Aspen High heads to state skiing in Steamboat looking for a girls repeat title
Aspen High School sophomore McKenna Kiker can’t complain about the beginning to her AHS ski racing career.
Last winter, as a freshman, Kiker was part of an Aspen girls team — combined Alpine and Nordic — that won the state championship for the first time since 2013 and seventh time overall.
“Coming in as a freshman and winning states was really awesome,” Kiker said prior to Tuesday’s practice at Aspen Highlands. “It just showed me what we can get to and what we can work toward and how that excitement when you are winning states is just so awesome. We are working toward that every year and now I know that feeling and now I want to work toward that feeling.”
Now, the goal is to relive that experience Thursday and Friday when the Skiers send 20 Alpine and eight Nordic athletes to the state skiing championships. Aspen hosted the event last winter, while Steamboat Springs will host the 2017 competition this week.
“Oddly enough, we don’t really talk about it throughout the season. But now is the time to talk about it,” AHS Alpine coach Jennifer Morandi-Benson said of the girls trying to defend their state title. “What we are expecting is taking home a state championship. I hesitate to say that out loud … but all signs point to a successful state championship.”
Morandi-Benson, who coaches the Alpine team alongside Brad Randel, believes the team can prove last year’s title was no fluke in large part because of the team’s depth this season. Of the 20 Alpine skiers going to Steamboat this week, 14 are girls. Among those are key pieces of last year’s state championship team, including Pascale Augspurger, Aspen’s top giant slalom and slalom finisher a year ago, taking 10th and seventh, respectively.
“This year we have a little bit of depth, so it takes a little pressure off,” Morandi-Benson said. “Even if we are going into our 10th, 11th, 12th girl, they still have a shot at winning the whole thing. It’s amazing.”
Depth is a luxury not found for the Nordic skiers. Of the eight qualified for state, it’s an even split between the boys and girls. Injuries and illness have plagued an already small team this season, but Nordic coach Travis Moore still dreams of the possibilities considering the skill of the eight competing.
“They are pretty strong teams, but if anything goes wrong, like we have kids that are sick right now, it’s going to be anybody’s guess,” Moore said. “If things go well and they all ski to their ability, without any issues, problems and we get good wax on those days, they can ski great. Combined with the Alpine I still have visions we can, with this tiny team, beat the big teams and come out on top.”
There isn’t much margin for error for the boys team as whole, which also has won seven state championships, the most recent title coming in 2014. The AHS boys took second in 2016, falling short to Battle Mountain.
“Last year it was in Aspen, which was kind of an advantage because we train on this hill, obviously. This year it will be new territory going to Steamboat,” said AHS sophomore Alpine skier Alex Ilic. “We want to get first, obviously. Last year we came up short. But this year we feel we have a much better team.”
The state meet gets underway Thursday with the skate individual start at the Steamboat Ski Touring Center and the giant slalom races at Mt. Werner. Friday will be the classic mass start and the slalom races, both at Howelsen Hill.
The top three finishers per team per race are scored, with the overall state title being a combined score from all four events.
“Success for us at the high school level really means developing the team and bringing along those racers who have never raced before,” Morandi-Benson said. “We see our words translate into action. We see it because the kids are so coachable and they make me want to race again, and it’s been 20 years. So I’m really inspired by them.”
Aspen state Nordic qualifiers
Ricky Wojcik, Jack Sweeney, Colt Whitley, Everett Olson, Hazel Wille, Chelsea Moore, Greta Hansen and Adair Patillo.
Aspen state Alpine qualifiers
Pascale Augspurger, India Cardamone, Elli Gorsuch, Mariel Gorsuch, McKenna Kiker, Maggie McGuire, Margo McHugh, Devan McSwain, Margo McSwain, Elle Murphy, Ellie Oates, Tate Randel, Kajsa Sutro, Estelle Sweeney, Jake Bassi, Henry Barth, Reed Beidleman, Ethan DeMoraes, Alex Ilic and Trey Thorpe.
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American riders invited to compete in X Games from Jan. 29-31, who have continuously tested negative while in mandatory quarantine in Austria, are expected to compete at the event later this month in Aspen.