Across the Portage Canal from Houghton is Hancock’s Finlandia University, a DIII liberal arts school of 555 students competing in the CCSA for the third season.
The Lions have a half-dozen athletes that are gaining experience, said head coach Chris Schmidt, a former skier at Michigan Tech. “We’ve been able to convert a few cross country runners and students from the general student body,” said Schmidt.
Leading the team is sophomore Heidi Butler, who skied for her high school team in Hoyt Lakes, Minn. “Her heart is in the right place and she’s motivated and dedicated to the sport,” said Schmidt. “That makes coaching the program a lot more enjoyable, having athletes that are giving it their all. She’s the one skier who didn’t start from scratch.”
Nora Hyrkas, a senior from nearby Calumet, joins Butler on the women’s side. “She decided to join the ski team to enjoy her last semester at school. She’s definitely the best athlete I’ve had on the team so far,” said Schmidt. “She’s an excellent runner and is completely committed and has picked up (skiing) technique real quick. She’s the kind of athlete I wish had joined the team three years ago.”
Justin Nantelle, a junior from Crystal Falls, Mich., is another runner making the switch to skiing boards, though knee injuries have limited him to classic skiing thus far. “The one thing that a runner has going for them is that they have the mindset of how to train,” said Schmidt, whose team has the option of training on trails in Houghton, Hancock or Calumet. “A runner has the mentality to get out for a couple hours to train every day.”
Houghton’s Stephen Bosio, Adam Huey of Folsom, Calif., and Fred Knoch from Madison, Wisc., round out the men’s side. In the future, Schmidt hopes to recruit athletes from Minnesota and Michigan and expand the team to full squads of six men and six women.
Due to race cancellations and minimal time on snow, Finlandia has not yet competed this season but plans to race at Northland College – weather permitting - on Jan. 7.
The CCSA’s expansion has been a positive move, he said. “I hope we’re competitive with some of the new programs like Northland and St. Scholastica,” said Schmidt. “At least now we’ve got a broader range of abilities in the conference, which will make it more interesting, especially for those at the bottom end. Having skiers within reach will help everybody improve.”