mucha's laurels, which include four straight Region III ski championships, a Besh Cup victory, and the only two victories at the state ski meet for the peninsula.
The difference is when you near the top of the Nordic skiing heap in Alaska, you're nearing the top of the Nordic skiing heap in America.
Two of the top women's Nordic skiers in U.S. Olympic history are from Alaska -- Anchorage's Kikkan Randall and Nina Kemppel. The same goes in men's Olympic biathlon with Kasilof's Jay Hakkinen and Anchorage's Jeremy Teela.
A good counter-example comes in track, where by running a 57.19 seconds in the 400 meters, Kenai Central's Lierin Flanagan is already less than a half second off the state record. However, the top time in the nation right now, according to athletic.net, is 52.90 seconds.
In track, Alaska athletes are hurt by our climate, because there is less opportunity to run in warm weather. But in skiing, climate favors Alaskans. Not only can many Alaskans ski as long or longer than those in the Lower 48, but the lack of consistent snow faced by most Americans eliminates them from Nordic skiing completely.
Mucha worked extremely hard to get her scholarship. For the past five years, she trained over the summer with Alaska Nordic Racing.
Amazingly, though, she says she never thought about being a Division I skier until she was a junior in high school. Keeping up with the Alaska pack was enough to put her at that level.
Mucha's scholarship is not only a testament to her work ethic and ability, but also to the unique culture and climate that consistently puts Alaskans at or near the top of American Nordic skiing.
Mike's call: Wild seek 2nd sweep
Tonight the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild will look to continue to trend of postseason sweeps in the North American Hockey League West Division. The Wild have a 2-0 lead over Fairbanks in the best-of-five series.
The first-place Wild swept the fourth-place Kenai River Brown Bears in the first round. The third-place Ice Dogs took three straight from the second-place Alaska Avalanche of Wasilla to earn a spot in the West Division finals.
Regardless of the outcome, Fairbanks and Wenatchee will join three other teams to play for the Robertson Cup.
Five teams make the championship event. Those include the winner of each division finals plus the host team.
The Wild will host the Robertson Cup this year. Because the host team automatically qualifies for the event, win or lose, the Ice Dogs, too, will play in the Robertson Cup. The event begins May 4.
Elsewhere around the league, Bismarck has a two-game lead over Alexandria in the Central Division finals.
In the North Division, Traverse City has a 2-0 lead in its series against Motor City.
Topeka and St. Louis are knotted at one game apiece in the South Division.
All eight NAHL teams remaining in the playoffs are in action tonight.
Mike Nesper and Jeff Helminiak work in the sports department at the Peninsula Clarion. They can be reached at email@example.com.
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