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Skiers give Chip Lacasse a thrilling send off

photograph by Bob Handelman

As the 2003 NCAA Ski Championships came to a close on March 9, Utah had the team title comfortably tucked away. That was a known. But the matter of runner-up wasn’t so clear, with Vermont, New Mexico, and Colorado separated by just nine points. Such close company — like a photo-finish at the horse track, a goal-line fumble, or a Florida vote — calls for further review.

So, the NCAA Rules Committee, which included University of Colorado Coach Richard Rokos, gathered to pore over three days of alpine and Nordic results to double- and triple-check the numbers. It took them a couple of hours and a few lap-top computers to emerge with solid counts. Vermont: 551. Colorado: 546.5. New Mexico: 541.5. Rokos, as astounded by UVM’s performance as he was disappointed in his team’s result, immediately sought out Vermont Coach Chip LaCasse. Shaking his rival’s hand, Rokos said, “Congratulations, your team just performed a mathematical impossibility.”

Three days after those glad tidings, LaCasse is yet to find a place for the knee-high trophy that would come with them. And who can blame the coach for setting it on the floor in the middle of his office? Some things are worthy of being stepped around gently — especially a runner-up trophy as unlikely as this one, an exclamation point to close LaCasse’s marvelous career as head of UVM Skiing.

Mathematical impossibility is a stretch, of course, but UVM’s chances for taking second were improbable at best. With a women’s Nordic squad that struggled with illness and injury most of the season, the Catamounts went to Dartmouth short-handed on qualifiers. The UVM team was outnumbered 12 to 10 by every other contender at the championships. As LaCasse told Burlington Free Press sportswriter Patrick Garrity ’90, the Cats rolled into the NCAAs as “a Ferrari with a flat.”

LaCasse felt like he’d already beaten the odds once this season by winning his 28th straight Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association Championship in February. (The longest conference championship winning streak in any NCAA sport.) But that meet also gave LaCasse a true measure of the strength and heart of his team, together for the first time all year after a number of skiers returned, albeit jet-lagged, from world championship and junior world championship events.

There was reason for optimism in an alpine team that had roughed up the competition all year, and on the Nordic side, Lowell Bailey and brothers Ethan and Ryan Foster were skiing strong. Still, without a full squad, LaCasse and his coaching staff loaded the bus for Dartmouth figuring they’d do well to come home fifth.
Knowing that his athletes had to ski “flawless and fast,” LaCasse loosened the reins. “I’m not a gambler,” he says, “but for this one I took a whole different approach. Cut them loose and let them go. I let them ski their own races.”

And some very fine races they were. Freshman Jaime Kingsbury won the women’s giant slalom title and Gillian McFetridge took fifth; Jimmy Cochran and Scott Kennison went 2-3 in the men’s slalom; Hillary McCloy was fourth in women’s slalom. Nordic skiers earned two second place spots on the podium — Ethan Foster for the 20-K classical and Lowell Bailey for the freestyle. In all, seven of the 10 Catamounts competing were named either first- or second-team All-Americans.

Looking back, LaCasse rates the 2003 runner-up trophy as the runner-up moment in a career that has included multiple national championships. “The NCAA Championship in 1980 was the best because it was such a relief to win the first one,” LaCasse says. “But this ranks right up there. It was a surprise to us and everyone else in that competition.”


Kristal Kostiew, a junior on the women’s track and field team, put together a string of titles in the 20-pound weight throw this season, winning the ECAC, America East, and New England championships. Her outstanding performance qualified her for the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.

The men’s hockey team pulled off a first-round upset of a higher-seeded Clarkson team in the ECAC playoffs. Playing on Clarkson’s home ice, the Cats swept the best-of-three series. Two losses at Harvard the next weekend ended UVM’s season in the quarterfinal round. Coach Mike Gilligan’s squad finished the year at 13-20-3. Standout goalie Shawn Conschafter was among the seniors playing their last collegiate game in the Harvard contest. “I’ve got nothing but great memories from my four years here, from the guys in the locker room to the wonderful fans to all the people associated with the hockey program,” he said.

On the strength of a 76-65 victory over Northeastern on February 15, Vermont head coach Keith Cieplicki earned his 121st career victory and passed former UVM mentor and current Boston College coach Cathy Inglese as the all-time winningest coach in the university’s women’s basketball history. The team closed out the 2002-2003 season with an overall mark of 21-8. The Cats made it to the semifinals of the America East Championship for the seventh consecutive year, but a loss at the hands of Boston University put an end to the season. Senior Morgan Hall and junior Aaron Yantzi earned America East all-conference honors.

For the latest on Catamount Athletics: www.uvmathletics.com