MUHS students, staff seek to revive alpine skiing

MUHS Ski Club Co-President Silas Taylor is a forerunner on the Allen Trail at the Snowbowl on Monday before the start of the Eastern Qualifier. Photo by Jason Duquette-Hoffman

MIDDLEBURY — Back in the 20th century Middlebury Union High School was a power in Vermont alpine skiing. Between 1994 and 1998 the Tiger girls’ and boys’ teams combined for three Vermont titles, three second-place finishes, and five thirds.

Then the program began to wane. The girls’ team stopped competing after 1997. The boys finished seventh in 1998 and 1999 before not fielding a team until one group of skiers came through a few years later and finished sixth in 2003 and seventh in 2005. 

And that was it. There was not enough interest to sustain the program. MUHS Activities Director Sean Farrell explained the central problem was logistical. There was not enough time between the end of the school day and nightfall to practice at the Middlebury College Snowbowl. Students found it too hard to compete, except for those in weekend club programs. 

“It was so hard when we got out of school at 2:55 … and the bowl closed at 4:00,” Farrell said. “It made it next to impossible. Kids would get one or two runs in, max. And that was with changing on the bus and jumping out of the bus and getting right on the trail.”

But with the Snowbowl now offering night skiing on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, a couple students — seniors Silas Taylor and Simone Duquette-Hoffman — approached Farrell and teacher John Nuceder about restarting a ski program at MUHS.

MUHS ninth-grader and Tiger ski club member Annan Duquette-Hoffman is one of two local skier to glide down the Allen at the Middlebury Snowbowl on Monday, Feb. 5, in advance of the Easter High School Qualifier.
Photo by Jason Duquette-Hoffman

Nuceder is now the adviser for the new MUHS Alpine Club, and Taylor and Duquette-Hoffman are its co-presidents, with about a dozen weekly participating at meetings and ski outings.

Critically, Farrell said, Tri-Valley Transit agreed to make stops at both MUHS and Middlebury Union Middle School to take them up to the Snowbowl on the days the ski area turns on its lights.

“The people who were pushing for the club really worked with Tri Valley to extend their offerings,” Farrell said. “And there’s a late bus coming down. They (Tri Valley) really worked with us as a group to provide transportation opportunities.”

All this makes Nuceder optimistic what is now a largely student-run club can within a few years offer a competitive varsity program. Other clubs have reached the varsity level in recent years at MUHS — Ultimate in the spring and girls’ volleyball in the fall.

“I think it is very realistic for a couple reasons,” Nuceder said. “One is the activities department here at Middlebury Union High School is always looking for more winter activities to get kids involved in. And most importantly it is now accessible. The main reason the alpine ski team went away when it did was there were no training opportunities for high school students.”

The MUHS Alpine Club at this point has two members qualified to race, Taylor and Annan Duquette-Hoffman, a freshman. As well as taking part in the MUHS club outings, the two on Wednesdays train with the Middlebury Ski Club, which caters to younger skiers, Nuceder said.

This week the reborn MUHS club saw two milestones: Taylor and Annan Duquette-Hoffman served as fore-runners — essentially course testers — for an Eastern High School qualifying slalom race at the Snowbowl, the first high school racing at the ski area in decades. They are also scheduled to compete in two regular Southern Vermont high school circuit races.

“We had Middlebury high school racers on the hill for the first time in 20 years,” Nuceder said. He added their runs were not official, but were timed so they could “see where they fit in with the rest of the racers.”

He also noted the Middlebury Ski Club is attracting more youthful participants, again due in part to night skiing, and eventually that should help MUHS reach the minimum of five boys and/or five girls to field a varsity team.

“I think it’s realistic within a few years because the junior racing program that is happening is growing in strength,” he said.

One question is whether in the future the club can accommodate both recreational skiers and racers, and another is can it raise funds to become such an inclusive offering. Again, Nuceder remains optimistic.  

“I’m shooting for the moon,” he said. “I’d love to see where it grows.”

Independent file photo by Florence Wu

While the varsity racing end develops and requires a coach over the next three years, Nuceder also hopes to “build that ski culture” for non-competitive participants. 

Funding will be critical for a club that at this point receives no financial support from MUHS. Participants have to buy or rent their own equipment and pay for daily or annual Snowbowl passes. “Unfortunately we are drawing interest from people who have their own gear, their own pass,” Nuceder said, adding at least the transportation is free.

The club has started to address the issue, however. 

“One of the things that we talked about as a club is fundraising. We want to have a pool of money so if someone says I’ve never skied before, can I come ski with your club (we can help),” Nuceder said. 

One approach would be to work with the Snowbowl to purchase a handful of beginner packages and be able to help students who need financial support, he said. Nuceder added that annual equipment leases are already affordable, while a nightly pass is $29. 

He also sees the return of annual used equipment ski sales and swaps as a partial solution to providing an affordable entry into the sport. Nuceder said the MUHS Alpine Club is also negotiating with the Snowbowl for a special pass rate for club members.

“I think it’s beneficial for Middlebury College and the Snowbowl to possibly extend that offer,” Nuceder said.

Certainly, he added, the club’s members are motivated to accommodate both racers like Taylor and Annan Duquette-Hoffman and those who want to learn what can be a lifetime sport.

“Even though we’re an unfunded club we’re setting goals to say, hey, what does this look like for the future? How can we set some fundraisers? How can we get more people interested?” Nuceder said. “I don’t know what budgeting looks like in the future for this club as it grows. But I just see some resources out there for us to tap into to be able to make it work … We want to make is as accessible for everybody as we possibly can.”

And Farrell, an alpine ski coach at Vermont Academy before coming to MUHS, hopes eventually more of the club’s recreational skiers will want to follow in the footsteps of the club’s two racers and try to ski competitively.

“I’m an old alpine coach, so it kills me we don’t have alpine skiing with the mountain right there,” Farrell said. “If we can get kids interested in skiing the gates and doing the competitive end of it, it would be great.”

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