Bad news for the rest of the Vermont high school Nordic ski scene: Without so much as a single race in the books, Champlain Valley Union is already claiming victory.
The Redhawks — whose girls are defending state champs and boys are a year removed from a title of their own — have seen their ranks swell to an all-time high of 80 skiers. To head coach Sarah Strack, that is an accomplishment on par with hoisting the Vermont crown at season’s end.
“Ultimately we want to win states, but in no way is that going to define our season,” Strack said. “There are so many other measures of success; the fact that we have 80 kids out here every day, getting exercise, laughing, growing together as a team — that’s a win.”
CVU has so many skiers that Strack has split the team in half, scheduled additional weekly races and brought a fourth coach aboard her staff. Even so, management of that many student-athletes remains a difficult task.
“Some of our kids just want to ski for the first time; some want to make varsity; some want to make the state team; some want to win states — we run the whole gamut,” Strack said. “No matter where they’re at, they have a place on this team.
“Meeting the needs of that many different levels of skiers isn’t easy. The logistics and organizational parts are huge.”
Strack has looked inward to help tackle the challenge, tapping her team’s veteran core for leadership. The Redhawks have three senior captains and seven “wax captains,” and each captain is assigned seven skiers to whom he or she provides guidance and assistance during the season.
“It can be as simple as what clothing you need to have with you on race day, or what and when you should eat,” said Ezra Pasackow, one of the senior captains. “It’s a lot of little things, but they are important. And when we got on snow for the first time (on Dec. 12), I tried to help as many of the new kids as I could with their technique.”
The most valuable thing Pasackow and his fellow leaders can impart may be the drive necessary to reach the championship level in such a grueling sport. Reaching that level, as the Redhawks have in recent seasons, sets a precedent; once the bar is raised, it hangs over the most experienced skiers as a reminder of what all the hard work is about.
“As a core group of competitors, we put pressure on ourselves to be successful,” Pasackow said. “We push each other individually, and that’s the way the team gets better as a whole.”
The CVU boys return their top performer from last year’s state championships in Sean Delaney, who placed seventh in the individual skate and 13th in classic to pace the Redhawks. Fellow senior Emmett Peterson (10th in skate) is another top returnee for the boys, and helps bring a championship perspective that Strack sees as vital.
“Our core group of senior boys have been with us for long enough that they know what it takes to win,” Strack said, adding that the boys will also benefit from the return of their entire relay squad — Thomas Clayton, Peterson, Parker Francis and Delaney — that placed third at Grafton Ponds last season.
The girls bring back an even deeper group, having lost only three seniors. Top returning performers from last year’s state championship include Taylor Spillane (third individually in both skate and classic), Autumn Eastman (sixth in skate and classic), Callie Braun (10th skate, 13th classic) and Emma Hamilton (12th skate, 14th classic).
Even with such impressive showings, Strack insists the road to the state crown was anything but smooth — and won’t be any easier this season.
“It was not easy for the girls last year, by any means — they had to work for it,” Strack said. “There is definitely a lot of competition out there.”
Some of the stiffest of that competition comes from girls runner-up Mount Anthony, which remains somewhat of a mystery during the regular season due to geography but is “always tough” come state championship time, according to Strack. The CVU coach sees a lot of similarities between the Patriots and her Redhawks, not the least of which being that MAU enjoys a relationship with nearby Prospect Mountain similar to Champlain Valley’s with Sleepy Hollow.
“Having Sleepy Hollow 10 minutes away has been invaluable to our program,” Strack said. “The kids are always on snow, always skiing. We started a middle school racing program there three years ago, and now that’s feeding into our program.
“We’re getting skiers coming through who know how to ski; we don’t have to start with the basics with them. That’s huge.”
Seems like a theme at CVU these days.