A crowning achievement
PHOTO FINISH - Ely’s Zoe Devine captured a state Nordic ski championship Thursday at Giants Ridge in a photo finish. She came from behind and passed Duluth East’s Lydia Kraker and won be one tenth of a second. Devine procured a 2.1 second lead after finishing first in the classic portion of the race in 15:23.3. She fell behind late in the freestyle but came on strong in the last 50 yards. She’s Ely’s first state skiing champion since Erin Bianco in 2017. Photo by Chris Ellerbroek.
by Tom Coombe
Ely is once again home to a state champion skier.
Senior Zoe Devine saved her best for when she needed it most Thursday, making a hard charge in the final 50 yards to overtake Duluth East’s Lydia Kraker just before the finish line at Giants Ridge.
Devine edged past Kraker by a mere tenth of a second, winning both the race and her first state high school Nordic skiing title.
The five-time state qualifier, who last week won the section title, had finished sixth in the state as a junior but climbed further this week to become the second Ely girl to win a state title in six years.
Devine joins Erin Bianco, who won the state crown in 2017, as Timberwolves state title winners.
Devine’s victory also helped the Ely girls to an eighth-place team finish at the state meet near Biwabik
Prospects for a Devine victory shot up Thursday morning, when she finished first in the first half of the state competition - the five-kilometer classic race.
Devine led her next closest foe by two seconds, and Kraker was fourth and part of a group that gave chase to the Ely standout.
Late in the race it was Kraker who pulled ahead and she had a slight lead as the skiers entered a downhill stretch near the finish line and into the view of hundreds gathered to view the meet.
Devine was well-positioned and used the downhill push to gain momentum and make up ground.
She pulled past Kraker less than 10 yards before the finish and scored what is believed to be the closest individual victory in state meet history.
“We talked a little bit about strategy,” said Ely Head Coach Todd Hohenstein. “The benefits of being out in front and controlling the pace of the race versus letting another skier take the lead. It does require more energy to ski out in front for the whole race. But when it comes down to the actual race, a skier just needs to react to the changing conditions. Zoe has a great sense for ski racing that has accumulated over her career through experience.
“The last sprint to the finish was a scenario that we have played out several times leading up to the state meet at practice. I don’t think she could have skied the last 100 meters of the race any better. From my vantage point, I couldn’t tell if she had won or not. I don’t think Zoe knew for certain that she had won, but what I observed in her body language was a skier who was satisfied with her effort. ”
The state title came as a crowning achievement for Devine, who won the section title a week earlier and placed sixth - gaining all-state status - at the 2022 state meet.
Devine was making her fifth straight appearance at the state competition and had her eye toward the top. She and Kraker overcame a loaded field to finish one-two.
“Going into the afternoon race, we knew a couple of the athletes from the metro area that were near the top were very strong skate skiers,” said Hohenstein. “So I was surprised to see that it came down to two Section 7 skiers in a sprint to the finish line. I think it just represents how strong the skiing has been this year in northern Minnesota and how great competition during the season is what makes great skiers.”
Phoebe Helms was Ely’s next-highest finisher in the meet, closing out a career that included multiple state berths with a 45th-place showing.
Junior Claire Blauch followed in 51st, followed by Ava Skustad (61st) and Anna Dunn (79th).
Ely’s sprint relay combination of Kelly Thompson and Sydney Durkin placed 18th among 24 teams in action that took place Wednesday.
“I was happy with our finish as a team,” said Hohenstein. “We ended up eighth in the state but several teams were very close and we could’ve easily ended up in sixth. All that to say that we had a great effort by the girls and they represented our community spectacularly.”
Ely had one boys state meet qualifier - sophomore Dylan Durkin. He placed 65th in his debut on the state meet stage.
“Dylan was our only state qualifier on the boys side,” said Hohenstein. “He had a really fun and fast morning race. I think he surprised himself and gained an understanding of just how hard he can push when racing. When skiers are out there and everyone is fast and going hard, they just naturally rise to the level of competition. Dylan now has that experience and I know it will benefit him going forward.”
The state meet capped Hohenstein’s first year leading the Wolves. He stepped in after the retirement of longtime head coach Paula Anderson.
“I don’t think we could’ve had a more satisfying season this year as a coaching staff,” he said. “ Many things had to be learned; new roles, new perspectives, and balancing it all was a challenge. I’m so thankful for all the support that was offered and given by so many members of the Ely ski community. I think many understand how unique and valuable this wonderful sports program is and that it takes a great amount of time and energy to maintain.”