Despite an unseasonably warm winter with almost no natural snow, the Castleton Men’s ski team entered the postseason finishing third overall in the MacConnell Division – and only improved from there.
The Spartans claimed the top overall spot in the giant slalom on the first day of Eastern Regional Championships, placing racers in first, sixth, 11th, and 13th places.
But it was the Eastern Regional giant slalom champion that shocked many.
It was first-year transfer skier Connor Kelly.
A very strong graduating class last season left the men’s squad wondering how it would stack up against the competition this season.
“Losing Pat Burke, Ben Hannah, Karl Robicsek, and Vincent Corrado really had us and everyone in the division wondering how our season would go,” head coach Chris Eder said.
A combination of Kelly and freshman Christopher Yopp proved to give the Spartans the depth they needed throughout the season complimenting veterans Matt Couture, Tyler Smith, Gordon Mason, and Brendan Drexler.
“It was a very good surprise to come in and see these guys perform well beyond what we expected,” Couture said.
In the following day’s slalom event, the Spartans finished second, led by Couture’s second overall finish, followed by Smith in ninth and Yopp in 12th.
The Castleton men finished first overall in the combined, earning the title of USCSA Eastern Regional Champions.
National Championships took place at Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, New York. Couture led the charge for the men, finishing 22nd overall in the giant slalom, and sixth overall in the slalom, placing him 14th overall in the combined, enough to be named an All-American for the third straight year.
The Spartans finished sixth overall out of 22 teams, which given the uncertainty of the start of their season, was considered a major success.
The Spartan women entered the season with a motive, and with the talent to back it up.
Since Castleton joined the MacConnell Division in 2012, Brown University has won every single regular season race, a streak of 46 consecutive wins.
On Feb. 19, that streak was broken.
“For the women, it was really a year of firsts,” Eder said.
The team had a drive that went unmatched all season.
“This group wanted to win. We were really focused every race. Even in the preseason with workouts, it was way more focused than in the past,” senior Co-Captain Simona Croccolo said.
The freshman pair of Linn Ljungemo, from Sweden, and Anna-Julia Storch, from Germany, had consistent finishes throughout the season, giving the team a solid core group of four top finishers including Croccolo and Co-Captain Lisa Davis.
“I think everybody was willing to put in the work. And I think that it just came down to who could perform better,” Davis said.
Beating Brown was just the start of this team’s momentum.
The following day, in a two-event slalom at Pat’s Peak, both Storch (7th) and Ljungemo (8th) cracked the top 10, with an impressive finish from freshman Kirsten Kruk (10th) while Davis and Croccolo rounded out the 14th and 15th spots, good enough for second overall in the first event.
The second race of the day had a similar feel, Ljungemo (6th) paced the squad, followed by Croccolo (10th), Meg O’Shea (11th) and Davis (14th), which placed them in third.
The real history was made on Feb. 27-28, when the Castleton women swept USCSA Eastern Regional Championships.
In the giant slalom, Davis led the team with a career-best third place finish, while the freshman duo of Ljungemo (5th) and Storch (6th) were hot on her heels. Croccolo had an impressive day as well, being the fourth Spartan to finish in the top 10 with her 10th-place finish.
The next day in the slalom, Ljungemo (2nd) and Storch (3rd) both found themselves on the podium, while Kruk was just off the mark in fourth place. Davis (7th) and Croccolo (8th) were the fourth and fifth Spartans to finish in the top ten and secure their overall Regional Championship victory.
Eder was pumped, as any coach would be.
“I’ll say this about the women’s team. This is by far the best women’s team we’ve ever had, I mean, we won regionals and beat Brown in the regular season. No other Castleton team has done that before,” he remarked.
At Lake Placid for USCSA National Championships, the women placed seventh overall in the giant slalom. Ljungemo led the charge with a 19th place finish, followed by Davis (28th), Storch (35th), and Croccolo (37th).
In the slalom, Ljungemo was again the top finisher, ending the day in a three-way tie for 12th place. Davis (18th), Croccolo (19th), and Storch (20th) finished all in a pack to help secure the team’s fifth place finish.
The squad would end up finishing sixth overall in the combined, with Ljungemo earning All-America honors in both the slalom and the combined.
This finish, much like the men’s team’s, was seen as a great accomplishment by everyone on the team.
Both teams credited all of their success, not to the fastest times down the hill, or to getting lucky when other teams had poor results, but on the sense of family they had and their incredible coaches.
Senior Tyler Smith felt that there was a real sense of camaraderie this season that had not necessarily been there in the past.
“I would say we are definitely more of a team. In the past few years there were a couple individuals who kind of got all the attention, but this year it was more focused on the team, aside from what the top guy was doing every race,” he said.
Co-Captain Drexler echoed Smith’s comments.
“This year’s team had great chemistry on and off the snow. We were always helping each other out,” he said.
There was a similar feeling on the women’s side as well.
“Qualifying for nationals four years in a row was so exciting, and getting to share that with your teammates made it so much better,” Croccolo said.
When asked about coaches Eder and Dale Solotruck, every athlete smiled with admiration.
Eder was a former skier and then an assistant ski coach at Green Mountain College, while Solotruck was an assistant ski coach at Dartmouth College and was part of the staff that won the NCAA Divison I National Championship in 2007.