Edward Little High School Nordic ski coach Eric Cobb center has nine freshman on an 11 member boys team. From left are: Jack Howaniec, Aiden Morrison, Finn Thistle, Matt Syphers, Harry Bigos Lowe, Tristan Brezovsky, Coach Cobb, Casey Burhoe, Deven Egge, Noah Morgan, Christian Hiscock and Cam Langlois. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
AUBURN — After having only five skiers on the team a year ago, Edward Little Nordic ski coach Eric Cobb was anxious to see if he had a team left when this year’s meetings rolled around.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Cobb said. “Last year I had one boy, (sophomore) Christian Hiscock, and I had four girls.”
This year brought a pleasant surprise.
“So I show up at the first meeting and in walk nine freshmen boys,” Cobb said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, ok.’”
All four girls left the team — two graduated, one moved and the last decided against returning — leaving Hiscock and Matt Syphers, a junior who skied his freshman year before taking last season off, as the lone returners.
“In the initial meeting it was like, ‘This could go either way,’” Cobb said. “But, I have to give a lot of credit to (head coach) Gretchen Slover at the middle school. They have a great program down there and they make it fun for the kids. They come and they’ve embraced the sport.”
This season’s Red Eddies Nordic team is made up of Edward Little students, as well as Baxter Academy students in Portland. All of them skied at Auburn Middle School, however, making the transition easier.
“We’ve all been skiing together for a while so we are all pretty good friends, pretty tight,” Baxter student Deven Egge said. “A little competition, but a lot of support.”
After spending a lot of time with his team, Cobb has started to realize the potential of his young team. At the Sassi Memorial race on Saturday, Edward Little finished 13th overall with four skiers in the top 85, and three finishing within two seconds of each other.
“I’ve got a great core group of kids here,” Cobb said. “I think that if they stay together and they keep working that we’re going to be the team that everyone goes, ‘Oh, EL is coming? We don’t have a chance.’”
“It’s amazing to see the growth,” the young skier said. “I think we will be pretty close to a state title in our junior year or senior year if we stick together.”
Part of what has helped the Eddies blossom this season is Cobb’s tireless focus on technique.
“Skiing is like golf,” Cobb said. “If one of the pieces is off, you’re not as fast as you could be. We spend a lot of time on technique. Some of the parents, I think, get frustrated because the kids don’t come home exhausted sometimes. I’ll spend an hour and a half working on double poll… You can see the light go off and they finally go, ‘Oh, this is a lot easier.’”
The atmosphere around the team is also welcoming, so much so that Syphers decided to return to the team after a year of indoor track.
Syphers did not ski last season because Edward Little was in the middle of a coaching change after longtime coach Dan Campbell left the school. Syphers chose indoor track because of the uncertainty at the position, but this season, the oldest skier on the team is competing in both.
“I just wanted to see what I could do coming back from freshman year because I hadn’t done much skiing since then,” Syphers said. “I tried to improve from then. My times have definitely gotten better… It feels good to be back.”
Sypher’s presence has not gone unnoticed by Cobb.
“He leads by example,” Cobb said. “He’s a very hard-working kid. He is doing both indoor track and skiing. This year he came to me early and asked if he could do both and I said ‘I don’t care.’ What it’s evolved into is he’s really enjoying the skiing.”
Because the freshmen had skied together in middle school, they’re already close. Syphers has fit right in with the group, creating a joyful atmosphere full of laughter and chatter. Also, however, the young group comes with inexperience.
“For a freshman coming out of eighth grade, this is a varsity sport,” Cobb said. “They have to learn that it’s a varsity sport and we are here to learn and here to train and we have to compete. At the same time, it’s kind of my responsibility to make sure that it stays fun and it stays fresh for them, too. For the most part I say, ‘eh, it’s part of the deal.’ I want them to have fun too, not just grinding and grinding and in March they hate it and never come back.”
The team’s early success has come, in part, because of the Auburn Middle School program and before that, the Bill Koch League in Auburn. The Bill Koch program is a weekly ski session open to all ages of skier up to sixth grade. The program has, and is currently, creating the love for the sport for many locals. For the Edward Little program to take the next step, Cobb is leaning on the already-successful farm system.
“It depends on whether they stay with it or not,” Cobb said. “I think there’s potential for this team to be dominant for the next three or four years. Looking at the Middle School and the Bill Koch league that’s out here every Sunday with thirty or fourty kids, I see the program growing, competing and doing well.
For now, Cobb is continuing to coach the team into the final meets of the season.
“The attitude is positive and there’s a lot of camaraderie, it’s been great,” Cobb said. “It’s been a great experience. They’re very receptive to anything I need to work with them on. They’re a blast.”
Edward Little High School Nordic ski coach Eric Cobb, foreground on right, gathers his team at the beginning of practice at the Auburn Nordic Ski Association trail system in Auburn. Out of the 11 boys skiing for EL this year, nine are freshman. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Junior Matt Syphers has found success in Nordic skiing as well as in track and field for Edward Little High School. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Harry Bigos Lowe, right, and Jack Howaniec, center, are two of the nine freshman on the Edward Little High School Nordic ski team. Christian Hiscock, far left, is the team’s lone sophomore. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)