CARRABASSETT VALLEY — It’s been a pretty good year for Sam Morse, including a gold medal in downhill skiing in the junior world championships and his first World Cup race.

He’d like to put an exclamation point on it this weekend. The 20-year-old Morse, who grew up about seven minutes from the main entrance to Sugarloaf Mountain, will be one of the fan favorites when the U.S. Alpine championships are held at Sugarloaf beginning Saturday.

“I love competing in front of the community (that) supported me so much through my career,” Morse said Wednesday after competing in a Nor-Am race at Sugarloaf. “And not all the top guys will be here, but a good part of the (national) A and B guys will be here, so it’s a good chance to mix it up with them on an even playing field.”

This will be the sixth time Sugarloaf hosts the U.S. Alpine championships, the second time in three years. While stars such as Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn and Andrew Weibrecht won’t be competing, it still draws some big names in U.S. skiing – David Chodounsky, Tim Jitloff, Travis Ganong, Stacey Cook, Leanna Smith and Resi Stiegler – as well as top newcomers such as Morse, who is a member of the U.S. national C team.

The competition starts Saturday with the men’s Super G (9:45 a.m.) and the women’s Super G (12:15 p.m.), and continues through Tuesday.

Morse will compete in all three men’s races. And given the year he’s had, he could give the local fans something to cheer about. He’s certainly been working toward it this year.

The 2016-17 season began for Morse, oddly enough, in college. A 2013 graduate of Carrabassett Valley Academy, he attended Dartmouth College for the fall semester after deferring enrollment for two years so he could train with the U.S. ski team. But his deferment was ending and, he said, he needed a break.

“It was really, really important for me, mentally, to take a step away from skiing,” said Morse, who plans to return to school in the spring of 2018. “I had been on the ski team for three years now and was pretty burned (out). I just wasn’t motivated to go work out.

“So to take 10 weeks and not have to think about skiing was really nice.”

He worked out with the Dartmouth team and when his semester was over, was ready to return to the slopes. Not only was he in his best physical shape, but mentally was in a much better place.

“I kind of rededicated myself to skiing when I was at school this fall, dug deep inside and decided this is what I want to do,” said Morse. “School is fun, a couple thousand kids your age, it’s a blast. But to say nope, I’m going to walk away for a year and a half to ski race … I re-entered (skiing) with a renewed passion for it.

“When you make the commitment to do it, then you really start believing that you can do it. If you’re half-in about committing to the dream, then you’re not going to ski to your best.”

Justin Johnson, the head coach of the U.S. development team, had worked with Morse and saw a different skier when Morse returned from college.

“He was very organized, very grown up,” said Johnson. “Going to college was good for him. He came back very happy. He was a little different, a little more mature.”

And it showed on the slopes. Sasha Rearick, head coach of the U.S. men’s Alpine team, devised a training program for the entire C team that concentrated on their weakest disciplines, not their strongest. So Morse, a superior downhill skier, spent most of the winter working on his technical skills for the giant slalom and slalom. “I haven’t trained one day on downhill this year,” said Morse.

He added, “Our focus this year is working on technical aspects of skiing, which really allows you to generate speed through the turns and arc through sections that in the past you might slide a little bit. It was a total radical move to go that direction, to not train your strengths, to focus on your weaknesses, but I would say it paid off.”

After finishing fourth in the world junior championships for downhill a year ago, he won the race this year. Wearing the No. 30 bib on purpose – Morse, who had his choice of bib numbers because he was ranked first, had seen the results of training runs and determined the fastest times were going to come from somewhere in that number – he won the downhill.

He also finished fifth in the Super G and sixth in the Alpine combined at the junior worlds.

“I was proud to see him win the downhill and come back with more fire,” said Johnson.

That led to his first World Cup race, at Aspen on March 15. He finished 21st but just two seconds behind the winner.

“That was unbelievable, that is what every kid dreams of, growing up ski racing, is to race in the World Cup,” said Morse. “Obviously I hope to do many more. But to have that opportunity at this point in my career is incredibly rewarding.”

Johnson said it reflected all the work he put in. “You saw a big shift in him this year in terms of his professionalism,” said Johnson.

So what’s next?

Next year Morse likely will ski a full season on the Europa Cup, a level below the World Cup. From there, who knows? Johnson said Morse’s progress this year has certainly been impressive but Morse said there’s more work to be done. While the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea are only a year away, Morse is looking more at 2022 in Beijing.

“I’m a much better technical skier than I was a year ago,” said Morse, adding he still needs to learn how to ski the terrain better and gain more speed.

For now he’s going to rest a bit after the nationals. After all, it’s been a busy year.

“It’s been a good year,” Morse said. “A good year.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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