Seismic shifts hit the landscape of Vermont high school alpine skiing this season.
New coaches took the reins of at least five programs, including perennial contenders Stowe and Harwood. A freshman exploded onto the scene by establishing himself as the No. 1 skier for one of the strongest boys teams in the state. The home hill of Vermont’s royal family of skiing was chosen to host a district championship race for the first time in its storied history.
Yet for all that has changed, one thing has not: Mount Mansfield Union remains the team to beat, as its girls bear down on a fifth-straight state crown and boys look to return to the top of the podium for the first time since 2005.
“We have some of the very best skiers out there,” MMU coach Julie Sloan said. “It’s just a matter of them putting four perfect runs together.”
The Cougar boys are also reigning champs at the district level, the championships of which kick off with Wednesday’s slalom at Cochran’s Ski Area in Richmond. The race was originally slated for today, but was pushed back due to forecasted frigid temperatures and high winds.
Despite pumping out a long line of champions at the Olympic, World Cup, NCAA and high school levels, Cochran’s has never hosted a district title race until now.
Eight area high school teams train at Cochran’s, and Champlain Valley Union coach Mike Minnerly — whose Redhawks are one of those teams — said the mojo of the hallowed hill can be motivating, particularly when former U.S. Team racers Jimmy Cochran and Robby Kelley are out running the same gates.
“It’s encouraging for the kids to see that level of skiing, and they feed off it for sure,” Minnerly said.
The Redhawks boast one of the deepest boys teams in the district, led by breakout star Nate Coffin. The freshman has belied his lack of high school racing experience by establishing himself as the CVU boys’ top skier, after turning heads as far back as three years ago with his blazing speed on the course.
“I knew him from the first time I ever saw him ski, as a sixth grader, but I wasn’t sure he’d get to CVU,” Minnerly said. “I thought he’d be off at some ski academy.”
The talent stacked up behind Coffin includes Caden Frost, Trent Smith and Ted Hadley, racers who are virtually interchangeable results-wise when they are in peak form.
“Any one of them is capable of skiing extremely well — even winning,” Minnerly said.
On the girls side, senior Emma Putre is “the clear leader of the team,” according to her coach, while junior Emma Owens just needs to cash in on her potential after what Minnerly called a “tough season.”
“She’s had some crashes, and the results haven’t really been there,” Minnerly said, “but on any given day, she is capable of winning.”
Opposing coaches marvel at the Redhawks’ overall depth; South Burlington’s Al Dworshak said CVU’s “10th or 11th skiers” would top the lineups at many other schools.
“They have so many incredibly talented skiers,” Dworshak said, adding that on the boys’ side, “all six could land in the top 15 at districts — they’re that good.”
Whereas CVU’s story is one of balance, Mount Mansfield boasts two skiers virtually without peer in Karin Rand and Kyle Polson.
Rand is likely to reign in Wednesday’s race, just as she has ruled the slalom all season with one of the most dominant campaigns that discipline has ever seen. Dworshak calls her “the fastest girl skier in the state” who has “pretty much won every race she’s been in this year.”
Polson’s forte is strength; the former district and state champion is one of the most powerful skiers in the boys field, which his coach said allows him to push the boundaries of his racing further than most competitors dare.
“With strength comes aggression,” Sloan said.
Tom Chivers, who is “growing into his own strength as well,” according to Sloan, provides a solid counterpunch behind Polson in the MMU boys lineup.
The strength of Dworshak’s South Burlington crew is a solid sophomore core led by Annika Nielsen, last year’s breakthrough star who helped deliver the SBHS girls the district crown. Ali Barron, Ava Hultgren, Madi Grabowski and Ellie Hall round out a group that should keep the Rebels in the title hunt for the next several seasons.
“We hit the jackpot with that (sophomore) class,” Dworshak said.
The SBHS boys also feature some talented competitors including another dynamic sophomore, Steven Cone, as well as junior Gunnar Nielsen.
Other top racers on the boys side who could put together winning runs at districts are BFA-St. Albans’ lightning-fast Coseo brothers, Bennett and Wylie, Stowe’s Chris Mullin and Austin Taylor of Harwood.
For the girls, other top contenders include BFA’s Caroline Bonin, Megan O’Shea of Harwood and Colchester’s Abby Harrington, who was the slalom runner-up at last year’s state championships.
Another of northern Vermont’s strongest teams, Stowe, heads into districts with new leadership under first-year coach Tom Silva. Upward of 25 years of experience at Mount Mansfield Winter Academy has helped Silva take the Raiders “to a whole new level,” according to one rival coach.
“Tom has that team more dialed in than ever,” Dworshak said. “The kids are really buying into his system, and it’s working.”
Other new coaches include Harwood’s Lisle Gilbert (taking over for Steve Skilton, who spent 34 years at the Highlanders’ helm); Marilyn Cochran Brown at Rice; Dave Eckhardt at St. Johnsbury; and North Country’s Tami Frechette.
Perhaps the biggest change in Vermont high school skiing is in the overall level of competition, which Dworshak describes as “unbelievable.” He attributes the rise in skill and performance among individuals and teams to the prohibitive expense and selectivity of ski schools, where many of the current public high school racers would likely have ended up in the past.
That has helped raise the bar enough that his Rebels can’t help but look over their shoulders, despite being the reigning district champs.
“We’re stronger than we were last year, but so many other teams are too,” Dworshak said.
Sloan echoed that sentiment in regard to her defending district champion MMU boys.
“We have a lot of teams on our tails this year,” Sloan said. “In the past, we absolutely knew we had the best team. This year, I hope we do.”
The 2015 NVAC District Championships take place on Feb. 18 (slalom) at Cochran’s and Feb. 24 (GS) at Middlebury Snow Bowl.
Adam White can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter @vtsportsguy.