Turning athletes into dedicated Nordic skiers is a point of pride for longtime Forest Lake coach Deno Johnson.
Since Johnson joined the program in 1998, his unique approach has helped the Rangers become one of the most dominant forces in high school cross-country skiing.
Senior Leo Hipp, the Rangers’ top skier, played goalie until he was in ninth grade when he traded his skates for skis — at the subtle urging of Johnson.
“When I was in seventh or eighth grade, he’d ask me when I was coming out for skiing, just kind of joking, and I’d tell him, ‘Never, because I’m a hockey player,’ ” said Hipp, the 11th-ranked Nordic skier in the country for his age group. “Now here I am and I’m telling kids to do the same thing.”
Hipp grew up in a hockey family. His dad, Jim, still coaches hockey at Forest Lake. Hipp started skating at age 4, but gave it up when he began high school. Hipp finished third in the state Nordic meet as an individual last season, leading the Rangers to the state title. He’s now trying to decide where to ski next fall between Division I schools Northern Michigan and New Hampshire.
“Hockey is such a big deal here, it was tough,” Hipp said. “But once I made the decision, I never second-guessed it. Once I was skiing, I was a skier.”
Forest Lake does not have a youth program and the Rangers don’t draw the big numbers like some programs. Stillwater has about 160 skiers and Edina about 200, Johnson said. Forest Lake has its biggest team this year — 34 skiers.
“We get kids that have never seen Nordic skis before,” Johnson said. “We get hockey players, runners, swimmers. The majority of our kids, we have to teach how to ski. Like accelerated math, this is accelerated Nordic.”
However, the Forest Lake boys have qualified for 14 of the past 16 state meets, winning five state titles and producing three individual state champions. They also have won 12 of the past 17 Suburban East Conference championships.
The girls have had one individual state champ, reached four state meets and earned three conference titles since 2000.
Johnson said everything changed when he began the Nordicwerks SkiKlubb offseason program in 2002. Its philosophy is that skiers are made by offseason work. He relies heavily on the use of roller skis and stresses technique, endurance and core-strength training.
Forest Lake was one of the first programs to implement an offseason regimen for its entire team.
“We put in tremendous hours in the summer — twice a day, every day — and there’s no if, ands or buts about it,” Hipp said. “There’s a lot of individuals that do it, but not a lot of teams that do it as a whole. I think that’s what separates us; all of us put that time in collectively.”
The Forest Lake boys won four state championships between 2005 and 2009. The Rangers were then shut out, even missing the state meet in 2012, but returned to the top last year.
The Rangers are currently ranked No. 1 in the state. They return their six best skiers — Hipp, Quinn Duffy, Tommy Babcock, Davis Long, Alex Richert and Ryan Mead — from last year’s team.
Forest Lake’s girls, ranked just outside the top 10, are led by senior Rocci Wohlk, a New Hampshire recruit who is ranked third individually.
“We’re really close as a team,” Hipp said. “At the beginning of every year, if you’re new or not, it’s instilled into you that this is a winning program and we want to keep it that way.”