Making of a Nordic juggernaut

Coaches build championship-caliber teams, relying on community and each other

Saranac Lake Nordic ski coach Keith Kogut talks to eighth-grader Jordanna Samburgh before a race last week at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

The Lake Placid high school Nordic ski team has won four straight state titles, undoubtedly making a dynasty over the past few years. But the Blue Bombers’ main rival — Saranac Lake — is on the upswing and could be poised to break the Lake Placid hold on state championships.

Saranac Lake and Lake Placid are the only two schools in Section VII that have Nordic ski teams, which means the two compete against each other, often twice a week. And while that may seem like a recipe for isolation, the two schools are consistently at or near the top at the end of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association championships.

In fact, while there are many fine individual skiers around the state, Queensbury and Honeoye Falls-Lima are the only two schools that likely pose a threat as teams.

Lake Placid coach Bill Frazer has some insight into HF-L’s success because he raced there himself in high school.

This year, Lake Placid’s team lost a couple of skiers who were part of the 2018 relay championship, namely: Mike Skutt, who is skiing exclusively for the New York Ski Educational Foundation, and Scott Schulz, who graduated and moved out west. That leaves Kai Frantz as the sole returning skier from the championship team. Of course it helps that James Flanigan returns after skiing for NYSEF last winter.

Lake Placid Nordic coach Bill Frazer guides skiers through pre-race chaos at Mount Van Hoevenberg earlier this season. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

Saranac Lake’s fourth-place team from the 2018 state championships consisted of Lauchlan Cheney-Seymour, Jacob Alberga and Nick Kelting, and only Cheney-Seymour graduated last year. In addition to having two of its top skiers return, Alberga — who is co-captain of the team along with fellow senior Adam Hesseltine — is fresh off a NYSPHSAA cross country running state championship, which the Red Storm won in November. It was the first state running title for Saranac Lake in more than two decades, and Red Storm ski coach Keith Kogut said he plans to build on that momentum in an effort to bring Saranac Lake another title.

“It’s a really interesting combination of doing really hard, intense workouts trying to improve our fitness, and at the same time stay healthy and not lose key people to illness or injury,” Kogut said. “Because in a sport like this it only takes one or two illnesses or mistakes and you can go from a potential state title to an also-ran.

“So it’s really important for us to stay humble and find that balance right in the middle of hard training and staying healthy.”

Kogut said that while Alberga is bringing state title experience to the team, he said many of the Red Storm skiers take part in other fall sports.

“A lot of our players come from soccer, but what we’ve seen from the runners is they’re coming in knowing how to approach it like a potential champion,” he said. “They’re coming into it with a serious approach, but they really know what hard work needs to be done. I really credit my friend, coach Bill Peer of the cross country team, in that even when it looked like they were heading for a title, he kept the kids humble and working hard.

Lake Placid Nordic ski coach Bill Frazer, left, and Red Storm coach Keith Kogut keep an eye on the timing sheet during a race between the two schools last week at Mount Van Hoevenberg. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

“So I’m just trying to follow his lead. Especially with Jacob Alberga, I think he’s really — as a captain — bringing in that humility and hard work and helping the other kids.”

Hesseltine was also on the cross country running team but went to the championships as an individual and was not part of the championship seven.

The state Nordic ski championships consist of two races: one where individuals compete and then a second where a relay team of three skiers tags off and completes three rounds on the course. The championships are slated to be held at the Gore Mountain Ski Bowl at the end of February for the third year in a row at the venue. Although the races were scheduled for the Ski Bowl this year, the past two years the championships were moved to Gore after a lack of snow prevented them from being held at their scheduled destinations.

Kogut said one thing his boys team has going for it is depth, something small school districts like Lake Placid and Saranac Lake sometimes don’t have.

“We’re in an interesting spot in that we’re not really just three fast guys. I think our team has five, six, seven really good male skiers, and we’re trying to foster a friendly competition between the kids,” he said. “Everyone wants to be on the top relay team with our top three guys, so even if you’re fourth or fifth or sixth place, they’re still really fighting, trying to earn that third spot.

From left, Lake Placid skiers Kai Frantz, Mike Skutt and Scott Schulz, along with coach Bill Frazer, celebrate the Blue Bombers’ fourth straight NYSPHSAA Nordic ski championship in February 2018. (Enterprise file photo — Justin A. Levine)

“So we’re trying to create a sense of camaraderie and teamwork, but at the same time friendly competition because the only way you get better is to try and catch people who are faster. So it’s creating the right mindset to keep us going.”

Kogut said that he reads his athletes and sometimes takes it easy at practice, but also said there are days when “you have to put the hammer down.

“In our harder practices, we’ve had a great thing going where I’ll put my top guys just skiing together and pushing each other,” he said. “And even if I tell them to go out and give it 75 percent today, it seems like they’re challenging themselves and making that 90 (percent) more often than not.

“It’s just been really nice seeing the kids help each other get better. Whether they’re elite athletes or not quite at that level, there’s a great teamwork thing going on.”

Kogut said that as of now, near the mid-point of the season, Alberga and Nick Kelting are “locked in” for the state championship team, assuming they can stay healthy. He added that Colter Cheney-Seymour, Adrian Hayden, Taylor Samburgh, Reuben Bernstein and Hesseltine are all in the running for the third slot on the relay team.

On the girls’ side of the team, Kogut said it might be a year or two early for them to compete for a title, but there are a number of eighth-graders — including Sophia Kelting, Bella Wissler and Jordanna Samburgh — who have made their way onto the varsity squad and joined more experienced skiers Sylvie Linck, Helena Dramm and Evelyn Eller. Kogut said the young girls squad may make a run for a title in the next couple of years.

“The girls could really surprise some people, but it might be one year too soon,” he said. “We have some real standouts. I don’t know what to expect from the girls because they’re so young, but I don’t think it’s out of the question to have two girls in the top 10.

“I feel like in a year or two we’ll be sitting here talking about the girls and how they’re favored to win states.”

Lake Placid coach Bill Frazer — who’s won four boys titles and a girls championship — said one of the main factors in the Adirondack domination of Nordic skiing is the overall atmosphere of support that student-athletes get from the community, along with the effects of climate change, which are mitigated by local ski areas’ snowmaking capabilities.

“The first year I coached, I had 15 kids on the team. And then the numbers just dived; I remember there were some years where I had like three kids,” he said. “And then there was just kind of this wave of super-good athletes — Karl (Schulz), Scotty (Schulz) and Henry (McGrew) — that came through.

“We just had a really good crop of kids come through. And not to take away from us, but honestly I feel like the other sections are suffering in terms of the way the climate is going. Rochester used to be really strong, but I think the fact that kids are like, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t get to ski on snow most of the time? Why ski?’ and some of these top athletes are doing other sports.

“And it’s benefiting us because we have more of a ski culture,” he continued. “I give credit to the Lake Placid Ski Club, the young NYSEF programs, the Dewey Mountain programs, getting kids on skis at a young age because that’s probably the most important thing.”

Frazer and Kogut organize each race within Section VII and can often be seen coaching kids from either school. Each credited the collaborative effort of the schools, clubs and ski programs at both Dewey Mountain in Saranac Lake and Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid, the two venues where the teams’ seasons unfold.

“The key is making it more accessible for kids to ski, making it easier,” Frazer said. “I would love to see another school in this section pick it up, like Tupper (Lake) to get back into it, because that just feeds it and makes it more competitive.

“It’d be great to see more kids coming in. I would just like to see all the different clubs and schools and organizations working together. I think that’s the key to a strong skiing program. And that’s working right now.”

Frazer said that while he thinks his teams are unlikely to repeat as champions, Frantz or James Flanigan could be in the running for an individual title. But that doesn’t mean he’s rooting against the Red Storm.

“We’re really young,” he said. “And Saranac Lake is just too strong. I’d love to see them win. It’s a great thing.”

Kogut said two teams could give the Red Storm a run for their money, and one of those is the one his kids compete against twice a week.

“Lake Placid can never be taken for granted because they have great athletes, and if they have a good day, we just can’t look past them,” he said. “But when I look around the state, I really think HF-L is the team most likely to give us a challenge at the state meet. They have three really good athletes, and we’ll have to be at our best to beat them.

“We’re not looking past anyone.”

The NYSPHSAA Nordic ski championships are scheduled for Monday, Feb. 25 and Tuesday, Feb. 26 at the Gore Mountain Ski Bowl in North Creek.