Highs and lows of North Country sports in 2016

The Lake Placid high school nordic ski team celebrates its state championship title in February at the Olympic Ski Jump Complex in Lake Placid. From the left are coach Bill Frazer, Henry McGrew, James Flanigan, Jesse Izzo, Scott Schulz and Patrick Broaderick. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Sports is a big deal in the North Country, and 2016 provided another wealth of memorable and significant events. There were many accomplishments, and a few losses too.

January brought significant success to members of the United States bobsled and skeleton team as Jaime Greubel Poser, Steven Holcomb and Annie O’Shea slid to gold medals on the same day as the World Cup tour made its annual stop at the mile-long run at Mount Van Hoevenberg, outside of Lake Placid.

O’Shea kicked off two days of racing on Friday, Jan. 6 with a breakthrough triumph, as the 10-year veteran in the sport of skeleton notched the first World Cup win of her career. Following O’Shea’s victory, the Americans went on to a gold-medal sweep as Greubel Poser and Holcomb won the women’s and men’s two-person bobsled competitions.

“I’ve won titles on the lower circuits, I’ve done all those things, but this is new to me,” said O’Shea, whose only other World Cup medal was a silver at La Plagne, France back in 2011. “It’s an amazing rush when you go through it. I’ve seen my teammates win, but I’ve never had that before.

“Every single teammate was so happy for me,” O’Shea continued. “And then watching Jamie and Steven win, it’s just amazing. I’ve never been a part of a sweep like this.”

Legendary football coach John Raymond and player Matt Burns look on as the clock winds down on Saranac Lake’s 1998 football season during a state semifinal loss to Edgemont at Dietz Stadium in Kingston. It marked the final game Raymond coached after a 25-year career. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Bombers run with the big dogs

February was a great month to be a Blue Bombers sports fan, as the the little school of Lake Placid was the biggest dog on the snow when the New York State Public High School Athletic Association nordic championships wrapped up two days of skiing on Tuesday, Feb. 23 on the Olympic Ski Jump Complex trails.

And at the same time, the small school of Saranac Lake took a pretty big bite out of the competition too.

Sophomore Scott Schulz couldn’t have found a better way to celebrate his 16th birthday, as he nailed down the boys two-day combined nordic championship to lead the Blue Bombers boys to a successful defense of their state relay and team titles.

Amy Farrell of Tupper Lake crosses the finish line of the Toughman Tinman Triathlon in her hometown. (Enterprise photo)

Meanwhile, Saranac Lake’s Jackie Garso won the girls overall crown, and the Red Storm boys finished runner-up in the boys relay in an exciting sprint to the finish line.

Schulz and Garso both won Monday’s individual races, and their combined titles were based on their performances in Tuesday’s relay.

With a chance to win the 7.5-kilometer relay for the second straight year, the Blue Bombers made sure the race wouldn’t even be close. Schulz skied the first leg to give Lake Placid a slight edge, and Patrick Broderick and Henry McGrew followed to lift their team to victory by nearly a minute and a half. Lake Placid topped the 17-team field with a finish time of 21 minutes, 15.6 seconds.

As the Section VII A representative, Saranac Lake skiers Bryce Hartman, Witter Swanson and Ethan Wood were runners-up in 22:42.6, coming in less than a second ahead of third-place finisher Honeoye Falls.

More Lake Placid student-athletes also had the opportunity to shine a week after the school earned the state ski title, as the Blue Bombers boys hockey team skated to its second consecutive Section VII title on March 1, and eventually went on to advance to the state final four tournament for the second year in a row.

Tucker West, center, celebrates winning gold at the World Cup luge competition in Lake Placid in December. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

A few days before the Section VII ice hockey championship game, Lake Placid head coach Butch Martin said the title belonged to his team until somebody could take it away.

Trailing 3-0, top-seeded Beekmantown did everything it could to snag that crown from Lake Placid, but the Blue Bombers wouldn’t let that happen.

On the ice sheet at SUNY Plattsburgh, the Blue Bombers scored three times in the first period and then held off the Eagles to claim a 3-2 victory and their second straight Section VII championship.

Legendary football coach, teacher dies

The sports world lost a legend on March 18 when John Raymond, a beloved football coach and longtime educator and administrator in the Saranac Lake Central School District died at his Saranac Lake home at the age of 73, after a battle with cancer.

Raymond’s varsity head coaching career spanned 24 years over three different eras, and in that time, he established Saranac Lake as one of the most storied football programs in New York state. During Raymond’s coaching run, his teams racked up 13 championship seasons, including two years when Saranac Lake made appearances at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, playing once in a game before there was a state championship and then returning to the dome to compete for a state title in 1995. Raymond’s final season was in 1998, when he guided the then-Redskins into the state semifinal round at Kingston’s Dietz Stadium.

Golfing glory

In May, golfers again brought glory to Saranac Lake, as the Red Storm captured the team title on the first day at the Section VII championships held on May 27.

Saranac Lake head coach Chris Stevens said he really didn’t need to say much to his veteran golfers before they started playing in the opening round of the Section VII golf championships.

The only words he told them were “Good luck,” and “You’re on your own.”

As it turned out, Saranac Lake’s golfers did just fine in both respects as they captured the team title by an impressive 14 strokes over their next-closest competition — the Lake Placid Blue Bombers. In a team event that takes the lowest four scores posted by six players competing for each school, the Red Storm finished with a first-place total of 322, with the Blue Bombers taking second with 336 and Peru landing in third with a 340 total.

The sectional title was the second in three years for Saranac Lake, which was paced by three seniors, an experienced junior and a ninth-grader who turned in the round of his life. That freshman, Zach Ellsworth, fired a three-over 75 on the layout at Saranac Inn to finish tied for first place heading into the second round of competition.

Farrell races to more triathlon success

On June 26, Tupper Lake’s Amy Farrell added another stellar result to her impressive resume as a world-class triathlete.

When it comes to shining on a big-time stage in the triathlon world, Farrell’s accomplishments are quite impressive. Two years ago, she won her age group at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, and last summer, Farrell won the overall women’s title racing in the Ironman Lake Placid.

So it’s pretty hard to believe that the Tupper Lake resident who travels across the country for all kinds of endurance events had never claimed a 70.3 title in the race that has been held every summer in her hometown since 1983.

Farrell was finally able to capture that crown, topping the women’s field in the Toughman Tupper Lake Tinman Triathlon. Racing on the same swim, bike and run courses where she has trained for years to prepare for other events, Farrell was the first women to reach the Tinman finish line, winning in 4 hours, 41 minutes and 29 seconds.

“It’s been 15 years since I’ve done the full Tinman. I’ve always done the sprint,” Farrell said. “The last couple of years have been kind ºof high pressure for me and I haven’t been able to fit this 70.3 in. This year, I don’t really have any big, big races on my schedule, and that’s why I was able to be out here today. I’ve been planning to do the Tinman for a while but I didn’t sign up until a week ago. I wanted to win this, and I’m so happy that I did.”

Competing in the 35-39 age group, Farrell turned in the fourth-fastest swim time in the women’s field, and then blew away the competition on the bike and run. She finished 11th overall among the 307 participants taking on the Tinman’s 70.3-mile distance, and crossed the line with almost 28 minutes to spare over Liverpool’s Kerzia Marchant, who was the women’s overall runner-up in 5:08:13.4.

Another area triathlete made the most of her opportunity to shine as Elizabeth Izzo did more than just reach the finish line competing in her first attempt at the Ironman Lake Placid’s 140.6-mile distance on July 22.

Izzo turned in an incredible performance in her first Ironman-distance triathlon, finishing in 11:15:09. That time was good enough to win the 18- to 24-year-old age group, which came along with an automatic qualification for the iconic Ironman world championship race in Kona, Hawaii. A little more than two months later, Izzo went on to finish the course in Hawaii in 12 hours, 32 minutes.

“Hawaii is an incredible place, the scenery is incredible, the whole landscape is so unique,” Izzo said of her first trip to Hawaii. “I’d love to go back again some day. My goal was to finish feeling good, and I was feeling good. I felt good the whole race, despite the winds on the bike, being stronger than I ever have experienced in my life.”

More Ironman to come

July also brought one of the biggest sports stories of the year to the North Country with the announcement that a 70.3 Ironman race will be coming to Lake Placid beginning in September 2017.

The official announcement was made that the Olympic Village will host an Ironman brand 70.3-mile race on Sept. 10, 2017, in addition to the full Ironman triathlon that spans 140.6 miles.

Jim McKenna, CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, which took the lead role for the area in working out a deal with Ironman, said an agreement was put in place to hold Lake Placid’s newest triathlon annually through 2021. He also said the full distance Ironman Lake Placid had been signed up for another five years. That race has traditionally been held each year in Lake Placid on the fourth Sunday in July.

Chance of a lifetime

In August, one of the most talented young golfers in the Tri-Lakes found the opportunity of a lifetime drop into his lap.

During the previous month, Art Griffin’s emotions as an aspiring golfer went from his biggest heartbreak to the most joyful moment of his young career.

The heartbreak for the talented 21-year-old from Lake Placid occurred on July 14, when he came just one stroke away from qualifying for the 2016 United States Amateur Championships, which were held at the legendary Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

The elation came Thursday, Aug. 12 when Griffin found out he would be heading to Oakland Hills after all when an alternate spot opened up for the most prestigious amateur golf tournament in the world.

Griffin could have nailed down a berth in this year’s U.S. Amateur Championships when he played in New York state’s qualifying tournament at Colgate University in a competition that included 36 holes in one day. He fired a 69 in the first round to take a one-shot lead, but couldn’t hold on as two Canadians — Hugo Bernard and Blair Hamilton — finished tied for the top spot after the final round to punch their tickets to Oakland Hills.

The situation changed Aug. 12 when Bernard, a Quebec golfer, won the Canadian men’s championship to gain an automatic berth in the U.S. tournament, which opened the door for Griffin, who had just wrapped his four-round run the same day in the New York State Men’s Amateur Golf Championship held Aug. 9-11 at the Mohawk Valley Golf Club.

Tri-Lakes title towns

Each year in late October and early November, high school teams compete for sectional titles in their respective sports, and 2016 saw Lake Placid land a pair of championships and Saranac Lake two more

The Blue Bombers crowns were both repeat feats as Lake Placid notched its second boys sectional cross country title in a row while the boys soccer team nailed down an impressive fifth-straight championship. Meanwhile, Saranac Lake won the Section VII, Class C football title for the sixth time in the past seven years, and the Red Storm boys cross country team captured first place in Class C at the state qualifying meet to earn a trip to the state championships.

Golden sliders

The year wrapped up with impressive showings for both United States luge, bobsled and skeleton athletes in World Cup racing in Lake Placid on the mile-long track at Mount Van Hoevenberg. The action kicked off on Dec. 2 and 3 with luge, with the bobsled and skeleton athletes then hitting the ice Dec. 16 and 17.

Chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” filled the air as fat snowflakes began to fall in earnest on the afternoon of Dec. 2. These were not generic calls for patriotism, but a genuine show of affection as American luger Tucker West slid across the finish line to win the World Cup men’s singles gold medal by just 0.006 seconds.

Watching on the monitors, the crowd of people around the finish line at Mount Van Hoevenberg made audible gasps, countered by cries of joy, as West gained and lost the lead multiple times during his second run in the race.

But when all was said and done, West was given a bouquet of flowers, which he quickly handed off to his mom at the end of the first day of luge action.

“That was great racing,” West said. “I wish I could have pulled ahead a little bit more, but hey, a win’s a win.”

West was sitting in the first spot after a stellar first run which put him in the lead over Russian slider Semen Pavlichenko by 0.008 seconds. Pavlichenko grabbed the number one spot on his second run, but with West coming down the track last in the second run, it was all up to the American to win or lose.

American and Saranac Lake native Chris Mazdzer was bumped off the podium, missing the bronze by less than a tenth of a second.

Later that day, two more Americans turned in a historic finish for their nation by earning the first podium spot in six years in men’s double luge. U.S. lugers Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman took the silver medal in the second race of the Viessmann World Cup series on their home track, falling just 0.163 seconds shy of gold medal winners Toni Eggert and Sascha Benekin of Germany.

In the bobsled and skeleton World Cup races held in Lake Placid, Americans grabbed five medals — a gold and three silvers — on an extremely fast track at Mount Van Hoevenberg.

Veteran Matt Antoine started things off on Dec. 16 with a silver in men’s skeleton, and later in the day, Jamie Greubel Poser and Steve Holcomb drove to gold medals in two-person bobsledding, which was the same feat they achieved the previous winter. Elana Meyers Taylor, the Olympic silver medalist in Sochi 2014, also drove her way to the silver, and on the following day, Holcomb piloted his way to his second podium finish in as many days with a silver-medal performance.