STOWE, Vt. -- 'Tis the season. Collegiate ski racing swings into its hot season this weekend, with the University of Vermont Winter Carnival. Alpine events will be raced at Mt. Mansfield, with the Nordic at the Trapp Family Lodge.
For more than 30 years, UVM has dominated the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association with 28 straight EISA championships and 31 wins at its winter carnival. But this weekend may produce a showdown between the perennial champs and upstart Middlebury College, which last month opened the season with its first winter carnival victory in 21 years, at the Colby College Carnival at Sugarloaf, Maine. It followed that win with another last weekend at the St. Lawrence Winter Carnival at Lake Placid, N.Y. Vermont placed second at both carnivals.
"This is interesting new ground for us," said Middlebury Nordic coach Terry Aldrich. "This year we have good balance. We're very strong in the Nordic side, and also Alpine. You can't be strong in one and weak in the other and win carnivals."
At St. Lawrence, Middlebury won the men's 20K classic and the women's 15K classic, and finished second in both the men's and women's slalom, to edge UVM, 561.5-540. Dartmouth placed third with 519.5 points.
Aldrich, who had waited 20 years for such a performance, was as overjoyed as his skiers. He traveled back to campus with the Nordic team, and when the Alpine team made it to the fieldhouse, a celebration broke out.
Said Aldrich, "Let me tell you, when they [the Alpine skiers] arrived in the fieldhouse, they were a happy bunch."
As well they should have been. "Things went well for us today," said Aldrich. "I honestly don't remember placing four men in the top five. I'm pretty sure it's never happened." It happened Saturday in the men's 20K classic, won by UVM's Ethan Foster but with the Middlebury quartet -- Garrott Kuzzy, Colin Rodgers, Marshall Greene, and Dan Skold -- right behind.
The most dramatic win for the Panthers was Kate Newick's 1.1-second win over Dartmouth's Chrissy May in the Saturday women's 15K classic, which set the table for a tremendous second-day rally in which Middlebury came back from a 31-point deficit to edge its longtime archrival.
This weekend at Stowe, Middlebury will be down one skier, as Rodgers heads to Park City, Utah, to race in the Under-23 Cross-Country Championships. UVM's Foster will be out west, too.
College ski racing may seem to be about individual performance, but team racing is the key to scoring points. Foster, for example, won the St. Lawrence 20K classic in a huge way -- by 1 minute 9 seconds -- but Middlebury came away as the points winner, thanks to Kuzzy, Rodgers, Greene, and Skold.
UVM, in its first year without legendary head coach Chip LaCasse, began the weekend with a strong showing as the men won Friday's giant slalom with a 1-2 performance by Matthew Knittle and Paul Epstein. And the Catamounts also won the women's slalom, with a 3-5-8 finish turned in by Jamie Kingsbury, Hilary McCloy, and Erin Mascolino, respectively. As individual performances go, these finishes were overshadowed by Dartmouth's Courtney Calise, who won by the blowout margin of 1:37.
On the men's side, Colby College's Warner Nickerson took his second slalom win in two weekends, edging Dartmouth's Paul McDonald. The Big Green also had the third-place finisher, Erik Kankainen, and fifth-place Roger Brown. But Middlebury scored big by taking fourth (John Rusten), sixth (David Coriell), seventh (Fred Emich), and ninth (Eric Rygg).
But it was Newick's dramatic win that ignited the winning rally for Middlebury, as she held off Dartmouth's May at the Mount Van Hovernberg course with a final sprint that stopped the clock at 54:49.3. Panthers Kate Whitcomb and Claire Anderson finished fifth and seventh, respectively.
This weekend's action on UVM's home course will most likely be a showdown between the home team and the Panthers. Said Middlebury's new Alpine director, Forest Carey, "We look real strong. I don't see why [we can't win at Stowe]. The course is on a challenging hill [Hayride], a really world-class course. So if our skiers all make it to the second run, we should score points."
In his first year, Carey, a former US Ski Team racer from Carrabassett Valley Academy, is trying to find the balance between team racing and individual effort. In collegiate racing, simply placing near the top scores points and sometimes is preferable to taking risks in skiing the course faster.
"I buy into that somewhat," said Carey. "But I never radio up the hill to tell a skier to take it easy. Skiing is an individual sport, and you sometimes have to let it hang out."
Perhaps the most anomalous team at Stowe this weekend will be Harvard, which does not generally score big, owing to a lack of practice space. But one of the Crimson's Nordic skiers, Anna McLoon, is always a podium threat -- last weekend she placed third behind Newick and May. Last year McLoon won the individual race at Trapp's.
"It was a great race for Anna," said Harvard coach Peter Graves. "She was very much on top of her game, very fit and skiing smoothly. All the long hours and training and the skiing we are getting at Weston [Ski Track] is really paying off."