SARANAC LAKE - It was late afternoon on a Thursday in mid-February at Dewey Mountain Recreation Center. There were a couple dozen children on a flat, open section of the mountain, gathered around coaches Sean Burke, Chris Morris and Jason Smith.
"The fun clock is ticking," Smith yelled out to the crowd of kids who were eagerly talking amongst themselves, perhaps plotting strategy for the upcoming game of speedball.
After Smith and Burke convinced the kids to quiet down and pay attention, Burke started explaining the rules of speedball to the group.
Chris Morris, skiing in a black and red hunting jacket, gives a kid a high-five after a game of speedball at Dewey Mountain Recreation Center.
(Enterprise photo — Mike Lynch)
The goal of speedball is simple. It's like soccer or lacrosse. The point is to throw the ball into the goals. One of the main differences is that to score, you have to throw the ball through your legs into the goal, preferably backwards. The game is a fun exercise that allows children to feel more comfortable on skis.
After a couple minutes of talking, Burke finished and the children skied to opposite sides of the field, forming two teams. They stood in front of makeshift goals made of flexible poles that make open arches when stuck in the snow.
It was one of those warm winter days when temperatures were in the 50s, so some children were wearing only T-shirts. Most of the children playing were in the 8- to 10-year-old range. Younger children, coached by Jess Cook and Zoe Smith, were off skiing the groomed trails.
Before long, the game started and the ball was passed from kid to kid, until Smith got it. With the ball in his hands, Smith took off, attracting a group behind him. When he got an opening, he shot backwards, between his legs. It's obvious from watching on the sidelines that the coaches were having as much fun as the children, perhaps more in some cases.
For the volunteer coaches at Dewey Mountain, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays - when the Dewey Mountain Youth Ski Leagues meet in the winter - are an opportunity to relax, have fun and give back to the community at the same time.
"Skiing has for me created wonderful opportunities," said coach Kris Seymour, who has traveled extensively coaching skiers like Olympic gold-medalist Billy Demong. "I think many of the places I've been and the things that happened to me in my life would have never happened without skiing, and I hope that all these kids that come up here week after week have great times, carry it throughout their lives and create similar opportunities."
Steve Halasz, who raced for Cornell University's nordic ski club, remembers his childhood coaches fondly from when he attended North Country School in Lake Placid and skied in Bill Koch races.
"I benefitted a lot as a kid being in the Bill Koch youth ski league and having good coaching when I was little and had a lot of fun," said Halasz, whose son Galen is now learning to ski. "So I figured I'd be psyched to get the next generation going and give them that same experience or better experience."
For Morris, who is the news director at WNBZ radio station, the chance to coach offers a chance to help the kids, but also the opportunity to forget about work.
"This is my therapy without a doubt," Morris said after the game of speedball. "Last week I missed (the youth league) because of work reasons, and I was so upset because I couldn't get out here with these young kids. I have eight 9 year olds and they're so much fun that you can be stressed out from your workday or whatever else is going on and then once you get out here with these guys it's just a blast. By the time I leave here, I have a huge smile on my face."
The experience is enhanced for many of the coaches because they learned to ski at a young age and some spent their own childhoods at Dewey. Morris said he has been skiing since he was able to walk. And growing up in Saranac Lake, he frequented Dewey Mountain.
"This was the place that I started skiing," said Morris, who also skied with NYSEF at Mount Van Hoevenberg and in the Bill Koch League, and competed in junior national championships and the Junior Olympics.
Seymour, who raced at Saint Lawrence University, also spent plenty of childhood days at Dewey.
"Here, at Dewey Mountain, was the first place I ever put on skis," Seymour said.
Now years later, Seymour and many of the coaches are still around, hanging out at a community ski hill as dozens of children slide across the snowy surface, playing speedball at a wildly fun and frantic pace.
"(This) is a place where kids, families, people can come and learn how to ski and be part of a great lifestyle," Seymour said. "I think it's one of the greatest opportunities if you live here in Saranac Lake."