PLYMOUTH, N.H. - The ski racing season opens for Plymouth State College this weekend when the Panthers head to western Massachusetts for the initial races of the 2001 campaign.
The Panther men's and women's squads will compete at the UMass Winter Carnival Saturday and Sunday at Berkshire East Mountain. The two slalom races are slated for Saturday and giant slalom for Sunday. PSC will host the Plymouth State Winter Carnival next weekend (Jan. 27-28) at Waterville Valley (N.H.).
Led by 14th year head coach Kim Bownes, the Panthers are looking to continue as two of the top collegiate teams in the nation. The men's squad has won four consecutive Eastern Regional titles and have finished in the top six at the US Collegiate Ski Association National Championships all four years, including runner-up in 1998 and 2000. The women have finished runner-up at the Eastern Regionals four years in a row since winning back-to-back titles in 1995 and 1996, and have three straight Top 5 finishes at the Nationals.
Bownes believes the Panthers will have strong teams again this season. The men's team returns its top five skiers from last year's team, while the women's squad is expected to be even stronger than the 2000 unit.
"We would like both teams to repeat as conference champions," said Bownes, "and place in the top three at the Eastern Regionals. I believe we can win the regionals, but anything can happen. I know our men's team has a heavy focus on doing well at nationals. With the team we have, they really want to challenge perennial champion Sierra Nevada College for the title."
Leading the group of returnees to the men's team are senior captain Fred DeBaets (St. Sauveur, Quebec) and junior Tim Mitchell (Ashland, Mass). DeBaets finished first during the regular season and second overall at the Eastern Regionals last winter, and earned All-America honors in both the slalom and giant slalom at the nationals. Mitchell was fifth during the regular season and third at the regionals before earning All-America honors in the GS.
"Fred has been one of our best skiers for four years, and Tim has been one of the strongest skiers in the east during the pre-season. He has been the fastest in all of New Hampshire in Eastern Cup races and USSA races."
PSC also welcomes back three veterans starters -- sophomore Justin Parent (Sanbornville, NH), junior EJ Cheney (Bethel, Maine) and senior Jake Manseau (Henniker, N.H.). Cheney and Parent were top 10 finishers in the conference combined standings during the regular season, and Manseau excelled in the GS.
"Everyone has been strong during training," said Bownes. "We have as good of depth as we've ever had. Pretty much anyone can beat anyone else at any time."
Bownes is also pleased with the strong group of newcomers, led by freshmen Brent Grygiel (Windham, Maine) and Garrett Lashar (Kingfield, Maine).
Plymouth State has one of the top skiers in the country on the women's side, with captain Anda Curuta (Sibiu, Romania) back for her senior season. She has been a dominant skier her entire collegiate career, winning three consecutive Eastern Regional titles and earning All-America honors all three years. She finished third in the overall last season after placing fifth in the GS and third in the slalom, and could challenge for a national title this winter.
Curuta has also made a name for herself beyond the collegiate level. She competed in the 1999 World Championships, and has fared very well this winter in several Eastern Cup races, which includes the best ski racers in East.
"Anda gives us quite an advantage," said Bownes. "The team finishes are based on the combined times of the top three skiers, and her times are so much better than everyone else's, and that gives our team an excellent chance at winning."
Joining Curuta as leaders of PSC's women's team should be sophomore Cher Murphy (East Northport, NY) and freshman Whitney Swaffield (Wolfeboro, N.H.). Murphy finished fourth in the conference during the regular season and second at the Eastern Regionals, placing fifth in the slalom and winning the regional GS title. Swaffield, who was also a starter on PSC's NCAA-bound field hockey team, comes in with excellent skiing credentials.
The other skiers who should be strong for PSC's women's team include senior Tara Eretzian (Turner, Maine), sophomore Janine Iannillo (Monroe, N.Y.) and freshman Erin Reilly (Marion, Conn.).
Both Panther squads will be competing in New Hampshire the next two weekends, skiing at Waterville Valley on Jan. 27-28 and at Loon Mountain on Feb. 3-4. The Eastern Regionals are at Waterville on Feb. 25-26, and the USCSA Nationals are at Bogus Basin, Idaho, on Mar. 7-10.