Nordic skiing: Back to schoolJust six years ago, Joe Wacker was a football player first-and-foremost. However, in 2006, Wacker joined the Nordic skiing program at Park and he was hooked. As the new head Nordic skiing coach for East Ridge, Park and Woodbury high schools, Wacker, a 2007 Park graduate, now hopes many student-athletes in District 833 will share the same experience he had.
By: Patrick Johnson, Sports Editor, South Washington County Bulletin
Just six years ago, Joe Wacker was a football player first-and-foremost. However, in 2006, Wacker joined the Nordic skiing program at Park and he was hooked.
As the new head Nordic skiing coach for East Ridge, Park and Woodbury high schools, Wacker, a 2007 Park graduate, now hopes many student-athletes in District 833 will share the same experience he had.
“It’s easier to get into than it actually looks,” Wacker said. “You don’t need to buy all the really expensive equipment, there’s ways to do it on the cheap. Also, it’s never too late to join. It’s a lifelong sport and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a mix of all the different aerobic sports, plus strength training and the races are totally unique. It’s a really fun sport and it’s different.”
The East Ridge, Park and Woodbury teams practice together, compete in identical races and are administrated by the same staff, but race as individual high schools.
Wacker, 22, is the fourth coach of the Nordic program in District 833. Wacker replaced Will Stoltz, who served as the head coach for the past two seasons after taking over the program from longtime head coach James Kyes, who stepped down as after the 2008-09 season in order to move to Duluth. Park Athletic Hall of Fame entrant Jerome Detviler was the program’s first coach.
Wacker skied for Kyes at Park – and then at St. Scholastica, where Kyes was an assistant coach.
“I think Joe is an incredibly excited, motivated individual who has an incredible ability dealing with people in both teaching and coaching,” Kyes said. “He’s just really good at what he does. He communicates very well and doesn’t get his feathers ruffled very easy. He loves skiing and loves what he’s doing.”
Wacker said his first goal with the program is to get more kids to try Nordic skiing.
Last year the number of cross country skiers in the District 833 programs were way down. For example, Park didn’t have one boys skier and carried only four girls skiers.
Wacker said he was disappointed to see there weren’t more boys out for Nordic skiing last year.
“I talked to Kyes about it in Duluth,” Wacker said. “I felt terrible, it was like it was dying. I know he felt really bad about it and I felt really bad. I feel like the push to get kids to come in and get the thing growing wasn’t necessarily there for whatever reason. Those things are going to change. We’re going to get it going again.”
Park girls track and field coach Matt Maher spent 12 years as an assistant Nordic skiing coach at Park – and, like Kyes, coached Wacker.
He said “fun” is probably the most important ingredient in Nordic skiing.
“Whether it was Jerome Detviler running the program or coach Kyes, or even when I skied in high school, it had to be fun,” Maher said. “We got our friends involved and had some fun. That’s where it starts. It’s cliché, but it’s not most people’s No. 1 sport, so you have to have fun with it. It’s a lifelong sport – you can learn to love it for the rest of your life.”
Maher skied three years for Hastings and longtime head coach John DeWall. He still skis two or three times a month in the winter on the skis he got from DeWall in high school.
Maher said once you do it, “You just can’t ever stop skiing.”
“I enjoy the outdoors. It’s a great way to get outside and it’s beautiful,” Maher said. “There are trails all over. My favorite place to ski is up at ABR in Michigan. There’s a 3K loop in the back and there’s nobody back there. You do it by yourself. It’s solitude and quiet. You can hit a trail and not see anyone. You’re outside, you’re getting exercise, and you’re at your own pace. For me, that’s ideal. It’s a great sport.”
Kyes, who now coaches a Nordic Skiing club in Duluth, the Lake Superior Ski Club for 13 to 20 year olds, said, for most people, cross country skiing does stick with them.
“I think the personality style of someone who is open and willing to try something will enjoy it,” Kyes said. “Anytime you’re exercising there’s a similar high like that of drug addicts. I think that’s one part of it. Then I think, like golf, there’s something to being outside in nature, enjoying the weather. It gives people in Minnesota a reason to get outside and enjoy things.”
‘One big team’
This will be Wacker’s first high school coaching job. Currently, he lives in Cottage Grove and is a substitute teacher in District 833, along with the South St. Paul and West St. Paul school districts. He said he wants to give Nordic skiing “a footprint in the district again.”
With programs like Stillwater, Forest Lake and Mounds View in the Suburban East Conference, Wacker won’t have to look far for teams to try to replicate.
“We’re going to have fun, but we are very focused on making them better skiers,” Wacker said. “We are going to try and gear our training for a higher level and mimic what teams like Stillwater and Forest Lake are doing – really focusing on the science of endurance sports. The training will be serious, but there will be different levels for everybody. We will have fun, but it will be competitive.”
Wacker said in the aforementioned programs, Nordic skiing is “part of their culture.”
“They hold pep fests every year, because their kids are going to state,” he said. “We can do that too when we get competitive. Their skiers are vocal about their team. Their face of skiing is there. We need to get our footprint in all the schools and get people excited and they’ll start coming out again.”
Kyes said what he’s always felt about athletic programs and participation numbers is twofold.
“First is having people believe in what is happening with a program and, second, having someone in the program that recruits – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the coach,” he said. “When I had a really strong program at Woodbury it was because of three families – the Wallis’s, the Stewart’s and the Jorgensen’s. Those three families probably helped bring in 75 percent of our athletes over a span of time.”
Kyes believes Wacker’s experience falling in love with Nordic skiing will be a benefit.
“It may not be a No. 1 sport, but that’s OK, and Joe is proof of that,” Kyes said. “Football players can do this, soccer players can do this, and baseball players can do this. It’s an accessible sport. He has that background and the ability to pull those athletes in, so that should help the programs out quite a bit.”
Maher said DeWall always told him Nordic is mostly about spending as much time on skis as possible.
“The more time you spend on your boards, the better you’re going to be,” Maher said. “If you’re a first-year skier you have to spend a lot of time on your boards. It’s so unnatural. Try strapping two 2-by-4s on your feet and walk around. It’s an unnatural thing. But, you do it for two, three or four years and you get used to it.”
Kyes, 1992 graduate of Woodbury, led the Royals and Wolfpack for 11 years. In 10 of his 11 seasons, Park had at least one skier compete at the state meet. In Kyes’ final season, 2009, the program sent four individuals to state – three from Park and one from Woodbury. Last year, only East Ridge senior Tom Drtina appeared in state.
“Last year I was looking at the section meets and there were no Park boys in there and one or two girls in the section meet,” Kyes said. “I was like ‘are you kidding me?’ I’m not pointing fingers, but that was hard to see. In 2006 or 2007 we finished in second place in the section to a state champion Stillwater team. We just missed going to the state meet as a team. It was pretty hard to see what happened. It was tough. But, I’m super excited to see Joe there now. He has the heart and the passion.”
Wacker wasn’t the best skier on the Wolfpack, but he competed. In 2007, his senior year, Wacker earned a Three-Sport Letter Award from Park for participating in football, Nordic and track and field and won the Pride in the ’Pack Award for his passion for the green and white.
Though he bleeds green, Wacker said each team is equal and it’s really just “one big team.”
“Each school is very important. It’s totally equal,” Wacker said. “I always had a ton of Park pride. I was proud of this town and of where I grew up. When I started high school I was really for our school and not for Woodbury. But, after I met the Woodbury kids and skied with them it changed. My pride in Park didn’t diminish, but I also definitely had pride for Woodbury too. We’re all one community. We all have different cultures, but it’s nice bringing them all together.”
Because of logistics and because it has the biggest ski room, the three schools’ Nordic teams will be headquartered at Park this winter.
Wacker said he moved home after college, because he “loves the community,” including Woodbury, adding that participating in a district-wide program like Nordic skiing provides a unique opportunity to its members because they intertwine.
“I just want to get people excited,” he said. “It’s going to be a whole new atmosphere with this program. All the assistant coaches will be back, because they’re great coaches. But, there’s going to be a whole different feel to the program this year.”
DISTRICT 833 NORDIC SKIING MEETING NOV. 3
New Nordic skiing coach Joe Wacker and his coaching staff will host an informational meeting for all interested parties from East Ridge, Park and Woodbury high schools at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, at Lake Middle School, Room B151. Posters have been placed in each school advertising the meeting to students. The meeting is designed to introduce the coaching staff, explain what the season will be like, answer any questions and build excitement for the upcoming season.