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For the week of Dec 26, 2001 - Jan 1, 2002


Nordic ski team ready for great winter

Deep snow, hard work and fun skiing

Express Staff Writer

One of the most respected junior cross-country ski programs in the U.S. got a little better this past year with a major upgrade at the Lake Creek facility north of Ketchum.

Reid Pletcher, 13, a Wood River Middle School seventh-grader and Sun Valley Junior Nordic ski team racer, kicks it into gear during the Dec. 8 Winterstart race at Galena Lodge. Express photo by Willy Cook

The improvements mean that 15th-year Sun Valley Junior Nordic ski team head coach Rick Kapala won’t have to manually carry water coolers into the Lake Creek building just so skiers can have water.

And they mean a lot more.

"Very few clubs have dedicated facilities like ours," said Kapala. "In fact, in the Intermountain Division we’re the only team that has both ski trails and a dedicated ski facility adjacent to one another.

"We’re very fortunate in that regard. The kids come in and look at our new facility and are really appreciative, almost awed. They’re so psyched."

Thanks to an anonymous donor and plenty of donated labor, they lifted off the roof and built a second floor. They added water, showers, heated floors and rest rooms.

Now there’s a good-sized fitness center with all the amenities. Floor area increased from 1,500 square feet to 3,000. And when the project was done, the roof was replaced.

Enjoying the new digs and the deep snow are 73 kids on the 2001-02 Sun Valley Junior Nordic ski team. They range in age from six to 18. And they’ve got some tremendous coaching.

Now in its 30th year under the auspices of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, the Sun Valley Junior Nordic team is headed by Kapala, three-time U.S. Ski Association Cross-Country Coach of the Year.

The coaching staff exudes stability, youth and experience featuring competition team coaches Ali Deines and Susie Lloyd Quesnell, along with prep team and development teams guided by coaches Jen Douglas and Patrick Stearns.

It’s a year-round program. As Kapala is fond of saying, there’s an old adage in the sport that "Cross-Country Skiing is a Summer Sport," meaning that improving fitness is accomplished in summer.

This summer, Sun Valley skiers went to dryland training camps accompanied by coaches Deines, Susie Quesnell, Pat Casey and Bridget Kapala.

Camps were held in Bend, Ore. during June, at Park City (Utah) in July and in Banff and Glacier National Parks in August. Younger kids also enjoyed a Sawtooth Mountains backpacking trip in July.

And now they’re on snow, looking forward to a fun and productive season that started with the local Winterstart and Christmas Classic races.

Yet there have been changes.

Kapala and his staff are going to miss the contributions of five-year assistant coach Chris Hall. After developing his waxing and coaching skills with Sun Valley and spending time in Finland, Hall has seized a great opportunity stateside.

A 1988 Sun Valley Junior Nordic team member, Hall was hired this past year to work with the U.S. Nordic Ski Team as one of the team’s primary servicemen. He’ll be wax testing for both kick and glide at major competitions—including the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Hall was also the project manager for the Lake Creek remodel. Kapala said Hall put in a huge effort with lots of hours on the project.


Skiers move on, many stay

At Sun Valley, Kapala has coached nine individual national champions.

The most recent, Kaelin Kiesel, has moved on.

Last March Kiesel destroyed the competition and won the J2 5-kilometer classical race during the 2001 Junior Olympics Cross-Country Ski Championships at Ishpeming, Mich.

Daughter of former U.S. Nordic Ski Team star Alison Kiesel, Kaelin also helped Intermountain to the gold medal in the J1 3x5-kilometer relay.

Kiesel, 16, now attends Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, Colo. with Sun Valley Junior Nordic teammate Erin Magee, who is also 16.

"It’s hard to lose a national champion. Kaelin and Erin were really good kids. We wish them the best," said Kapala.

He added, "We still have a strong team coming back."

Despite its youth, with only one high school senior compared to last winter’s eight, the 2001-02 squad has an outstanding work ethic, Kapala said.

"No one is afraid to work, which means the coaches aren’t having to do a lot of base-level motivation. Almost everybody on the team started training hard and are still training hard," said Kapala.

Leading the team is its only senior and she is a great one, 17-year-old Ashley McQueen.

"I think five years ago Ashley was dead last in the Winterstart race," Kapala said. "Now she wins it and she’s one of the best skiers in the country. And she’s such a cool kid."

Second-year J1 Ashley McQueen is not only the only current Sun Valley skier on the 2001-02 Intermountain Select Team, she’s a member of the Mountain Region Elite team, meaning she’s one of the top six boys or girls in the West.

Kapala said, "Ashley is as good as any girl we’ve had in the program. Last year she was sixth in J1 freestyle and had the fastest relay time. We’re hoping she stays healthy and has a great senior season."

She is one of three strong J1 girls on this year’s squad.

Making tremendous progress is the team’s best classical skier, 16-year-old high school junior Alissa Praggastis. Her fitness level is very good, Kapala said. She’s finishing about 30 seconds behind McQueen.

Although it’s only her second year of Nordic ski racing, 17-year-old Eva Bach has a strong skiing background, since she’s the daughter of pro alpine skier Manfred Jakober.

"Eva has the engine and seems to have her sights set on Junior Nationals," Kapala said.

The J1 (ages 16-17) boys’ class in the Intermountain Division is real tough this winter, Kapala said. Bozeman, Jackson Hole and Park City are returning Junior National medalists.

But Sun Valley has some strong J1 boys in first-year J1s Robert Slough and Mike Sinnott, also members of the Intermountain Select Team. Each made the podium in individual races at J2 Junior Nationals.

"Robert and Mike have trained as well as any guys we’ve ever had," Kapala said. "We look for them to be competitive right away."

Second-year J1 Matt DeCarufel just missed being on the Select team by one place. "I think Matt is capable of going to Junior Nationals and being in the top ten," said Kapala.

Two promising younger J1s are Hannes Thum, 18, a converted alpine racer, and Brennan Rego, 16 on Dec. 29.

Kapala said he feels five or six of Sun Valley’s talented and hard-working J2 boys have a chance to make Junior Nationals, which will be held at Ponderosa Park in McCall March 3.

"Once again we have good balance in our J2 boys. Our strongest returning boy is Jack Harris, who is on the Intermountain Select Team. And we have other strong guys like Chase Cleveland, George Livingston, David Vanderpool, Brad Bradford, Delamon Rego and Lucas Pletcher," he said.

"I’m real excited about these J2s. They’re skiing real well and they’re probably as deep as the group of Jess Kiesel, Jedd Young, Chad Cleveland, Charlie Parker and Matt Stevenson three years ago," said Kapala.

Less experienced are Sun Valley’s J2 (ages 14-15) girls.

Lexie Praggastis, 15, is one of the promising Sun Valley Junior Nordic ski team competition racers. She is a Community School ninth grader. Express photo by Willy Cook

Kapala is hoping that Lexie Praggastis, 15, in only her second year of skiing, and Erin McQueen, 15, a fine athlete, will make a lot of headway as second-year J2s this winter.

A couple of first-year J2 girls hopefuls are Margii Driscoll, 14, and Hayley Stommel, 14.

Next year, the prospects look even better. "It will be hard to lose Ashley McQueen, but basically the team will return intact next winter," Kapala said.

"Looking down the line the J3 and J4 girls in the pipeline look strong. And we look strong in the boys’ field in three or four years," he added.

Many graduates of the Sun Valley program have taken their skiing to the next level.

For instance, Ashley Wells is living in Norway and training at the Hovden Ski Gymnasium, which is one of the top ski schools in Norway.

Spending his second year of training and racing at Solleftea Ski Gymnasium in Sweden is Jedd Young. He has been joined there this winter by another alumni, Jess Kiesel.

Kapala said, "These most recent exchanges are part of our ongoing effort to promote relationships with clubs and teams from Norway and Sweden as a means of providing special opportunities to our team members."


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.