The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

When she was a junior at Highland Park High School, Molly Moening started on a journey. One of the state’s top cross-country skiers, she knew she wanted to compete in the sport in college. There aren’t a lot of colleges that offer Nordic skiing as an NCAA sport. Around these parts, only Saint Cloud State, Saint Olaf and Saint Scholastica do. Moening started researching and zeroed in on the University of Vermont. The Catamounts have been a power in the sport for a long time, with six national championships and 15 second-place finishes since the NCAA began holding men’s competitions in 1954.

Women were added to the mix in 1983. By then, Vermont had six consecutive top-five efforts in the AIWA National Championships. Over the years, the Catamounts have had 54 individual national champions, more than 273 all-Americans, and 66 U.S. Ski Team members.

“I put myself out early and they responded to me quickly,” said Moening, who helped lead the Highland girls to two state Nordic titles in three years. “I had friends on the team and I FaceTimed with the coaches. It was a great fit.” 

Trading running shoes for roller skis

When she arrived, Moening discovered that variety is the spice of college skiing. The Vermont roster has skiers from three Canadian provinces and four states, as well as a native of Sweden. Moening is one of two from Minnesota. In past autumns, she ran cross-country at Highland. At the start of college this fall, she traded her running shoes for roller skis.

Molly Moening
Molly Moening

“I had done it a couple of times before. It’s like Rollerblading, but there are no brakes,” she said.

Even though the first meet didn’t take place until the second week of January, Moening and her teammates were busy going up and down hills near Burlington. Suffice it to say that navigating this terrain was different than skiing around the Highland 9-Hole Golf Course.

 

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“There was a lot of variety in the hills here,” she said. “You learn how to pace yourself when you go downhill.” 

The temperature in Burlington is similar to these parts. The difference is it averages around 80 inches of snow a year. Unlike Minnesota this winter, the snowfall totals are far less than usual in Burlington. As a result, Moening and her teammates have had to go far and wide at times to practice. At one point, the team headed 60 miles away to Lake Placid to practice against other schools. The trip may have had a dual purpose. The NCAA meets are scheduled in Lake Placid on March 8-11.

“I put myself out early and they responded to me quickly,” said Moening, who helped lead the Highland girls to two state Nordic titles in three years. “I had friends on the team and I FaceTimed with the coaches. It was a great fit.” 

Making her college debut

The weeks of practicing and lifting weights led up to Moening’s college debut on January 14 in a meet hosted by Bates College in Maine. Moening finished 18th in a field of 81 in the 10K freestyle with a time of 29:39, roughly two minutes behind sophomore teammate Haley Brewster, who won the meet.

The schedule picks up in intensity over the next six weeks. There are meets of different types scheduled each weekend. As one of three first-year skiers, Moening is battling for position every week. She’s doing this while balancing books as a major in sustainability and ecology policy. She hopes to go to work for a nonprofit in the environmental field.

But that’s far down the road. For now, Moening is zeroing in on slopes trickier than Como Golf Course. “I feel confident in my ability,” she said.

Watching from afar, her father Brad, who coaches Highland’s cross-country teams, said, “It’s a perfect fit for her.” And isn’t that what college is supposed to be? 

Saint Thomas steps up its game 

As noted elsewhere in this paper, the University of Saint Thomas made a bold move on January 17 when announcing a $75 million gift to help build an on-campus arena for hockey and basketball. It was inevitable this would take place. From the moment the school announced it was moving to Division I, it was clear it would need a facilities upgrade.

An artist's rendering of hockey being played on the University of Saint Thomas' proposed arena.

More funding still needed

The largesse afforded them by donors Lee and Penny Anderson is a very nice start. More funding is needed before the first brick is laid, but if all goes well the new arena will be in place in plenty of time for the Tommies to begin qualifying for NCAA tournaments.

UST’s basketball and hockey coaches said the new 4,000- to 6,000-seat arena will be a boon for recruiting. This should be particularly true for hockey, which now plays at Saint Thomas Academy’s 1,000-seat rink.

Odd as it may sound, this announcement was the easy part. As the new kid on the DI athletic block, UST will continue to get a lot of positive media publicity in a market that, with a few notable exceptions, is sympathetic to college athletics. 

The tough stuff lies ahead. Division I athletics is no longer a friendly playground. It’s always been a competitive entity, but with the advancement of transfer portals and the ability for athletes to cash in on fame and fortune it’s become a cutthroat industry. Athletes are now free agents, moving from school to school in a bid to get playing time and/or money. The nature of the beast means that for every transfer you get from, say, Western Michigan, you run the risk of losing one to Iowa State. That volatility is now part of Saint Thomas’ world.

Not a Villanova or Boston College?

It was interesting to hear new UST president Rob Vischer say the goal was NOT to be a Villanova or Boston College. UST has roughly 6,000 undergrads who pay around $49,000 a year, which is close to the 7,000 students and $52,000 tuition at Villanova and a little less than the 9,500 students paying $61,000 at Boston College.

Both Villanova and Boston College are in major markets with other DI schools around them. At times, they also have risen to the top of the pack in a DI sport. Wildcats have won a pair of men’s basketball titles, and the Eagles have won four men’s hockey crowns. As an aside, Boston College also has an arena shared by basketball and hockey. Both schools also have sterling academic reputations. If UST doesn’t want to emulate them, what role model is it picking?

A side note is having a facility of that size will allow UST to host section games for high school hockey and basketball. That’s been a need on this side of the river since the Coliseum closed shop for hockey. Basketball is currently played at high school gyms with far less capacity than the new building will hold.

For now, UST gets a pass on its results on the court and ice. The school can rightfully enjoy victories such as men’s hockey winning 3-2 at nationally ranked Michigan Tech recently, while shrugging off an 81-60 men’s basketball loss at Kansas City as a learning experience.

Greater expectations

Once the Tommies move into their new digs, however, expectations will be higher. Wins can still be celebrated but, as Ben Johnson and the Gopher men’s basketball team discovered last week, the joy is short-lived when you lose at home to a conference foe three days later. Such is life in the world of DI athletics.

That’s in the future for UST. For now, there’s time to dream about what things will be like in a couple of years.

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

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