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Tri-Lakes school ski teams gear up for season

Lake Placid’s Max Flanigan gets ready to be tagged by incoming teammate Andrew Scanio and begin his leg of a relay race Dec. 28, 2019, at the North Creek Ski Bowl. (News photo — Peter Crowley)

Tuesday, Dec. 1 kicked off the winter season for Section 7 high school athletics as Lake Placid’s Nordic ski team began practicing, in accordance with state and section guidelines. The school’s Alpine skiing is also set to begin for the season.

On Nov. 17, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association announced that while high-risk winter sports such as basketball, hockey and wrestling would be delayed until Jan. 4, low and moderate risk winter sports such as bowling, gymnastics, indoor track and field, skiing and swimming were allowed to begin as early as Nov. 30.

Lake Placid and Saranac Lake have both Nordic and Alpine ski teams, and Saranac Lake has indoor track as well. But the Nordic teams are the powerhouses. Lake Placid’s boys won four straight state championships from 2015 to 2018, with Saranac Lake constantly nipping at their heels.

Winter sports won’t begin at all for Saranac Lake until the district is able to shift back to in-person learning, with a tentative start date of Dec. 14 for Nordic and Alpine skiing, Athletic Director Eric Bennett said earlier this week. That was before the district announced Wednesday that in-person classes will resume next week, but he said Thursday that Dec. 14 will remain the start date — if there is in-person instruction.

Bennett said he is working with many others in the school and community to iron out the details for the ski season, as well as the possibility of some indoor track.

“It’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck approach to accommodate the regulations and recommendations with what we can afford to do, both financially and logistically as a district,” he noted.

Bill Frazer, who is in his 14th year coaching the Lake Placid Nordic ski team, remarked how this season, like so many other things the past few months, will be very different in light of the pandemic.

“It’s something new,” he said of the upcoming season and ensuring the team of around 20 students continually follows safety guidelines like mask-wearing and social distancing. “I think the biggest thing is that it’s not going to be as competitive as normal, naturally, because we might not have state championships to work for. So I kind of see it just as getting kids skiing, having fun and setting their own personal goals.”

Competitions will shape up much differently, as Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are the only two schools currently with ski teams in Section 7. Normally they would compete against teams like Queensbury and Glens Falls in Section 2, but with current safety restrictions teams aren’t allowed to mix outside their sections. Other teams within Section 7 have supposedly considered starting teams, but nothing is confirmed. While state championships haven’t been canceled yet, Frazer and other coaches doubt that they will take place. Also, with Saranac Lake still in remote learning, Frazer guessed the first competition between the two schools wouldn’t be until at least after the holiday break.

Frazer and coach Keith Kogut — who is also in his 14th year leading the Saranac Lake Nordic team — mentioned different measures they will implement to keep teams safe and stay within COVID guidelines. While skiing is an outdoor sport, both coaches emphasized that kids will socially distance and wear masks. (Many skiers wear buffs to cover their faces anyway.) Both coaches also considered the possibility of staggered individual start times, to space student-athletes out even more.

Kogut observed that the Saranac Lake team might also encounter some added challenges in terms of gear distribution and facilities. While the Saranac Lake Nordic club will continue to provide skis, boots and poles for any students who wish to participate, as the club has done in the past, Kogut said there is still much preseason work to be done in getting skis waxed, matching up poles and boots, and giving each kid the appropriately sized gear.

Additionally, he noted that the team might not have access to the lodge at Dewey Mountain.

“When the weather’s cold and kids can’t go inside to use the restroom or warm up, that makes the practice plan a lot harder,” he said.

“It’s really tough from a coaching perspective because there are so many unknowns,” he added. “A normal season has sort of a set flow to it, where we know when our races are going to be, we know what the commitments are, we know how many kids we’re going to have ahead of time. There’s just so much uncertainty right now that from a coaching perspective — and for the kids, too, I’m sure — it’s tough to think about.”

Bennett said Saranac Lake is working toward some sort of indoor track season as well. As of now, there is no dedicated place suitable for COVID-safe competitions, but he emphasized the idea is to give students more opportunity to stay active. He mentioned the possibility of some remote training in the absence of competition, similar to what the junior varsity soccer and cross country teams did this fall.

In looking forward to the season and whatever it may hold, Frazer, Kogut and Bennett all stressed the importance of these sports in giving students opportunities to stay active and socialize safely in the midst of an unprecedented school year.

“I’m grateful that our district is attempting to give our kids something, because it’s so important for our kids to move their bodies, be physically active, get some endorphins popping, and be social with kids in an athletic nature,” Bennett said. “Athletics are so important for our youth, and anything we can do, either as a village or as a school district, or within youth programs that are responsible in this COVID era, we gotta do it, because our kids desperately, desperately need that release.”