A new crop of Seawolf skiers

Photo credit: UAA Athletics

On Oct. 27, 2016, it was announced that skiing and indoor track would be eliminated from UAA due to budget constraints. The cut of the entire skiing program – both Alpine and Nordic teams – took the community by surprise, and prompted them to rally with protests, signs and letters to the administration.

The cut left many of the athletes questioning their futures, contemplating plans to leave Alaska to finish their education. It altered the plans of many prospective skiers who had their eyes set on Alaska to compete in collegiate athletics.

On the morning of Nov. 10, 2016, UA President Jim Johnsen and the Board of Regents declared that no sports would be cut from the UA system.

Nearly a year later, the UAA ski team feels closer and stronger than ever. For the upcoming season, head coach Sparky Anderson, Nordic coach Andrew Kastning and graduate assistant coach Anna Berecz brought on 10 new athletes to debut their post-cut year.

For the Nordic team, Kastning and Anderson added six total athletes. Two new recruits are incoming freshmen, Jonatan Engdahl (Borlangem, Sweden) and Tracen Knopp (Palmer, Alaska).

Tracen Knopp. no. 26, leads at the ASAA/First National Bank State Cross-Country Ski Championships in his second season of high school skiing. Knopp joins the Seawolves as part of the Nordic ski team. Photo credit: Joey Klecka

As a local Alaskan, Knopp was well aware of the turbulence that UAA skiing faced in the previous year, but he focused more on the positives rather than negatives coming into his first season.

“I was aware of the cut, but I’m confident that the team will be here for at least the next four years. As far as [personal] goals, I’d like to qualify for NCAA Nationals and World Juniors,” Knopp said.

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Brandon Herhusky (Camelian Bay, California), a sophomore transfer from University of Vermont, was more hesitant about moving to Alaska. It wasn’t until late spring of 2017 that he considered becoming a Seawolf.

“Due to team size and just depth on that team, it made a lot of sense for me to come here to simply get more support as well as race more. I also really like the fact that we compete in [Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association] which races much closer to my home in California,” Herhusky said.

With the increased support he hopes to receive at UAA, Herhusky has many goals for the near and distant future.

“I’m really using this year as a building year to get used to western college racing, but hoping to qualify for NCAAs the following year which are back in Vermont,” Herhusky said.

There was an equal amount of incoming talent for women’s Nordic skiers; Jenna DiFolco and Lupua Oba (both from Fairbanks), as well as Marta Haakeenstad-Braaten (Lillehammer, Norway).

Jenna DiFolco of West Valley High School leads the Region VI High School Nordic Ski Championships in April 2017 to take the win. Photo credit: Eric Engman

While Kastning helps in the transition of those six freshmen to the Nordic team, Anderson and Berecz will handle the addition of four new alpine skiers, only one residing from the United States.

With two additions to each the men’s and women’s team, the athletes include: Erik Cruz (Tarnabe, Sweden), Mike Soetaert (Alberta, Canada), Georgia Burgess (Alberta, Canada) and Li Djurestaal (Sundbyberg, Sweden).

Burgess is coming in as an international student, but she isn’t coming into a completely unfamiliar situation.

“I have a few former teammates [at UAA] as returning athletes so I actually took a very active role in supporting them [during the cut last year],” Burgess said. “At that point I hadn’t considered UAA for myself but I wanted to help out my fellow skiers. After the team was reinstated I started keeping tabs on the team.”

The UAA ski team held rallies in 2016 to save their team. Photo credit: Bill Roth

It wasn’t just the Alaska skiing community that rallied together, but people from all over the United States and other NCAA ski teams came together to bring the team back.

“Throughout the season I considered a lot of NCAA teams but at the end of the day the smaller and really close community of the UAA,” Burgess said.

With return of the team, many of the incoming athletes are showing up with big goals and expectations for being a Seawolf.

“I have a lot of goals, my biggest one is just to have a consistent season and get myself qualified for NCAA finals to help represent the school the best I can. I will also be working towards my criteria for the Canadian National team during my four years here at UAA so I can graduate and go straight into a professional career,” Burgess said.

The UAA ski teams are only just beginning their training season. The first ski meet of the year won’t take place until Nov. 17 with a duel against rival UAF.

For more information on the skiers and for a complete 2017/18 schedule visit www.goseawolves.com.