CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Sam Morse sat in the base lodge at Sugarloaf when an older gentleman came up to him to shake his hand. “We’re rooting for you,” he said to Morse.

Later, as he stood outside the lodge, skiers came up to him to offer a handshake or a congratulations.

Morse, an 18-year-old who grew up seven minutes from the main entrance to Sugarloaf Mountain, is a made man around here.

“My name is out there and it’s fun to be known when you walk into a grocery store,” said Morse, who graduated from Carrabassett Valley Academy. “And it’s all good so far.”

And maybe Morse will be recognized beyond the borders of his tiny town soon. He is among the competitors this week at the U.S. Alpine Championships, being held at Sugarloaf for the first time since 2008 (and fifth time overall). The competition begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday with the women’s super-G race, followed by the men’s super-G, and continues through Sunday.

Among the skiers competing will be 2015 downhill and giant slalom World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn (but only in Thursday’s giant slalom), 2015 World Cup slalom champion and Olympic slalom champ Mikaela Shiffrin, two-time Olympic super-G medal winner Andrew Weibrecht and two-time four-time Olympian Marco Sullivan.

It’s a lineup that certainly should attract big crowds according to Seth Wescott, the two-time Olympic gold medal winner in snowboardcross. While his discipline is different, Wescott knows many of the Alpine skiers.

“It’s fun to get out and watch them do their thing,” said Wescott. “And it’s nice to see the next generation of Alpine skiers step up. ”

Among them is Morse. “I’m excited to watch him,” said Wescott. “It’s his home hill and he knows it better than anyone else.”

Morse, who has competed in the last two U.S. nationals, was a spectator here in 2008, hoping to get autographs from the sport’s biggest names.

“I might have been more excited just being a fan,” he said Tuesday. “I just got to go up there and watch it and not do anything. Now I’ve got to go up there and perform. It’s still fun but it definitely makes it a little more serious.”

Morse has had a strong season on the U.S. national development team, which means he is on track to compete someday on the national team and maybe on the World Cup circuit or in the Olympics.

In the recent junior world championships in Hafjell, Norway, he finished 12th in the downhill (the second U.S. under-18 finisher), and 20th in the super-G. In the U.S. national downhill race held on March 17 at Sugarloaf, he finished ninth, then followed that with a seventh in the super-G in a NorAm Cup race two days later, also at Sugarloaf.

TRAINING PAYS OFF

His best results have come in the speed events – the downhill and super-G – but he is improving in the technical events – the slalom and giant slalom.

“He has made good improvements in the technical events and we’re working to make sure he continues to progress in them,” said Randy Pelkey, the head coach of the U.S. development team. “It’s a long process, it doesn’t happen overnight. But we work on the basic fundamentals in the technical events.

“I think he’s doing a really good job for us. He came from a place where he got good experience in speed events. Now he’s seeing a lot of new venues and mountains to diversify his abilities.”

Chip Cochrane, Morse’s coach at CVA, watched Morse in the NorAm races at Sugarloaf last week and noticed a difference. Morse is fitter and trimmer at 6-foot, 205 pounds, thanks to the world-class training he receives with the U.S. team.

“He’s still improving, still discovering who he is as an athlete,” said Cochrane. “He puts so much focus on making his weak points become his strengths, he’s going to keep moving ahead.”

Among the things Morse knows he has to improve is his mental approach. Cochrane noted that ski racing is a sport “where you have to push a fine line. You have to push yourself to the point of disaster to be the best.”

Morse, who was accepted to Dartmouth College but deferred enrollment this year and will again next year, is just learning what that point is. He has to learn when to attack a hill full speed and when to pull back.

“It’s all a matter of not holding back too much,” said Morse, “but holding back enough to get through the tough sections.”

And he couldn’t have had a better mountain to learn on than Sugarloaf. It is considered among the toughest slopes in the U.S.

KEEPING THE FAITH

Being on the U.S. development team, Morse has had to grow up quickly. He traveled to Chili, Austria and Norway in addition to Canada and the various U.S. mountains this year, with only his teammates and coaches to accompany him. He keeps in touch with his family through his smart phone.

“If you look back on it, it’s a unique way to grow up,” he said. “It’s not like going to your average high school with all the regular high school activities. It’s more like, ‘All right, when’s the next time I’m getting on an airplane to go somewhere?’ That’s your worries. It’s not, ‘Who am I taking to the prom?’ ”

Through all his travels, Morse has continued to embrace his faith. His parents are Baptist ministers. And his faith was vital earlier this year when two of his teammates, Bryce Astle and Ronnie Berlack, were killed in an avalanche in Austria while freeskiing. A day earlier, Morse had been freeskiing with them in the same spot but on the day of the avalanche, he and another teammate took a route on the other side of the valley.

“Ski racing does not have a huge faith community, unlike football,” said Morse. “Those were interesting times reaching out to my teammates, trying to provide them with some spiritual counseling and support.”

Whatever happens this week, Morse is glad to be back on his home hill. He began skiing when he was 23 months old. He kept insisting that his parents take him – he said he would put on his skis and ski boots and get on his skate board on their deck, learning how to balance himself as he moved back-and-forth – until they relented one spring afternoon. The sport became his passion.

Now, at this level, he strives to remember how much fun skiing is, even as he attempts to win races.

“People want to make it out to be so much more than it is but we’re just going out there and doing something because it’s fun,” he said. “You can get all angst and put all this pressure on it but it’s really just a game of who can get to the bottom the fastest.”