As the coach of the Eagan boys’ Nordic ski program, Brian Abery harps on fundamentals and technique every day in practice.
But that doesn’t mean that there’s only one way to be a successful skier. Abery has the photograph to prove it: Teammates Patrick Acton and Ryan Steger standing next to each other on a tiered podium after a race last season.
“Patrick was standing on the top rung after winning, and Ryan was in third, down below — and Ryan was still taller than Patrick,” Abery said with a laugh. “It’s pretty fun to look at, to just see the difference between the two. Yet, they’re both very strong, successful skiers.”
In fact, the juniors are two of the metro’s best.
Acton, at 5-6, has a powerful, quick stride and a competitive fire that Abery said is rare to find.
Steger, nearly 6-4 and weighing more than 190 pounds, has “incredible balance,” Abery said.
“At that height, he looks much more like an elite swimmer than a lanky basketball player.”
Steger’s long stride paces him out past his competitors.
Together, Acton and Steger will anchor a Wildcats team that has won five consecutive championships in Class 2A, Section 1 and every South Suburban Conference title since its inception.
Acton said they’re ready for the challenge.
“It’s not really pressure, but you want to make sure you keep that going,” he said. “We want to keep improving and setting that bar.”
Competition for the 2015 Nordic ski season was slated to kick off Nov. 12 but a lack of snow has delayed it. Meanwhile, the Wildcats have practiced on roller skis at nearby trails. Sharing the trails with them are skiers from Eastview, Apple Valley and Rosemount, who are part of a District 196 co-op team.
While he and his teammates are eager to get going, Acton said the dryland training plays a large role in his and his team’s success. Abery said the team’s work in the offseason has led to a focused, fit group returning this year.
Along with Acton and Steger, the team also has junior Ryan Conroy as its No. 3 skier and others — among them Dylan Schuller, Jacob Abbott, John Martin and Trenton Allen — who could fill out the team’s depth.
“It’s a talented group,” Abery said. “And the kids have high expectations.”
Eagan finished 13th at the state meet a year ago, a result Acton said was disappointing. “We didn’t ski our best,” he said.
Acton led the Wildcats with a 21st-place showing, Steger finished 41st. Respectable finishes for sophomores, but both skiers are hoping for drastic improvements this year.
Both Acton and Steger advanced to the national junior championship last season in the U-16 age group. Acton expects to qualify again this winter as they move into the U-18 bracket.
The goal is to take the high school team as high as they can. Acton would like to see the Wildcats contend for a title. He thinks a top-five finish individually — maybe top three — is within reach.
Abery doesn’t doubt them.
“They’re both such strong skiers and such good athletes and such motivated competitors,” he said. “They might go about it in different ways, but I think they can compete with pretty much anyone out there.”