Tuesday, January 14, 2014

EISA Nordic on Brink of Very Fast Year

Ben Lustgarten (Midd.) en route to a career-best 6th in the 15k classic at the US Senior National Championship in Soldier Hollow, Utah. (Photo: Bert Boyer Photography)

During what is turning out to be an exciting year for American Nordic ski racing in general, the EISA Nordic circuit may be poised for a banner year of its own, and one need not look much further than results at US Nationals for evidence.

Middlebury's Ben Lustgarten posted two top-tens in stacked distance races, and added a 24th-place finish in the skate sprint.  UVM's Anja Gruber skied to 15th in the 20k free and 4th in the 10k classic, and Linda Danvind-Malm put up two distance top-15s and 8th in the skate sprint.

Anja Gruber (UVM) skiing to fourth in the National Championship classic race. (Photo: Bert Boyer Photography)

In total, fourteen EISA skiers posted top-30 races at Soldier Hollow.  David Sinclair (Dartmouth), Scott Patterson (UVM), Rogan Brown (UVM), Cam Woodworth (Dartmouth), Silas Talbot (UVM), and Patrick Caldwell (Dartmouth) all skied to top-30s in men's distance competitions.  Akeo Maifeld-Carucci (Harvard) and Jordan Buetow (Bates) just missed out on top-30 distance results.  Annie Hart (Dartmouth), Corey Stock (Dartmouth), and Kelsey Phinney (Midd.) posted top-30s in women's races, while Isabel Caldwell (Dartmouth), Hallie Grossman (Bates), Annika Taylor (UNH), and Maggie Williams (UVM) came within a few places of joining that club too.

In junior racing, Patrick Caldwell, a Dartmouth freshman, dominated the 10k mass-start freestyle by more than 20 seconds.  Caldwell was followed by Jack Hegman (UVM) in fourth, and Dartmouth teammate Fabian Stocek in fifth. 

Obviously, many EISA skiers elected not to attend the races in Utah, but having so many skiers in and around the top-30 at Nationals is a strong barometer for the coming of a blazing-fast year of EISA competition.

It's easy to pick two favorites for the team competition, given their consistent performance year-in and year-out.  Vermont and Dartmouth are once again looking like frontrunners this year.  The Catamounts may have benefitted from an element of youth this off-season, only graduating three seniors last year (Peter Hegman, and NCAA qualifiers Jane McClelland and Dylan Grald).  Meanwhile, the Dartmouth men graduated Sam Tarling, Scott Lacy, and Steven Mangan from their starting six, but added an impressive 8 freshmen, including Caldwell and Stocek.  The Dartmouth women lost Emily Blackmer and Megan Killigrew from their scoring team, but retained the foundation of their roster (Hart, Stock, and Caldwell).

UVM will count on more strong skiing from senior Scott Patterson, who won a staggering six races last year, Gruber, who won three plus the NCAA National Championship in classic, and Brown and Danvind-Malm, who were both consistent top-ten finishers.  Stephanie Kirk, Jorgen Grav, and Cole Morgen will also be able to step up and help the Catamounts fend off challengers.  Patterson battled back from malady his sophomore year to become the unstoppable skate racer he was last year (he swept the freestyle discipline last season) and should be a powerful force again in 2014.  If Patterson remains healthy, he is always a contender for wins.

The Big Green may have graduated some key skiers last year, but they have no shortage of other talent to draw success from this season.  Woodworth and Sinclair have proven their speed recently, and Patrick Caldwell should be a regular top-ten finisher right off the bat.  Watch for Silas Talbot to contend for the win in the classic sprint at Stowe this year.  Annie Hart skied to three podiums last year, including a win in the classic race at UVM.  Isabel Caldwell, Corey Stock, and All-American Mary O'Connell will all help Dartmouth give the Catamounts a run for their money.  O'Connell had several breakout races to end her 2013 season, including a sweep of the Regional Championships at Bates and a 2nd-place finish at the NCAA Championship classic race.

Annie Hart (Dartmouth) on her way to qualifying 7th in the National Championship classic sprint at Soldier Hollow. (Photo: Bert Boyer Photography)

In no particular order, here is the outlook for the rest of the league:

UNH faces the nearly impossible task of replacing both Anya Bean and Liz Guiney this year.  Erik Lindgren also graduated, but the Wildcats gained former University of Maine skier Eirik Fosnaes to effectively fill his spot.  Bean had two second-place skate finishes and was named an All-American for her performance in the NCAA skate race last March, leading the Wildcats to 8th place as a team. The Wildcats have a talented freshman class, including Bozeman, Montana native Lizzie Gill, who looks to bring her success over the years at Junior Nationals to her team's repertoire.

Middlebury may also face some questions this year, most notably who will step into the spotlight after the departure of consistent scorers Keely Levins, Hilary Rich, and Annie Pokorny?  Pokorny had two wins on the circuit, and helped lead the Panthers to 10th at NCAAs last season.  One sure player for the Panthers is Lustgarten, who can be considered a threat to sweep distance race wins on any given weekend, and his inevitable shootouts with Scott Patterson this season should be thrilling.  Dylan McGarthwaite also returns and should put up consistent top-25 scores for the Panthers.  A possible talented addition is freshman Patrick McElravey, who qualified 8th in the classic sprint at US Nationals and may be a contender for a top spot at the UVM carnival's classic sprint event this season.

Williams returns all of its NCAA qualifiers except Christina Knapp, and adds several freshmen (including Eli Hoenig) to create what may be their deepest roster in years.  NCAA veterans Isaac Hoenig, Will Wicherski, and Olivia Meyerson give the Ephs' Nordic teams an outside chance to shake up the top of the team scoring, as they did in the Regional Championships at Bates last season.  Look for senior Kalle Jahn to break into the top 20 or better several times.  Hannah Benson, a Kennett graduate, looks to make a big jump into the college circuit and has shown a high level of fitness in early season races.

Bates senior Jordan Buetow is an absolute monster in the skate technique.  He finished fourth in the skate sprint at US Nationals, missing the podium by 0.46 of a second (just 0.78 seconds from actually winning the national title).  Buetow was 34th in the 30k freestyle mass-start, closing astonishingly hard to recover from from a 56th-place first lap.  With several freestyle mass-starts in the EISA schedule this season, Buetow will be looking for podiums (having notched one last season) and given his sprint speed, will be a dark horse threat to win outright.  Look for NCAA qualifier Hallie Grossman to put up strong top-ten results as well.  Grossman, a junior, has a big aerobic engine and should move solidly up the rankings again this season.

Jordan Buetow (Bates) skiing to within a second of the skate sprint National Championship title at Soldier Hollow. (Photo: Bert Boyer Photography)

Harvard returns most of their scoring team this year.  Emily Hannah, Akeo Maifield-Carucci, Chris Stock, and Tony Ryerson are all capable of top-15 results this year.  Maifeld-Carucci, a skate specialist, did not race the 30k freestyle at Soldier Hollow, but placed 31st in the 15k classic race.  If his classic result is an indication of his overall fitness, he will be a contender for several top-10s in skate races. A notable add for the Crimson is former GMVS star Devlin Shea, who has put up several impressive results at Junior Nationals over the past few years.

Returning scorers for St. Lawrence are juniors Will Frielinghaus and Austin Meng, and sophomore Cassidy Chicowicz.  Meng, who represented the Saints in the NCAA Championship last year, should have a good chance to throw down some top-ten races this year, especially in the classic discipline.  The Saints add speedy first year Calvin Swomley from Stratton Mountain School this season.

Colby will sorely miss Jared Supple and Jake Barton this season, but they will be aided by the return of Calvin Wight, John Dixon, Sarah Brockett, and Molly Susla.  Dixon missed qualifying for the classic sprint heats at Soldier Hollow by just half a second, and may be a contender in the sprint at UVM. Wight and Brockett both have top-25-or-better potential for the Mules, and Susla is an outside top-10 threat, especially in freestyle races.

Bowdoin returns both NCAA qualifier Kaitlynn Miller and super-senior James Crimp this year.  Miller was a few seconds out of qualifying for the skate sprint in Soldier Hollow.  Given her consistent success in both skate and classic races last season, she will likely vie for podium spots again this year. Given her results at Nationals, watch out for her in the sprint as well. Miller's sister Hannah will also compete for the Polar Bears this season.

St. Michaels looks to move up the rankings this year with the addition of a large freshman class.  Torin La Liberte and junior Chloe Boutelle will lead the young Purple Knights' squad.  Boutelle qualified for the NCAA DII Cross-Country Championship this fall.  La Liberte, a graduate of perennial New Hampshire powerhouse Kennett, should be able to translate his high school success to the EISA circuit.

The University of Maine at Presque Isle will try to recover from losing both of Eirik Fosnaes and Joey Bard.  Bard, a consistent all-around skier, recorded several top-25-or-better results last season.  Junior Andrew Nesbitt returns to lead the Owls this season with top-30 capability.