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Ski teams struggle for slope time during warm winter

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Making snow at Blue Hills Ski Area in Canton last month.

On a recent sleety afternoon, ski teams from high schools in several suburbs south of Boston took a two-hour bus ride to compete at Ski Ward in Shrewsbury. The race was on, fingers crossed.

“It was a go. They had the snow,’’ said Steve Traister, athletic director at Milton High School, describing the relief he felt last Thursday when he zoomed in on slope conditions via webcam.

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“It wasn’t perfect, but we didn’t have to cancel,’’ he said, before adding, “my God, though, it’s pouring rain out here in Milton - what’s it doing there?’’

This is a snow-challenged ski season for high school teams in the Massachusetts Bay Ski League East, which includes, among others, competitors from Dedham, Duxbury, Easton, Milton, and Westwood. Lack of snow shut down December practices for many area teams, all of which practice at nearby Blue Hills in Canton or at the higher-elevation Ski Ward.

Alpine races recently kicked off for the season - and skiers, with only a half-dozen competitive meets scheduled in January and part of February, want to see the inches, now.

The problem is that Boston-area ski conditions keep falling on the extreme end of the snow spectrum: either too little snow or, as happened last season, too much snow, said local ski coaches. A moderate and steady supply has not been part of the equation in recent years.

“There was so much snow on a race day last year that school was canceled, and so was the race,’’ said Traister. “Every year with ski, it’s a kind of a crap shoot what you get.’’

Traister’s skiers have lost about six ski slope practices so far this season, replaced with a surplus of dry-land drills in the school’s gym and hallways, he said.

Oliver Ames High School in Easton was among the determined teams willing to take the long bus ride to race in freezing rain in Shrewsbury on Jan. 12.

“The kids are going to be skiing on slush,’’ said Oliver Ames High School athletic director James Von Euw on the day of the race last week. “We take it as it comes and sort of play it by ear. They are willing to manage a longer day with the bus ride if it means they get the snow.’’

There are 44 students on the ski team. The ski meet was originally scheduled for Blue Hills in Canton, but the tenaciously warm temperatures forced it west to what some desperate Boston-area skiers call the Interstate 495 Snow Belt.

“I think eventually the snow is going to catch up with us,’’ Von Euw said, noting the team’s next race is on Jan. 26.

Is there an upside to the lack of snow?

Yes, said Michael Davis, head coach of the ski team at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood. For New England’s skiers, unfavorable weather is a point of pride. It gives them an edge, makes them tougher, even if, so far, this is a “bear of a year,’’ he said.

Davis’s skiers are racing down narrow trails three-quarters the usual size, on harder and icier snow than normal as hot-and-cold temperature shifts create incessant thawing and refreezing - but so what?

“The training is harder, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,’’ said Davis, noting that geographic locations with fabled soft snow, such as Utah’s Park City, don’t tend to produce the same well-steeled skiers.

This season’s conditions are probably toughest on the novice skiers who lack time on the slopes, said Michael O’Connor, director of athletics at Ursuline Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in Dedham.

O’Connor described alpine ski team culture as a sport focused on success during individual timed races, with speed and prowess of the essence. These skills are developed during team practices but, for star athletes, truly honed over years during family ski outings in Vermont or New Hampshire.

“This weather has really kind of done a job on our beginner skiers, who don’t have that opportunity to go up north to ski on the weekends,’’ said O’Connor, adding that all of the team’s December practices were canceled due to lack of snow at Blue Hills.

This year’s snow situation is almost comically hard to gauge, he said, describing his misguided biggest fear from last season. He worried that the school’s fledgling ski team, with its newly hired coach, would be stymied by powder-free conditions.

“Well, we ended up canceling races because of all the snow,’’ said O’Connor. “Now look, we have the opposite problem. I think people aren’t too upset. They recognize that, hey, now there’s no snow, what can you do?’’

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.
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