The proposition of racing full speed down an unforgiving frozen tundra might be frightening to most, but for a group of local skiers, that only gathers excitement.
The Grand Haven and Spring Lake ski programs will both be sending some of their fastest and most fearless performers to Monday's state finals after strong showings at last week's regionals.
The Buccaneers will travel to Boyne Mountain, while the Lakers will navigate the hills at Schuss Mountain.
For Grand Haven, sophomore Mitchel Bosgraaf will make his second straight finals appearance after recording a ninth-place finish in the slalom event at the regionals with a time of 1 minute, 2.64 seconds. He narrowly missed qualifying in the giant slalom with a 15th-place finish at 53.64 seconds.
"I thought I did pretty well," said Bosgraaf of his regional performance. "There's still a little bit of room for improvement. I just want to be a little more aggressive going down the hill. It was a tough course, so it took a few runs to get used to it before I really got comfortable with it."
As for his final race of the year, Bosgraaf hopes he saved his best for last.
"I just want to go out there and ski my best," he continued. "Last year, I fell at the state finals, so I definitely don't want to do that again. I'm just hoping for a good showing and, hopefully, I can say I ran one of my best races at the very end of the season."
The Buccaneers' welcomed two new members to their ranks this year, as freshmen Eden Nykamp and Duncan Elmer of Holland Black River High School created a co-op team with Grand Haven.
In her first year at the varsity level, Nykamp quickly made a name for herself on the slopes, winning her age group in her very first competition of the season. The talented underclassman continued to pave her way to a state-qualifying performance in the slalom event at regionals with a 12th-place finish at 1:05.02.
"I'm really excited," she said. "I thought I skied to the best of my abilities at regionals, and I'm just happy to be going to the state finals. That was probably my most complete performance of the season.
"I'm hoping to do my best in the finals. I'd like to end the season with a good performance and make the most of my opportunity."
For head coach Anna Braymer, the addition of Nykamp and Elmer has helped push the program and its expectations to new heights.
"We were really excited about the co-op with (Holland) Black River and bringing in talented skiers like Eden and Duncan," she said. "Those two have both been great additions to our teams. Duncan just missed qualifying at regionals, but he and Eden both have bright futures ahead of them as freshmen.
"I really think we've had great leaders on the team this year. Mitchel has been a great leader by example and Will Webster has been a great team captain for us. Unfortunately, he's a senior, so he will be hard to replace, but I think we have a lot of kids that will continue to be strong leaders for us in the future."
As for her state qualifiers, Braymer knew early on in the process that they had a chance to be special.
"Those two are both really strong skiers," she continued. "If they put forth their best efforts on Monday, anything is possible. That's the fun thing about ski racing. On any given day, it can be anyone's race to win.
"We knew right away that those two had a chance to be state qualifiers and maybe even All-State performers. You could just tell by the first few practices. Then they both won their age groups at the first event of the season, so that was a pretty good indicator of where they were at."
A top-10 finish at the state finals would guarantee first team All-State honors for Bosgraaf and Nykamp, but Braymer believes the real measurement of success lies within the competitors themselves.
"I just want them to have a great experience, first of all," she added. "There's going to be great competition there, and that should only push them to perform better. I think top 10 is obtainable, but I think the most important thing will be whether or not they did their best. I think if they can say they had their best race possible and really take in the moment, that'll be a successful trip.
"Mitchel has experienced the state finals before, so he has an advantage there and won't be phased by the moment. Eden is very mentally strong, too, so she will be able to handle the pressure and perform well.
"It's an exciting time for us. This is the future of our team. We have a strong group of young skiers and these two are the leading examples of what we have to look forward to within our program in the next few years.”
Braymer was also very thankful for the local ski slopes that allow the team to work on their craft.
“I just wanted to thank the people that work at the Ski Bowl at Mulligan’s Hollow for their help and willingness to let us use their facilities. We have to do a lot of traveling to competitions, so it’s nice to have a place closer to home to get some practicing in.”
LAKERS LOOM LARGE
The Spring Lake boys ski team nearly qualified their entire roster to Monday's state finals with a fifth-place team finish in the giant slalom and a fourth-place finish in the slalom at last week's regionals.
Juniors Colby Brown and Charlie Parker made the most of their races, however, with both competitors qualifying individually.
Brown finished ninth in the giant slalom (57.57 seconds) to qualify, while Parker added a ninth-place finish in the slalom event with a run of 49.28 seconds.
"Regionals went well," said Parker. "I fell in the first morning race, but I had a good second run after that, so that really took the pressure off in the afternoon.
"We all ski better when we are having fun and not taking ourselves too seriously. If you put too much pressure on yourself, you'll psych yourself out at the starting gate. Skiing is such a mental sport because you're racing the course more than you're racing against other people.
"The big thing I've learned this year is to just calm myself down after one bad run and not let that billow over into the next few races. I just always try and stay positive."
Brown opened his regional competition with a state-qualifying time in the giant slalom but then got a little too far in front of his skis in the slalom race.
"At regionals, I qualified in the GS in the morning, and then, in the slalom, I decided to ski as hard as I could," he added. "Unfortunately, that didn't go well for me.
"The snow snakes got him," Parker chimed in with a laugh.
The dynamic duo hopes to continue their momentum to the finish line of the season with the chances of accolades in the back of their minds.
"All of my GS finishes have been in the top 10 so far this season, so I'm hoping I can carry that over to the state finals," Brown added. "I think that would be a great way to kind of cap off the season.”
"I'd really like to make All-State," said Parker. "We're expecting to have a good team next year, so we want to end this season on a positive note and build on that for next season. Our goal is to qualify the whole team to the state finals next time."
COCO ON THE GO
For Spring Lake senior standout Coco McKeough, Monday's state finals will mark the final chapter in a long varsity career with the Lakers.
In the slalom event, McKeough finished ninth at the regional with a time of 52.76 seconds and just missed qualifying in the giant slalom with a 13th-place finish in a time of 1:02.07.
"It's exciting, but it's also a little sad and bittersweet, too," she said. "I'm looking forward to it, and I just want to leave it all out on the hill and not have any regrets at the end. There's nothing you can do about it once it's over, so I want to make sure it's a good final race.
"I've had a pretty good year so far. I won my age group in a few events and won a conference race, so I'm happy with what I've accomplished so far. I think a top 10 finish in my final high school race would a perfect ending."
Spring Lake head coach Tim Parker was thrilled to see three of his hardest workers be rewarded at the end of the season.
"I was really happy to see Coco make it in her senior year," he said. "She qualified with the whole team last year, but this year, she's really been solid from start to finish. I'm hoping to see her close out her high school career with a high finish at the state finals and to have a good race.
"Colby has progressed a lot over the course of the season. It seems like he just gets faster and faster every time he goes out there. I think he's peaking at just the right time. Charlie is another solid skier for us. I was so proud to see him bounce back after that fall in the giant slalom. Skiing can be such a tough mental sport, and I thought he showed a lot of mental toughness in rebounding after that.
"Those three have been the leaders for us all season, so I'm happy to see them earn the right to ski at the biggest event of the year. I'd like to see them make top 10 in their events and get that All-State recognition, but the state finals are tough. I know they can make top 20, but I'm really pushing them to try and crack the top 10. I think they are capable of that."
As a program, Parker sees no reason to not be optimistic about what the future holds for the Lakers.
"It's been a great year for both the boys and girls teams," he continued. "We knew the girls' squad was going to have a rebuilding year because we lost the Klein sisters from last season and most of the other girls were pretty inexperienced. That group has really hit the ground running and been competitive all season.
"The boys were top five at events almost every week. We were right on the cusp of qualifying the whole team to the state finals, which would have been a great accomplishment for this group. Some of these guys were new to skiing and just to see them progress and grow from skiers to racers has been pretty great and rewarding."
With their sights set on the finish line and a full season's worth of speed built up behind them, all the Buccaneers and Lakers need to do now is close out their final lap in style.
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