Gray-New Gloucester High School alpine ski team.  (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)

GRAY — The focus for Gray-New Gloucester head coach Evan Mancini is building an alpine ski program that will be strong for years to come.

The boys’ team has grown to 14 athletes this season as the Patriots added a half-dozen skiers to a team that doubled its size a year before. The girls’ team, meanwhile, only has two skiers, Hannah Biron and Sydney Garcia, returning this season.

Because of the low numbers, Mancini has been working on trying to start a feeder program, or a program that younger kids can join and learn to race before making it to the high school.

“The middle school has a skiing club, but it’s not much of a team,” Mancini said. “They don’t have much goals, they just go and have fun. This team is big and it shows that we are active and there is interest in the area to prove we should have a feeder program. Now that there’s been a lot of interest it’s sparked discussion. We have had middle-schoolers wanting to ski with us but because of MPA rules, they can’t.”

One of the main reasons Mancini wants to build a base for the Gray-New Gloucester program is the low female skier turnout.

Biron is returning to the girls’ team for her second year under Mancini’s training. Last year, Biron’s nerves got the best of her before the first race of the year. With the support of Mancini, her mother and the team, Biron quickly got on the slopes in the second race.

“She came over and didn’t do a lot of racing, and then first race she didn’t want to, she was scared, then her mom told me, ‘Make her race,’” Mancini said. “Then, second race, she did and then loved it. It’s a super-intimidating thing to get into, but once they make the step they love it a lot.”

Biron is increasing in confidence everyday and is excited for the season to begin.

“Just knowing that if I try my best then it will most likely go my way, because I have so much experience with it now and so I have confidence to keep myself safe,” Biron said. “(Mancini) is so supportive and he’s ready to push us to our best. He’s a very good coach, he knows what he’s talking about and can get everyone riled up. The team has been really supportive as well.”

Biron said she joined the team because she heard from friends that it was a fun group of people and the coaches were great. So far that has been true, she said.

Mancini hopes that American success on the world stage will also help attract younger female skiers to the sport.

“The girls team has been something we have been struggling with, and it’s posed the problem of how do we attract more female athletes to the sport of ski racing?” Mancini said. “It’s a sport that seems to be rather dominated by male athletes. It’s something that I think is on an upswing since you’ve seen athletes like (Olympian) Mikaela Shiffrin do a lot more, which starts to inspire younger athletes.”

On the other side, Mancini has seen a large growth in numbers on the boys’ team that finished in 10th at the state meet last year. Gray-NG returns four seniors this season while adding many to an already-growing squad.

The main hurdle that Mancini and the team have had to overcome hasn’t been on the snow, it’s in the head.

“There’s a lot of them that train better than they race, and there’s a big mental aspect that goes into racing versus training,” Mancini said. “If our top four boys were to stand up and put down some really good runs in some important races then we could make progress that the ski team hasn’t shown in years. We need guys to stand up and ski well on the days that it matters, and it seems to be a hard challenge.”

Senior skier Kyle Mercier is well aware of the hurdles that need to be jumped for the Patriots to make noise in the WMC this season.

“It’s a mental block, so you’re trying to push yourself further to limits you’ve never reached before,” Mercier said. “It’s definitely trusting who you are in practice and then being able to go out there and do it and not worry about it.”

If the mental hurdles can be left in the dust, the seniors are excited about what can be done this winter. With more skiers adding to the team’s depth, the competition in practice and on race days will only heighten performance.

“It will help a lot for the team scores. Especially with us four being seniors we will all have a really good shot at placing well for guys, which we haven’t done in years,” Carson McEvoy said. “For Western Maines and conferences, we have a really good chance of placing really well.”

Second-year racer Lawson Dunford said helping the younger skiers will further help build the foundation that Mancini and Gray-NG are trying to establish.

“With everybody coming in, our biggest goal as seniors is to just help everyone so that there’s a good foundation when we leave,” Dunford said.

Mancini is ready for the challenge of this season and knows that if his skiers can put it all together when it counts then the Patriots could be dangerous by the end of the winter.

“We need guys to stand up and ski well on the days that it matters,” Mancini said. “It seems to be a hard challenge. One will have a really good day and one will have a bad day, so I am hoping this is the year that they all put together some really good runs.”