BIWABIK, MINN. - Bigger, stronger, faster. That is Ben Saxton of Lakeville North.
The unseasonably warm winter and lack of snow put more importance on all three elements for the Panthers senior in his final prep skiing season. Saxton successfully defended his boys' Nordic skiing state championship on an overcast Thursday at Giants Ridge.
"There was no more pressure on me [being the defending state champion]," Saxton said. "I put enough pressure on myself."
He posted a winning pursuit (5K freestyle and 5K classical races combined) time of 28 minutes, 52.2 seconds, which was 13.5 seconds faster than his time in 2011.
The only pressure Nora Gilbertson of Stillwater was feeling was in trying to help the Ponies capture the girls' team title. An individual state championship was an afterthought. That quickly changed when she picked off the top two skiers during the classical race, rallying to win the girls' crown with a pursuit time of 33:54.3.
"We weren't very happy where we were in the team standings [fourth]," Gilbertson said. "We were all just trying to improve our position."
Duluth East successfully defended its girls' team championship, finishing one point ahead of runner-up Wayzata (372-371).
Roseville became the fourth different boys' team champion in the past four years. The Raiders wound up with 370 points, three more than second-place Hopkins.Commanding victory
Saxton found himself in an unusual position, leading from the outset. He has had to make up ground each of the past two years en route to his second and first-place finishes.
"I went out really fast last year," Saxton said after opening up a 32-second lead over Detroit Lakes senior Jake Richards during the 5K freestyle race in the morning. "I stayed relaxed today. It was a much better run than last year."
Saxton was in fifth place after the freestyle race during his first state title run. He was the state runner-up as a sophomore when he was seventh after the freestyle portion.
"My technique really felt smooth today," Saxton said. He posted a freestyle time of 13:43.3, the only skier to finish in under 14 minutes, and nearly seven seconds faster than his time in 2011.
That improvement didn't bode well for the rest of the field. He still had to ski the 5K classical, where he has shined throughout his career.
Saxton didn't waste any time expanding his margin in the classical race. By the 3K mark his lead was over a minute. He finished with a time of 15:09.2, delivering an emotional fist pump after crossing the finish line.
"I was pretty excited," the usually stoic Saxton said. "I was releasing a lot of feelings. So much hard work has gone into this over the years."
Richards was the runner-up with a time of 29:42.6. He entered the event ranked fifth in the state.
"I haven't felt this good all year," Richards said. "It all came together for me today."
And he still finished more than 50 seconds behind Saxton.
"Ben is so good," Richards said. "He is just so strong, so powerful."
Saxton became the fifth two-time pursuit champion. The others are Anders Osthus of Duluth East (2000-01), Garrett Heath of Winona/Winona Cotter (2003-04), Ben Fick of Forest Lake (2005-06) and Joe Dubay of Coon Rapids and Andover (2007-08).
"There hasn't been that many skiers to win two pursuit titles," Saxton said. "I'm proud to be part of that club."Coming from behind
A skier in the middle of the pack crossed the finish line and quickly asked, "Who won?" One of her teammates quickly told her Gilbertson. She exclaimed, "Holy Nora!"
Gilbertson, beaming with jubilation, was just as surprised as she stood nearby receiving congratulatory hugs. The state's eighth-ranked skier overtook No. 1 Annie Harvieux of Duluth East and No. 2 Alayna Sonnesyn of Wayzata during the second leg (5K classical) of the race for the title.
"I thought I was in pretty good position," said Gilbertson, acknowledging that she's "not a great skater.'' She was in third place after the 5K freestyle, with a time of 16:34.6. Harvieux was the leader at 16:24.1.
Gilbertson got past the two favorites at the top of The Cedars, the 3K mark. She knew it was her race to win from that moment on.
"I could keep hearing people coming behind me," Gilbertson said. "I knew they were getting close."
Gilbertson finished 2.8 seconds ahead of Sonnesyn (33:57.1), who had her second consecutive runner- up finish. Harvieux finished fourth in 34:13.9.
"My former teammate Jessie Diggins won it, and so did my coach [Kris Hansen]," Gilbertson said. "They are the ones who helped me improve and get to this point."
A state champion.