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Forest Lake shows some kick

12/14/2012, 3:31pm CST
By AARON PAITICH, Special to the Star Tribune

The Rangers' Nordic ski program might not have huge numbers, but there is plenty of talent.

Jake Jankowski is a senior captain and a top returner for Forest Lake’s boys’ team. Submitted photo

Many observers wonder how a small Nordic skiing program like Forest Lake's can foster such long-term, consistent success at the state level.

"Quality over quantity," head coach Deno Johnson said. "We're all about the quality."

Some teams, including state favorite Hopkins and the storied Stillwater program, are happy with and aim for 100-plus kids to bolster their rosters. Johnson, who has coached the Rangers since 1998, is fired up about this year's mammoth total: 28.

The Rangers average two new kids every year. This winter, for some reason, 13 newcomers joined the North metro school's lineup. Johnson can't quite figure out why, but the thinking is that it must have something to do with the school's success the past couple of decades.

Forest Lake has captured 11 Suburban East Conference titles under Johnson, along with 12 section crowns and four state championships. The first time the Rangers boys won the state meet, the team had only 11 kids. But with numbers on the uptick, some of this year's newbies are showing great promise already, which firmly keeps the quality-over-quantity approach intact.

Lower numbers mean a lot to the kids as well, including more one-on-one attention from coaches. There's also a common word uttered among the captains: family.

"It makes us bond more easily. We get to know everyone a lot better," Jack Ebel said. "We're like a mini-family. I think it's better to be a part of a smaller group."

Said Jess Greeley, "It's like we're all a family. We're a big family and we know each other great. We're not all in the same grade, but we all click really well."

Last weekend's blizzard did wonders for local Nordic teams, including the Rangers. After dismal snow amounts last winter, a healthy dose this December is helping Johnson's team get in the sport's true spirit.

"Mentally, it definitely keeps people upbeat," Johnson said. "It's called cross-country skiing, and it's really nice to be actually able to do it and cover some terrain."

Senior captain Jake Jankowski is a top returner for the boys' team. Tommy Babcock, a freshman, is the returning No. 2 skier.

For the girls' team, Rocci Wohlk leads the charge. She's been skiing for the Rangers for four years and is the only seventh-grader to have captured all-conference honors at Forest Lake.

"We knew we had a special skier on our hands when she came out," Johnson said.

Wohlk holds the No. 2 individual state ranking in Minnesota. She has been named all-state, won several section titles and is a returning All-America in the United States Ski Association's Junior Olympic program.

The girls' No. 2 skier is Kate Schaaf, a ninth-grader who missed the state meet last season by a matter of seconds.

"She's going to be a good part of the 1-2 punch for the girls," Johnson said.

The boys are defending section champs and looking like the No. 3-ranked team in the state. They went into the state meet last year unranked but turned heads with a fourth-place finish.

"After I saw that, I knew the future's looking really good again," Johnson said. "We could be looking at a mid-2000s situation here, provided they stay humble and work hard."

What happened in the mid-2000s? Oh, just four state championships. Ebel feels pretty good about this group, too.

"Stronger than ever," Ebel said. "I have a lot of confidence in all of them. We know what we need to do to get it done."

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