PARIS — As the first week of Nordic skiing begins, Oxford Hills head coach Christopher Easton can be found yelling out times and instructions to his skiers as they run intervals, awaiting the snow like he has for the past 36 years.
Only this year, his instructions to athletes are much more sparse because the number of athletes is at it’s lowest point in his career.
“The last four or five years we haven’t had the numbers,” Easton said. “We’ll go on breaks with having no freshmen. It’s been difficult. For a long time I was getting four or five kids from the middle school every year … For a long time, a small team was 20.”
Heading into the 2017 season, Easton has eight skiers: five girls and three boys. Indoor track stole away senior Dominic Sclafani, and senior Graham Huckins decided not to compete this winter. The Vikings also lost a couple of seniors.
There are a myriad of reasons Easton can think of as to why the Nordic ski numbers are so low, including popularity of the sport and declining middle school numbers.
“I don’t know if the kids don’t want to do the physical work,” Easton said. “Whether it’s social media. I know I have had kids in the past who would rather play videos games. The other thing I have found, too, is if they can’t be immediately successful at something … a lot of the time I have kids in the last 10 years who see people who have been skiing since they were little kids and think, ‘OK I want to be that good.’ They then put skis on for the first time and they don’t get it in a couple of days and they’re like, ‘I’m done, I don’t want to do this.’ I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, they’ve been skiing for 10 years and you’re giving it three days?’ There’s a lot of that instant gratification that happens.”
Tuesday, Easton was belting out times to his skiers as they ran a loop around the Oxford Hills practice fields that was around a third-of-a-mile. Interval training is important to Easton as it mimics the style of racing that Nordic skiing requires.
“In a cross country ski race, that’s basically what you’re doing,” Easton said. “You have to go out fast, then go up a hill, then you have a downhill. It’s not like a running race where you’re having to constantly keep going.”
While the team is small, the boys’ team looks to do well individually. Senior Cameron Bancroft is the Vikings most promising skier, along side his sophomore brother Tom and fellow senior Isaac McNutt. The boys’ team is not large enough to score, however. The girls team is, though, and with no juniors, Easton is hoping to build something for the future.
The size helps Easton give the skiers more one-on-one instruction, and that looks to pay dividends down the road.
“The beauty of a small team is that it makes it simple getting everybody ready for races,” Easton said. “You’ve got quality time. With two coaches and eight kids, that’s an advantage.”
Junior Megan McCormick is excited for what the season will bring her, and the team.
“The smaller team is different because freshman year we had a lot of people doing it, but it’s harder because we don’t have as many people so it’s harder to practice,” McCormick said. “It’s easier because we are closer together … I really like the one-on-one because if you’re not the best at skiing you can still get your technique fixed and it’s easier to get better.”
One consensus is the camaraderie throughout the team will be strong as a smaller squad means a tighter-knit group. It helps that the team is known for going on day trips to different locations such as Fort Kent.
“In the past we have gone to Fort Kent over Christmas break,” Easton said. “A lot of the kids won’t be around so we probably won’t do that, but we will travel. We might go to Mt. Washington … do day trips. I can throw everyone in my mini van.”
Oxford Hills teammates Cameron Bancroft, right, and Isaac McNutt run during Nordic skiiing practice at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School this week.