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Higher, Faster, Farther

photo by Sally McCay


Fostering Change
Brothers defy the Nordic norm

Ethan Foster’s devotion to the kick and glide of Nordic skiing is rivaled by his love for the somewhat less subtle art of churning through a mud bog with four-wheel drive. UVM Nordic Coach Allan Serrano relates that Foster’s one-size-fits-all conversation starter is “So, do you like trucks?” On the team’s flight to Alaska for the 2002 NCAA Championships, Foster sat next to a middle-aged black woman, Serrano recalls. Undaunted by the demographics of truck ownership, the skier asked her the inevitable. The coach doesn’t mention whether the woman offered up her thoughts on suspension or hydraulic winches, but notes that an hour later she and the skier/political science major were in a deep discussion about the merits of affirmative action.

Ethan Foster and his younger brother, Ryan, have made a habit of asking questions of others, themselves, and their sport, questions that sometimes lead in unexpected directions. Nordic skiing, let’s admit it, calls to mind some stereotypes. There are two basic categories: the knicker-wearing, “if you can walk, you can ski” profile and the perpetually Lycra-suited, Euro-wannabe racer. Considerable accessories — from political perspective to diet to miles-per-gallon — come with both. The Foster brothers, to put it mildly, like to jerk the chain of such images and back up their fun with some very fast skiing.

It’s late October and Boston is up 2-0 in the World Series, which means that the planets are lining up nicely in the Foster brothers’ universe. Sox caps on their heads, Waylon and Merle playing on the stereo, Ethan and Ryan sit in the kitchen of the School Street house they share with fellow Nordic skier Anders Osthus, and Dave Smutok, a UVM student who is among the top freeride bikers in the country. Aside from Smutok’s home-made half-pipe in the backyard, the UVM Ski Team mission statement tacked on the kitchen wall, and the 400 pounds of meat in the basement freezer, it’s your standard college guys’ rental — rice burning on the stove, the profane note posted over the sink reminding all to wash their own dishes.

Ethan talks about his family’s Vermont lineage, which traces back five generations and 200 years in Weston, in the south-central part of the state. Their UVM roots are strong as well; the brothers’ parents — Sherri, a nurse, and Andrew, a contractor — both graduated from the University.

Rooting for the home team is both virtue and habit for the Fosters. Ethan recall his first trips to Europe for junior competitions and how eager many of his fellow young American skiers were to embrace the Scandinavian ski culture and don the flag-tagged hat of the Norwegian national team or other ski powers. Ryan jumps in and compares the situation to if a UVM skier wore Middlebury gear in a race. Ethan says, emphatically, “To embrace the European culture when you’re competing with them is not the best way.” The brothers shake their heads, “It just makes no sense.” They’re about stars and stripes, the Vermont flag, and being grateful for the chance the state university has given “two kids from southern Vermont” to further their educations and their skiing.

It comes down to loyalty and being yourself for the Foster brothers, and they’re clearly having a good time walking that walk, whether it means driving a 30-year-old Cadillac convertible rather than a Subaru wagon, training in a Red Sox jersey instead of the latest moisture-wicking wonder, or packing “Take Back Vermont” opinions in “Move Vermont Forward” Burlington. The world according to the Fosters is on vivid display in the films of Andrew Newell, a fellow southern Vermont skier and member of the U.S. National team, whose X Ski Films (xskifilms.com) kick snow in the face of the notion that cross country skiing and skiers are boring. The movies are an entertaining, sometimes baffling, mix of skiing, mud trucks, skiing, fast cars, skiing, skeet shooting, all leading up to Dude! crescendos — eye-popping stunts that push the boundaries of possibility on a skinny pair of cross country boards.

The athleticism and invention of the films traces back to the Fosters’ childhood experience with skiing. They didn’t get hooked on the sport as kids by suffering through interval workouts, but by the sheer fun of being out on the snow with a bunch of their friends from the end of the school day until dark. “We’d build jumps, play capture the flag, screw around,” says Ryan. “It was playtime on skis.” The Fosters also tuned in to the rich Nordic tradition in southern Vermont that includes maverick Bill Koch, a silver medalist at the 1976 Olympics, and a cadre of skiers who dominated the American teams of the 1970s and 1980s.

A provocative attitude alone isn’t going to get anyone very far in Nordic, an athletic discipline stern as the place it was born. If there’s one place the Fosters toe the line of the expected in their sport, it is in respecting the training and preparation that up to 30 kilometers of racing over a Carnival weekend demands. The brothers recount some of their workouts from the past summer — 22-mile runs on the Long Trail, circuit training in the weight room, hiking up and running down Stratton Mountain, endless repeats double-poling uphill on roller skis. Serrano counts the Fosters among the hardest working skiers he has coached in his career, and praises Ethan’s performance as two-year captain. “He’s a natural leader,” Serrano says, “people have gotten along and we’ve gelled as a team.”

It’s a big year for the Fosters and the entire Catamount ski team as UVM will host the 2005 NCAA Championships in Stowe, March 9-12. Ethan, a three-time All-American who narrowly missed winning the 20-K classical at the 2003 NCAAs, would like to add an individual title to his resume as he closes out his college career; Ryan is looking for a top ten finish to improve upon the 14th and 19th places he notched at last year’s national championships. Both are optimistic that the Alpine and Nordic squads can deliver UVM’s first team title since 1994.

Looking ahead to the championships, Ethan mentions that there’s talk of putting more entertainment into the event to pump up the crowds and excitement. He’s all for it, of course, and mentions one part of Nordic ski culture that he does embrace — fans’ tailgate-like tradition of barbecuing at races. He weaves his beloved Red Sox into the conversation. “You take the beer and hot dogs out of Fenway Park, people are going to be a lot less interested in going to a game. You have beer and hot dogs out at Trapp’s and people are going to be a lot more interested in watching some skiing.” Well, due to NCAA regulations, let’s make that a soft drink. But with the Foster brothers throwing it down in the national championships for Vermont in Vermont, the races promise to be worth the trip, even if you wash down that hot dog with a Coke.

photo by Farrel Duncan


Modesty is Germain
It’s not in Germain Mopa Njila’s nature to talk about himself. But the senior basketball player, who has quietly helped lead the Catamounts to the best three seasons in school history, has earned the right to brag.

As a member of the 2004 America East All-Conference team and Academic Honor Roll, Njila, a native of Yaounde, the capital city of Cameroon, carries a 3.3 GPA in computer science and information systems and interns at IDX in Burlington. His story of coming to America in hopes of winning a basketball scholarship to pay for the college education his mother insisted on is boast-worthy.

You just won’t hear much about it from the French- and English-speaking player, who rises at 6 a.m. during the off-season to run and who spends basketball season studying late into the night long after practice and weight-lifting sessions end. The words of others best capture the 6-foot-4 inch guard’s nature.

“He’s got this kind of inner peace,” says senior David Hehn, whose locker is next to Njila’s. “He doesn’t say too much, but if you spend any time around him you’ll know how much he wants to win and how dedicated he is to the school, his friends, and his teammates.”

Njila grew up in a city of one million located in West Africa, the son of a police officer mother who also owns her own business. When he came to America for prep school in Florida and then New England, Njila discovered that he stacked up well against the competition. During his final year of prep at The Master’s School in West Simsbury, Connecticut, Njila caught the eye of a handful of Division I schools. UVM and Tom Brennan’s program proved an easy sell to the studious Njila.

“I met coach Brennan and he was a very happy person; a good guy, very funny,” Njila says. “I didn’t know where to go to college at first. It’s such a huge choice where to spend the next four years. I remember at one point being really stressed about it. I wanted to go somewhere I could have a good education and play basketball and have fun. And thank God, you know, I always say that he answered my prayers. Both playing basketball and going to school are very important, but the degree is something you will have for the rest of your life.”

No one is more pleased with Njila’s choice than Brennan, who gladly lets his defensive star arrive a little late to practice this fall due to a heavy course load. When he talks about Njila, Brennan speaks first of his contributions to the University and the community. Secondly, almost as an afterthought, he mentions Njila’s unheralded contributions on the court.

“I have so much respect for him because he’s come from so far away not just to survive here, but to thrive here," Brennan says. "He’s a great student and a wonderful player and a better teammate. He’s an entire credit to the University and the community. He has a great appreciation for this gift that he got to come to America. He gives of himself all the time. It’s just a great story. I love that kid.”

During his freshman year even the optimistic Njila might not have predicted consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament for the Catamounts, but he had a sense for the team’s promising chemistry and his role in it. “When I came here we weren’t winning, but I could tell we were going to do something,” Njila says. “I didn’t come here and say ‘Oh they’ve never won, so that’s the way it’s going to be.’ I have great respect for Taylor and T.J. who can score. I try to get them the ball because it helps us win. We’ve got people who can score, pass, and play defense. I try to keep it simple and listen to the coaches.”
—Jon Reidel

Sports Shorts
Beating the top-ranked program in the country will do something to a team. Coach Kevin Sneddon’s men’s hockey team caught fire after traveling to the Midwest in late October to play top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth. On consecutive nights the Catamounts defeated and tied the Bulldogs, dramatically turning around a season that had begun with a 1-4 mark.

UVM hockey suddenly morphed into one of the toughest teams in the country and toughest tickets in town, embarking on an unbeaten streak that would include victories over Princeton, Yale, St. Lawrence, Colgate, UMass, and UNH; and ties with Cornell and Clarkson. That roll (10-straight games as VQ went to press) would earn the Catamounts a #11 national ranking.

Beyond the Minnesota-Duluth upset, the highlight of the Catamount winning streak was the November 27 game against the University of New Hampshire, ranked #6 in the nation coming into the match at Gutterson. Trailing by one goal with a minute to go, the Cats scored twice to win the game in regulation. For many of the UVM faithful in the fieldhouse that night, the rally was one of the most exciting moments in Catamount hockey history.

Though great team play has been key to the team's resurgence, several standouts have earned conference and national accolades for their performances. Freshman Torrey Mitchell, whose winning goal with one-second left in the UNH game completed a hat trick for the evening, took the ECAC Rookie of the Week award three times. Joe Fallon, also a freshman, has quickly emerged as one of college hockey’s top goaltenders. Fallon’s outstanding play has earned him two ECAC Goalie of the Week honors, one nod from the conference as Rookie of the Week, and the National Defensive Player of the Week award.

Tom Brennan, dean of America East men’s basketball coaches, told an overflow crowd at a November 4 press conference that he will retire at the end of this season, ending his 19-year coaching career at UVM. “It’s a very happy time for me, except for the fact that I’ve got to leave seven kids behind,” Brennan said. “Whenever you go, you have to leave somebody behind. I’ve been very, very lucky, very blessed.”

Brennan, who was hired in 1986 as the 14th head coach in the 105-year history of the basketball program, said the timing is right for him personally and for the program. The seven seniors on the 2004-2005 team have compiled the winningest record in school history, having posted three consecutive 20-plus win seasons while leading the Catamounts to a first-ever NCAA tournament in 2002-2003 and again last season.

Brennan’s team got down to the task of sending their coach off in style by giving the University of Kansas all they could handle in their season-opening game. Playing on KU’s home court, Vermont led by four points with 4:30 to go in the game before the Jayhawks came on strong to pull away in the final three minutes for a 68-61 victory. The team’s early season exploits earned them a #32 national ranking from the AP and a #7 spot in the Mid-Major Top 25. Many in the national sports media also boarded the UVM bandwagon as extensive feature stories on Brennan, Coppenrath and fellow Catamounts appeared in Sports Illustrated and ESPN Magazine.