The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

For a lot of people, the recent spell of polar weather has been miserable. That includes a group you might not have expected: the Highland Park High School boys’ and girls’ cross-country ski teams. A novice to the sport may have guessed that below-zero temps at night and single-digit daytime highs would be ideal for the Scots, whose girls’ team is expected to compete for top honors at the state Nordic ski meet on February 16-17 at Giants Ridge in Biwabik.  

Not so. Just ask Highland head coach Brad Moening. “When it gets below 10 degrees, it’s not healthy to be out there for long,” he said. “This week, we’ve only had one real good day to practice.”

 

   

The Scots have managed to perform commendably anyway. On January 28, the Highland girls and boys each won Twin Cities Nordic Conference championships at Theodore Wirth Park. The girls bested rival Central by a 396-370 margin and the boys topped the Minutemen 394-383. The same held true for the JV races on February 1. Highland and Central went 1-2 with both boys’ and girls’ teams as well.  

Moening didn’t have to wonder who was leading the varsity girls on the slopes. His daughter Molly, now a senior, is a two-time state individual champion in Nordic. She helped lead the Scots to a state title in 2020 and a runner-up finish in 2021. Molly hopes to join current Olympian Jessie Diggins as a three-time Nordic winner at this month’s state meet. But before that takes place, Highland was set to face Central again at the Section 3 meet on February 8 at Wirth.  

Molly tamed Wirth in style at the Twin Cities Nordic event, winning the race with an overall time of 29:08, or 77 seconds ahead of second-place teammate Chloe Koch. The Scots’ remarkable depth was on display as they also claimed third through seventh place in the race, with Central grabbing the eighth and ninth spots.

 

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“This is probably the deepest team I’ve had,” Moening said. “They challenge each other all the time.” 

Presuming they advance to state, the Highland girls expect to tangle with defending champ Forest Lake as well as Duluth East. “We’ve seen them once each in meets this year,” Moening said, “and we know what we’ll see there.”  

“This is probably the deepest team I’ve had,” Moening said about the Highland girls. “They challenge each other all the time.” 

The Highland boys’ team may not be quite as deep as the girls, but there’s plenty of quality at the top to make Moening feel his team could have a very rewarding February. The boys finished third in the 2020 state meet and were ninth last year. At the Twin Cities Nordic meet, junior Davis Isom outdueled Central’s Charles Ostergren to win by 66 seconds. The Scots then took the next three places.

“The boys really duke it out against each other,” Moening said. “It’s fun to watch.” Isom was the top Highland boy to finish at last year’s state meet at 20th. Ostergren, a senior, was 34th.  

One thing that has changed at both state meets is the addition of a two-person sprint relay event. In that race, a skier zips through a 1K and then tags off to a partner who goes the same distance. The pair then do it a second time. On the boys’ side, Moening found a hidden gem for that race in senior Alex Pfankuch. In the standard 5K races, Pfankuch consistently trailed Isom and others. However, in the shorter race, he proved to be Highland’s Road Runner.

“He won easily at the Nordic meet,” Moening said. “He can really fly at the short distance.”  

For Moening, this year’s state Nordic ski meet may have special meaning. Molly is the last of his three daughters he’ll have coached. “I’ve been here 21 years and I’ve coached my daughters for at least half of that time,” he said.

Molly will attend and compete at the University of Vermont next year. “That’s probably the closest you can get to being in northern Minnesota,” Moening said. He also mentioned one side benefit to seeing his youngest go away to college. “I’ll get to drive my car again,” he said.  

Macalester basketball is playoff bound 

When Abe Woldeslassie was hired as the head men’s basketball coach at Macalester College in 2018, he said one of his goals was to get the Scots back to the MIAC playoffs – something that last occurred in 2005.  

Thanks to COVID, the Scots will do just that. A couple of weeks back, the MIAC declared that everybody was in the mix this year for the playoffs, and games that had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus would simply be ignored. 

Ironically, the way the Macalester hoopsters have been playing this winter, they could qualify anyway as one of the top six teams in the league. Despite battling through COVID and injuries, the Scots are hovering around the .500 mark. As this is being written, they’re tied with Saint Olaf for fifth place in the league. They would need to win three of their last five games to finish with an overall .500 mark—a statistical mountain last reached in 2004.  

“We’re fighting hard for a good seed. The goal is to get a home playoff game,” Woldeslassie said. “We’ve had a lot of close games.”

One of those was a 72-63 win over Bethel on January 15. It was the first Scot triumph over the Royals since 2005, when Mac was still playing in its old cracker box gym. That triumph ignited a five-game winning streak, something that hasn’t been enjoyed by the Scots for nearly two decades.  

Woldeslassie contends the foundation for this current run of success was laid last year. Because of COVID, the Scots only played four games last season—all of them against Saint Olaf. They won the last two of those tilts. The mojo from that stretched over to this season when Mac won its first three non-conference games in November. Then COVID and the injury bug knocked the team backward for a month. Only two players—leading scorer Caleb Williams and marksman Coby Gold—have played every game this season. 

All is well again, however. Williams, a 6-foot-2 sophomore guard, ranks second in the MIAC with more than 17 points a game. He hails from Wild Rose, Wisconsin, which numbered 720 residents in the last census. Mac’s roster is a mixed geographical bag with eight states and three foreign countries represented among the 17 players.

“We look for Minnesotans,” said Woldeslassie, who has four of them on the roster, “but we also get student-athletes that other schools won’t look at.”  

Hence, there are players such as Ahad Anjum, a junior from Karachi, Pakistan, who played high school ball in Dubai. His coach there was a student manager at Davidson when Woldeslassie was employed there as director of basketball operations.  

Woldeslassie, a Saint Thomas Academy grad, played two seasons at the University of Saint Thomas before transferring to Macalester. As a Scot, he was an all-MIAC guard who led the conference in assists as a senior. He freely admits that not having the Tommies looking over his team’s shoulders this year is helpful.

“I’m very happy for them and think they’ll be very successful as a D-I program,” he said.

The Scots’ success this year has brought considerable excitement to campus. With that exhilaration, however, comes a new reality. “We’re not going to sneak up on anyone,” Woldeslassie said.

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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