PORTLAND – Last week’s winter storm that blanketed Maine’s western mountains with snow teased skiers along the coast.
One day, all was sparkling and white. The next, the world had turned wet and gray.
As the members of Portland Nordic — a consortium of skiers from seven local high schools — gathered outside the Deering High gymnasium to see whether the slush had cleared enough for roller skiing, the mood was muted optimism.
Unlike plenty of teams from schools closer to the mountains, the kids of Portland Nordic would not be training on snow that afternoon. Then again, that happened a lot last winter, and the Portland High girls did pretty well.
Pretty well? Portland was runner-up in the Class A Nordic skiing state championship meet, finishing second only to Leavitt High of Turner. Among the schools behind Portland: eight-time defending Class A overall state champ Mt. Blue of Farmington, Falmouth, Oxford Hills and Fryeburg Academy.
This winter the goal is a state title. That’s a lofty ambition for a school that, after consecutive years of complete cancellations due to poor conditions, no longer bothers to schedule meets on its home trails at Riverside Golf Course.
“The way we look at it,” said junior Laura Frank, “is that we didn’t lose anyone (to graduation) and we got second place. The team that beat us (Leavitt) lost two of their best skiers and we still have everyone.”
Of the four top skiers for Portland last winter, only Frank and senior Abby Popenoe attend Portland High. The other two — senior Sadie Sarvis and junior Lizzy Landry — attend Casco Bay but compete for the Bulldogs.
Popenoe is the top returner. She placed third in Class A freestyle and ninth in classical. Sarvis missed the state meet because she was taking an outdoor leadership course in the Rocky Mountains, but helped Portland finish third among 34 teams from all classes at the Sassi Memorial race last January at Black Mountain, behind Caribou and Yarmouth.
Not that many inside the Portland High halls took notice.
“We have these lightning spandex (tights) that we used to wear on race days,” said Sarvis, who previously attended Portland High, “but that was really our only school awareness moment.”
“We’ve had a teacher or two come to a race,” said Popenoe, who said other students often associate the ski team with downhill skiing. “People don’t really understand the racing aspect of Nordic skiing.”
Nordic scoring is similar to cross country running in that your placement contributes to your team score, and the team with the lowest combined total of its first four finishers is the winner.
Popenoe took up the sport before entering elementary school and by junior high was ready for a team. She convinced Sarvis to try it as well.
“There was a big group of us sixth-grade year from King Middle School who all kind of started skiing together,” she said. “Now we’re all at different high schools but we’re all on the team.”
Landry came along late, first trying the sport in eighth grade. Frank, the other junior, played basketball at North Yarmouth Academy in the sixth grade, then tried Nordic skiing in the seventh. She also danced ballet for 13 years before deciding this summer to concentrate on skiing.
“I still enjoy it and I actually teach dance at Head Start to preschoolers,” Frank said. “I always want to be more graceful than powerful.”
All four agreed that drawing from other schools — Portland Nordic includes skiers from Deering, Cheverus, Windham, Thornton Academy, McAuley and South Portland, in addition to Casco Bay and Portland — is a plus.
“It’s easier to do things with a bigger group,” Popenoe said. “There’s more people to push you to do your best.”
In all, 33 boys and girls train together. On race day, they all compete for their own schools.
“It’s never been contentious,” said Coach Aaron Duphily, who teaches at Cheverus. “It’s got a real community feel to it. I think a lot of the kids like it because they get to meet kids from other schools.”
Duphily hopes to draw skiers from a middle school program that just hired a new coach, and a Bill Koch program started last winter at the elementary school level.
“We’d like to at least stay steady if not grow,” he said. “We’d like to get more kids interested in the sport.”
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: