BIWABIK, MINN. Two metro-area skiers and two northern teams from the same school rose to the top at Giants Ridge on Thursday.
Sharmila Ahmed of Burnsville and Ben Saxton of Lakeville North used strong climbs to the top of The Cedars on the northeastern slope, propelling them to the girls' and boys' individual crowns in the Nordic skiing state meet. It was the first state title for the two skiers from the South Suburban Conference.
Duluth East, led by junior Ryan Davis in the boys competition and junior Annie Harvieux in the girls, swept the team championships. Hopkins was the last school to accomplish the feat in 2002.
The Greyhounds last won the girls' title in 2007, and boys' championship in 2004. Sharmila shines
Ahmed kept flexing her legs in pain after crossing the finishing line of the 5K freestyle race in the morning. Her shins were bothering as they have done all season.
"I have really felt it skating the whole season," Ahmed said. "I'll be fine this afternoon. They don't bother me skiing the classical."
It should have pained the other skiers to hear that. Ahmed had opened up a 7-second lead heading into the afternoon's 5K classical race in the chase for the pursuit title. Now it was just a matter of the senior overcoming her afternoon blues.
"I could never hold it together for the second race of the day," Ahmed said.
That wasn't the case Thursday. The senior turned in a strong final leg, winning by nearly 30 seconds with a time of 32 minutes, 1 second.
"I think having Liz [Peterson of Forest Lake] behind her helped," former Burnsville coach Amy Cichanowski said. She was the team's mentor when Ahmed started skiing in eighth grade. "She is a very known commodity, and they have gone head-to-head in more serious racing settings. Sharmila conquered that demon of the second race today."
Peterson, also a senior, was in second place after the freestyle and finished fourth overall. Wayzata freshman Alayna Sonnesyn was the runner-up with a pursuit time of 32:30.8.
"I had the entire state pursuing me," Ahmed said. "I felt them all coming behind me."
Only this time, nobody was going to catch her.
Turn back the clock
It felt like 2010 all over again for Saxton and Andy Dodds of Apple Valley. Saxton was finishing strong, while Dodds wasn't able to complete another strong start.
"It was kind of depressing seeing people go by me," Dodds said. The Eagles senior held nearly a 13-second lead after the 5K freestyle race, but wound up sixth overall. "It was almost a carbon copy of last year."
Dodds was second after the morning run last year and finished seventh.
"I just didn't have anything left for the downhill finish [the last 2K] like last year," Dodds said. He was still in the lead at the 3K mark.
On the other hand, Saxton was flying past competitors just like his runner-up finish a year ago. He passed Dodds shortly after the 3K mark, and finished with a winning pursuit time of 29:05.7.
"You always have a chance to come back," Saxton said. The junior entered the 5K classical portion of the race in fifth place. He was in the seventh spot last year. "And I hate to lose."
All in the family
It was role reversal for the Benton family of Hopkins.
Sarah provided her older brother, Connor, with as much insight as she could prior to his 5K classical run in the afternoon. She was coming off a third-place finish in the girls' race following a strong classical run.
"She gave me a couple of tips," said Connor, a senior who was the runner-up in the boys' race. "She told me to go out hard which I was leery of doing because of what happened in last year's meet [when several other competitors went out too fast early in the second race]. I hit it hard and was really juiced."
Connor entered the final run in third place, nearly 15 seconds behind Dodds.
"She helped me today," Connor said. "She's a strong spirit."
Sarah, a sophomore, was in ninth place after the 5K freestyle run in the morning. She went to work immediately on the classical course, and wound up passing five competitors.
"I'm giving him the advice today," Sarah said. "Typically, I follow his lead."
Sarah will be providing more advice in the future. Her younger sister, Claire, is coming up behind her.
"Everybody in our family skis," Sarah said. "It's something our entire family enjoys doing together. We're Norwegian, so skiing is in our blood."