At time of writing, at the Quarry Road Trails in Waterville, ME, trails like Upper Quarry Sprint and Charles Inner Loop are awash with artificial light, accommodating those dedicated night skiers. The weather app tells me it might be snowing, adding to the reported 2-18 inches of base pack. In just under the two weeks’ time, those now-sleepy trailheads in Waterville will be flooded with the angst and excitement of EISA Nordic skiing.
The EISA’s carnival season opens with the Colby carnival on January 14th. It opens, too, with more angst and excitement than usual. Colby is hosting the first fully stocked EISA carnival since COVID abbreviated the 2020 season right in the middle of NCAA’s. For the home team, it will be their first carnival in over a year.
This season will be defined by its anticipation and excitement. Many teams have two full classes of students yet to be inaugurated to the carnival ski season. Some individuals took years off to ski alone as their teams skied through it, and each team – and skier – had to fight through the unique challenges of a global pandemic.
Some schools had a relatively normal year in terms of practicing and racing, like UNH and UVM. Some teams went the entire winter without meeting as a full unit, unable to compete in a single competitive race. Others had a full winter season of practice but competed little or not at all. But all winters were different from each other and those before it; each with their own challenges and silver-linings.
Will the increased age of the seniors make the field more competitive? With such a large class of carnival “freshmen,” will we see any surprise standouts? Will the coaches, parents, and student-athletes survive the next week and a half of pent-up excitement?
Now, after some results under the belt this fall and early winter, there’s a bit more clarity. Still, there are lot of questions after over a year of anticipation, so read on for an attempt to find some answers, and a preview of the upcoming carnival season.
Some returning standouts
This winter of carnivals promises to play host to a unique field of racers for several reasons. For starters, it’s going to be fast. There are a lot of upperclassmen returning who have already established themselves as top racers in the east, and a few who stuck around for a 5th year to finish out their college career strong.
One obvious standout is Ben Ogden, a UVM senior. In 2020, Ogden skied a 23:50.2 in the 10k Freestyle to win UVM’s 68th individual national championship and his first. He also finished 22nd in the FIS World Cup in Germany this year and is a member the US Cross Country D team headed into Beijing. Head coach Patrick Weaver conceded he doesn’t know “how much we will see” of Ogden, but whenever his skis hit the snow at a carnival he’ll be expected near the front of the pack.
Over at UNH, coach Cory Schwartz was sure to mention that he has “very deep” men’s and women’s squads. He also said that UNH has a bunch of returns who “have climbed their way to be some of the better skiers in the east.” Expect big seasons from Lucinda Anderson and Jasmine Lyons. On the men’s side, junior Scott Schulz is poised to have a good run of the carnival season. Lyons finished last season as the number one overall Nordic skier in the east and collected the rookie of the year award for the EISA. In the 2020 season, Schulz was UNH’s only freshman to qualify for the NCAA Championship and should receive a boost from the addition of his junior ski coach, Shane McDowell, to the coaching staff.
Opening carnival host Colby will also have a strong lineup of top skiers. Head coach Tracey Cote said she has a “strong senior class and a lot of exciting up-and-coming first years.” For the men’s team, expect the white mules to be paced by Foss Kerker. Kerker took a year off to rehab a shoulder injury and opened this season strong with a fourth-place finish at an Eastern Cup. Also watch out for Erin Bianco on the women’s team. “She’s a returning fifth-year senior as well, and she made NCAAs for us before, and second at regionals, and she looks really strong,” said Cote.
Just down the road, Bowdoin is expecting big seasons from Renae Anderson and Elliot Ketchel. Both will be fifth-year seniors, and both have qualified for NCAA Championships three times. Anderson also competed in the U23 World Championships last December. With last year off, both were “able to put in a lot of quality training and racing last year,” said Bowdoin head coach Nathan Alsobrook. “They’ve both looked fantastic in fall training and should be poised to put up some great results this winter.”
Back in Vermont, captain Peter Wolter is expected to have a strong year for Middlebury. The fifth-year senior is an All American with three NCAA qualifications. Head coach for Middlebury, Andrew Johnson, also mentioned another storyline to follow throughout the season. “A large chunk” of the Middlebury team (like other squads) has still never raced carnivals. “We’re looking forward to introducing them to the scene.”
One big freshman class
While it might be easy to pick out some returning skiers poised to have elite seasons, in some ways the bigger story of the carnival circuit is the incoming crop of “carnival freshman.” As last year saw many teams in the EISA not compete in races at all, or compete very little, there’s a large group of student athletes who will drive down Quarry Road towards their first ever EISA carnival.
Take the Harvard team, for example. No athletics at Harvard last year, at all. Now, said head coach Chris City, almost half of his squad is headed to its first EISA carnival. “We have 12 people on our roster, and I would say five of them fall into that effectively freshman group,” he said. He also said he feels he has a deep squad and is excited to see how both his returning skiers and the new additions fare throughout the carnival season.
Similarly, Dartmouth also went last winter without a robust season. They were only able to meet a few times a week, with only a few members of the team, from mid-January to mid-February. Not only is the team excited to race the full carnival circuit, but men’s coach Brayton Osgood also said that there’s particular excitement in anticipation of hosting another Dartmouth carnival. “We’re always excited when we get to host Dartmouth carnival,” said Osgood.
The St. Michael’s team also somewhat falls into that category. Unlike Harvard, the St. Michael's skiers were able to meet and ski for about six weeks. But they only competed in a modified version of a carnival, in which they raced hours before Clarkson, UNH, UVM, and St. Lawrence and compared times. So, many members of the St. Michael’s team are also prepping for their first true carnival experience.
The unknown of it all
The varied degrees of racing and training last winter, a crop of fifth-year seniors, and a large class of unknown skiers green to the carnival circuit adds up to a lot of unknowns.
Over at Bates, Becky Woods mentioned that the void of last winter has left a bunch of question marks. “We have a humungous first-year class,” said Woods, “And so it's kind of wide open, right?” She expressed that this year will be hard to judge, not only for her own team but for the entire field of skiers.
Williams coach Steve Monsulick reinforced this idea, saying it’s hard to analyze the teams that had a race-less winter. “I mean, it is very strange because you almost have no idea what to expect,” he said. This winter is Monsulick’s first at Williams, and he said he is particularly thrilled for his first- and second-year student athletes.
“I'm really excited to see like, how they're going to do, and how they kind of handle this new racing circuit,” he said.
While the newbies certainly present a big question mark, there are a lot of carnival veterans also heading into this year under the veil of mystery. Athletes took months away from collegiate racing, like Bates’ Olivia Cuneo, who spent last winter in Bozeman, or Colby’s Kerker, who was rehabbing a shoulder injury. Coaches were forced to adapt and change practice strategies to meet last year’s various, and always changing, COVID guidelines. Who knows how those changes will affect performances?
A lot of unknowns. But one thing might be for certain: It is going to be a strong year. Nordic skiing is one of those sports where time really matters. Said a little differently, you age well. So, it would make sense that this year, full of fifth-year seniors and fourth-year juniors, would present itself as particularly competitive.
At least, that’s what Tracey Cote thinks. “I still think it’s going to be one of the toughest years to make NCAAs,” she said, “just because of the ages and the fifth-years.”
It’s just good to back
Excitement. That’s the theme running through all the teams ahead of the carnival season. For the first time in a long time, all the EISA schools will be back together. Even those teams that had a more normal year of racing last year will see competitors they haven’t seen in years. The carnival spirit will finally be back, and potent.
Fresh off an Eastern Cup weekend, Bates coach Becky Woods expressed the realization that it was the first time she had seen all the collegiate coaches since 2020. She said she could pick out a few top skiers, but she said that the epiphany at the Eastern Cup weekend has her focusing more on her excitement for the group as a whole. “It was, you know, meaningful in so many different ways,” she said. “I’m just excited to see the comeback, not just for my group but for everybody.”
St. Lawrence University coach Ethan Townsend echoed that sentiment. His team was lucky, he said, able to do more skiing and competing than most. But the kind-of-normal season of last winter only grew an increased appreciation of – and a hunger for – a robust carnival circuit. His new athletes got just a taste, and now they want the real thing.
The last year has plenty of obvious negatives, but if it had any hidden positives, that was certainly one of them. It might have renewed an appreciation for the culture of the carnival circuit, a culture that Townsend said he is excited to see revived.
“Carnival is a good word to continue using,” said Townsend. “It’s got a fun and festive atmosphere to it, and we’re all just really excited to get back and see each other.”