Bags containing various skis laid over the snow-covered ground just outside the Casper Mountain Trails Center as skiers slowly made their way out onto the groomed trail in front of the lodge.
Some were clad in Kelly Walsh green and white while others wore the traditional orange and black of Natrona. All of them huddled together among an uproar of laughter and jokes.
Bit by bit, they broke off to start the warm-ups of what would be an emotional day of practice. Then, around the corner in front of the lodge, emerged the one they call “Kit-Kat”.
“The girls here gave it to me,” Katherine Gruner said of her nickname. “We were on a soccer team together and there was already a Katherine and a Katie on the team so they said, ‘You need a new name.’
“They came up with Kit-Kat and they were the only people that I knew when I was in middle school so they spread it around and now I don’t go by anything else.”
Gruner, a senior at Natrona, is the leader of the Casper Nordic racers.
She won both days of the Laramie Invite, the last race before this weekend’s Wyoming State High School Nordic Skiing Championships. She also finished sixth in the youth women’s division, eighth overall, at the United States Biathlon Association Junior World Team Trials in late December in Jericho, Vermont.
Those accolades made her someone to be taken seriously on the trails, even if that may be the only place.
“I’m not one to take seriously most of the time,” she said. “When I think of the name Katherine, I think of a queen like Queen Katherine or something like that so Kit-Kat is definitely more fitting for me.”
While she has appeared at the front of the pack on the results sheet, Gruner’s humor keeps her in tune with her teammates.
“Coming up to practice with a good attitude is everything,” senior Braxton DeVore said. “That type of attitude and effort is very contagious and it seems that the team just grasps onto it.”
“It definitely is a pretty cheery place to be,” added senior Rylie Garner.
Any unhappy faces were few and far between as they raced the trails together. Some made their emotions into a joke, which slowly morphed into tears as the sun started to set on Casper Mountain.
For the seniors of the Casper Nordic team, Tuesday was the last practice of their high school careers ahead of the state meet. The years of memories came to the racers in waves and changed the typically joyous practice into one of teary eyes.
Emotions at the end of a sports season is typical, but it was clear Tuesday was something else entirely.
To understand the story of that practice is to understand the group of seniors on the team. They all joined the Nordic team in sixth grade and became almost inseparable.
“We were up here every day and I met all of these great people that I’ve grown up with now,” Gruner said. “We never could get rid of each other because no one wanted to leave this team.”
Added Garner: “We hang out every day not just at ski practice. It’s just awesome to come up and be able to ski with your family and have that close-knit bond.”
It wasn’t just the skiers that were new faces when they started racing. Coaches Justin Kinner and Cassidy Jerding began coaching this senior class back then and, by circumstance, somehow followed this class every step of the way.
The bond between coaches and skiers began to pay off when the now-seniors reached high school. Natrona finished second in both boys and girls at that state meet while Kelly Walsh took fifth in girls and fourth in boys.
Natrona had the same results the following year but the Kelly Walsh girls moved up to third and the boys finished fourth.
“We all got to grow together and found that groove of becoming a team and a family,” Garner said, “and that was awesome. That was super special.
“We’re more like a close-knit family than a team, it’s crazy.”
While Jackson is heavily favored yet again to win state, the Casper Nordic team has made an extra push to take down the Broncs.
Once the season started, skiers were expected to be on the mountain at 6 a.m. sharp for practice before a full school day and the standard after-school practice. Those early mornings and extended days did nothing but bring the team closer together.
That made it so much more emotional as the seniors made their final run through a tunnel comprised of underclassmen holding up their poles.
Some beamed with smiles or jokes, like Gruner, who went down backwards. Others had trouble holding their emotions in, like Taylor Bright, who skied down with a hand to her face before exchanging hugs with her teammates.
“It’s a lot on the heart to take,” Garner said. “A lot of tears, happy and sad.”
A majority of the seniors are expected to compete at the Junior Nationals in Lake Placid, New York, giving them another week together, but that’s different.
DeVore explained that in all his years of skiing, which started when he was just 3 years old, this team is what he’ll remember most.
“Coming up (to Casper Mountain) on my last day of high school practice was something that I thought of as soon as I woke up,” he said, “something that I cherished on my last drive up and being up here with my friends — who are more like my family — was just so special to me and I will remember this day for probably the rest of my life.”