by Jason Olson
Two nordic skiers from Andover and Coon Rapids have had an impact on the record-setting nordic skiing season at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth this winter.
The names Jeremy Hecker and Joe Dubay might conjure-up fond memories of high-level nordic skiing at the junior divisions before both had to step away for the sport for various reasons.
Now Hecker is heading to the NCAA Championships next weekend in Montana while Dubay is on a similar trajectory, just one year behind Hecker in the process to rejuvenate his high-level of skiing.
Hecker qualified seventh out of eight places from the NCAA Central Region meet to earn a spot in the NCAA Championships with teammate Paul Schommers and how the pair have a chance to add another first to a season full of personal and program firsts.
Saints coach Chad Salmela said this is by far the deepest team he’s coached in program history and adding the talents of Hecker and Dubay to the roster has paid dividends.
“For me, at a [NCAA Division] 3 program you tend to get athletes where they’ve had the drive and focus to be successful before,” he said. “[Jeremy] was coming out of a burnout stage and hadn’t trained for a year. We wanted to make it fun again. He had lost his motivation to train hard.”
Hecker contacted Salmela before the winter semester of 2010 and Dubay contacted Salmela last summer about the prospects of racing for the Saints.
“We have a program that supports [Dubay] really well. He had some personal stuff that he deals with and as far as skiing goes, this is a first step for him on a long road but he’s making strides. Someone with his background to come out for this team says a lot because he could’ve gotten him down.”
Salmela has known Dubay since 2007 through the junior national programs, but didn’t think Dubay would consider joing the St. Scholastica program.
“He knew some of the gys and liked them and our team is always honest with each other. We don’t put up with a lot of attitude and shenanigans. Our team sputs out an honest effort and he seems to like it.”
Having the higher-caliber of skiers in the program has lifted the prominance of the program.
“It’s been a really nice episode in the ski program and it’s opened my eyes to something I haven’t had to work with,” Salmela said. “On the competition side, everybody looks up to Joe just because of his past expereinces and what he knows about competiting. He’s one of the most intuitive competitors I’ve met.”
Hecker and Dubay, along with the rest of their team helped the Saints program reach new heights including its first Central Collegiate Ski Association (CCSA) podium finishes, first individual win, first team win, first podium finish in a conference championship as a team, first podium finish at the NCAA Regional Championship and first second-place team finish at an NCAA Regional Championship race are among the accomplishments of the 2011-12 Saints season.
Hecker has compiled a standout season already, with one more weekend of racing to go. He already holds the first individual CCSA win, most top-10 (seven) and top-5 (five) finishes in a season and never finished lower than seventh in the first six of 10 qualifying races. He was also the first skier to earn All-CCSA conference honors two years in a row.
The two, Hecker and Dubay, skied against each other at various meets growing up in the Coon Rapids and Andover areas but never really made it on the same team. Now, they’re part of what has become quite a success story of the College of St. Scholastica’s nordic ski team.
Hecker, an Andover graduate and Saints junior will earned a place at the 2012 NCAA Championships in Bozman, Montana along with teammate Paul Schommer March 7-10.
Dubay, a Coon Rapids native who won back-to-back MSHSL individual nordic championships, played a large roll in helping both skiers turn in successful races at the NCAA Central Regional in Northern Michigan February 17-18.
Hecker said regionals, at Negaunee, Michigan was a bit on the rough side for him. Schommer finished second and Hecker was eighth in the 10km freestyle race Feb. 17. Both appeared to be well on their way to a national championship spot.
The following day nearly knocked both from contention in the 15km mass start classic Feb. 18. Hecker fell twice and the second time took out Schommer.
“We saw them start, and at about 2km, they were right in the main bunch at the front,” Salmela said. “They skied so well Friday, that we felt, with their fitness, despite bad snow at home and so little classic skiing, that they could maintain contact at the front and make qualifying a formality. Then Murphy’s Law kind of went to work on us.”
Hecker added: “I took a nasty digger near the start, like one kilometer in and again I fell near the same spot, about 3.5-4 kilometer in. It was my fault and we were never able to get back to that lead group.”
That’s when the drama began to set in.
Dubay, who was riding on Hecker’s skis, which happened to be the team’s fastest set up, was doing his best to turn in a great race when he sacrificed his race to help the team.
“Joe was having a spectacular race and he was staying with me and Paul but then he slowed down just a little bit after we fell and asked if we wanted him to pull us back into the lead pack. We passed four or five guys and he died out before we got back to the lead group but having him there to give us the motivation, I don’t think Paul or I would’ve qualified. We’re forever greatful for what he did in that race.”
Hecker said he felt horrible for the incident which, without the help of Dubay, would’ve given Hecker the eighth spot at nationals based on time. As it was, Hecker made the championship field by 20 seconds while Schommer finished seventh and six seconds clear of the last spot. The time is a season-long tabulation across four events.
“We’re super pumped to spend two weeks out in Montana,” Hecker said, after officially confirming their spot at nationals Feb. 20.
The two Saints are the first to represent the program since the 2009 season.
“It’s the best of the best there,” Hecker said about nationals. “And if you don’t have a good day, you’ll be last. We have that in the back of our minds – not to do bad, but [Schommer] was second place Friday. That alone says something.”
Hecker really began competing hard with the lead packs last season with a goal of qualifying for the world junior championships. He was a second alternate for the race and felt he peaked too early to have a chance to compete for a spot in the NCAA Championships. Trials for worlds was in late December/early January and he trained all year to peak at that time. This year was different and the goal he made, along with Salmela was to make it to nationals, which he did.
Making it through the conference season and NCAA Regionals is quite an accomplishment for the NCAA Division 3 program which competes against division 1 and 2 programs like the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Northern Michigan University and Michigan Tech to name a few.
“NMU recruited a Norweigen freshman who is 26-27 years old and is ranked nationally. It’s cool when we can stil go and compete against these guys,” Hecker said about the level of competition.
Even though Dubay wont be competing in the races, he plans on making the drive with a couple carloads of friends to Bohart Ranch at Big Sky, Mont. to be with his teammates who report to the site of nationals to get acclimated to the lack of oxygen at 6,800 feet of elevation March 4. The championships begin with the men’s 10 km freestyle and women’s 5km freestyle on March 7. March 8 is devoted to alpine skiing’s giant slalom before the nordic skiers return to action for the 15km women’s and men’s 20km mass start classic. The event concludes March 10 with alpine’s slalom races.
Dubay admited there might be time to carve up a mountain or two and simply continue what he’s started this season once again – having fun.
Hecker and Dubay came to the Duluth college looking to reignite a passion for the sport they seemed destine to have long and prestigious careers in before pressure and burnout eventually set in.
Dubay skipped his senior year of high school to attend a prep school in Finland and to train even more intensely.
He said the experience in Finland was a great one. “I had some awesome results and made some friends,” he said about his time going to school in Sotkamo, Finland and skiing for the local club.
Being able to ski with a partner at anytime is one change from the grueling training sessions in Finland. He learned about the Finland program while competiting at an international race in Estonia.
“[Cross Country skiing] is their national sport and it’s just culturally different than here. We would constantly see the nordic sports on TV and I lived right next to the national [nordic skiing] training facility.”
National programs from eastern Europe used the Finnish facilty to practice ahead competitions.
He’s brought that knowldege of practice and racing sessions back to his Saints teammates.
Dubay said he was looking for the perfect match in a program and school and he’s found that in Duluth.
“I’ve gone into the season with no expectations really,” Dubay said about joining the program coached by Salmela who also coach Dubay in his junior national team days.
After high school Hecker attended the University of Minnesota his freshman year but knew he wanted to get back into the sport, so he contacted Salmela about the prospects of joing the Saints.
Salmela said Hecker, who traditionally is a stronger skate or freestyle skier put in the training to bring up his classic skills. “It’s the best classic I’ve seen him [ski],” Salmela said. “He’s gotten a stronger upper body to double-pole with.”
Hecker summed up his junior campaign by saying: “It’s been a great season. Definately been fun. I’ve always known I’ve had this in me and Chad’s the same way.”
Dubay joined the Andover team ahead of Hecker’s sophomore season, but he left the program to compete in other race programs in Canada so they never had a chance to ski together until this season. They competed against each other since seventh grade, club teams.
“It just took us four years longer to get on the same team,” Hecker said. “He’s a cool guy and I hope he continues to get into it. [Joe’s] in a similar situation to me, it took me a good one-two years to get back into shape. I hope he’ll be up there with me, he has way more potenntial than I had.”