Snowboarders, skiers land first-place finishes at USCSA season-opening events in N.C.
Liberty University’s men’s and women’s ski and snowboard teams opened the 2023 USCSA regular season with first-place finishes in six of the eight events — all but second-place showings to the University of Virginia in women’s skiing — in Saturday’s Rail Jam and Sunday’s Slopestyle competitions at Beech Mountain, N.C.
“I had high expectations going into the year’s first contests on snow for our athletes, and I was really happy with their performances, even from a few girls on the team who have never competed and don’t have as much experience on snow,” Head Coach Isaac Gibson said. “Everything came out even better than expected.”
The two days of competitive riding and skiing drew a few new schools from the Southeast Region, from as far south as the University of Florida, which had men’s and women’s snowboarders make the nine-hour trek to North Carolina. The Gators will be traveling 12 hours over the next three weekends to compete at USCSA events in Virginia, including the Feb. 4-5 Big Air (7 p.m.) and Rail Jam (noon) competitions at the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre (LMSC).
“In men’s snowboarding, we definitely saw a higher level of competition widespread,” Gibson said, noting that there was a total of 54 riders in Sunday’s Slopestyle event. “Whereas in previous years, when there would be one or two athletes from other schools in our conference that could challenge our riders, this year, there were probably four or five athletes in higher levels of competition, which was good to see. That is going to push our athletes to get better and prepare them for (the March 5-11 USCSA Nationals at Mammoth Mountain, Calif.), which is awesome.”
Additionally, Virginia Tech has added a freestyle men’s ski team this year, and several of its team members traveled to Snowflex to train alongside the Flames throughout the fall semester.
“Now, they are competing against us and are definitely pushing our men’s ski team,” Gibson said. “It is awesome to see that competition and for their skiers be able to sharpen ours.”
Clear skies and cool, crisp conditions on Saturday set the stage for a Rail Jam in which the Flames and Lady Flames showcased their strong suit, having benefitted from Snowflex’s rail features to practice on year-round.
“On the men’s ski side, our guys absolutely killed it in the Rail Jam competition, taking the first four positions,” Gibson said, noting that the Flames were led by two freshmen — Justin Maier (first place, 69.0) from Vermont and Loken Siebert (second, 64.66) from Wisconsin, followed by sophomore Coby Liebelt (third, 62.3) and senior Max Ozanne (fourth, 61.3).
As a team, Liberty dominated with its 6-point total, followed by Virginia Tech (24), JMU (41), and UVA (47).
Maier (70.67) and Siebert (63.0) placed first and fourth, respectively, in the men’s skiing Slopestyle event, with Virginia Tech’s Spencer Ekeroth (65.33) and Trevor Keller (64.33) taking second and third. In the team totals, the Flames held off the Hokies, 11-15, as well as UVA (35), JMU (43), Duke (61), and UNC (64).
As was to be expected, Liberty senior Jesse Mast (69.66) took first place in the men’s snowboarding Rail Jam, followed closely by sophomore Tate Gardener (65.66). That 1-2 finish helped the Flames win the team competition with 7 total points, followed by Appalachian State (21), Lees-McRae (30), and UVA (50).
The men’s snowboard slopestyle competition featured a tight 1-2-3 Liberty sweep by sophomore Jayden Horrocks (74.3), freshman Owen Gratto (73.00), and Mast (71.67), as the Flames (6 points) dominated ASU (23), L-MC (31), UVA (48), and others.
“Jayden taking first place in Slopestyle was something I didn’t really expect,” Gibson said. “I knew he had the skills necessary, but this is really only his second season competing. He’s had great improvement, and it has been awesome to see his progression to where he was able to show the consistency needed to win the contest.”
In women’s snowboarding, senior Emory Orlando (72.0) and sophomore Emmaus Rich (68.33) placed first and second, respectively, in Slopestyle after Rich (50.33) edged Orlando (47.0) for first place in the Rail Jam. As a team, the Lady Flames won Slopestyle with 8 points, distancing themselves from Appalachian State (14), UVA (22), UNC (45), Duke (52), Florida (75) and others, and the Rail Jam with 7 points, followed by ASU (16), UVA (34), Duke (41), and more.
“Both Emory and Emmaus would say they have room to improve, but the both had enough consistency to lead out the field,” Gibson said, noting that Hannah Walder, a freshman from California, finished fifth in both Rail Jam (33.66) and Slopestyle (41.0). “It was our first contest of the year, and we definitely have room to grow, and would like to perform at a higher level by the time we get to regionals and nationals.”
Liberty only had two women’s skiers available to compete as sophomore reigning USCSA Nationals Rail Jam gold-medalist Lauren Harder is still recovering from a fall semester injury, but they landed first-place individual finishes out of 13 competitors in both events, with Isabella Tinney (38.3) winning the Rail Jam, followed by Josie Rich (36), who also came in first in Slopestyle (48). In the team scores, UVA nipped the Lady Flames by a 15-17 margin in Rail Jam, followed by UNC (24) and Duke (39) and a 14-17 edge in Slopestyle, ahead of Duke (25) and UNC (30).
After hosting the Feb. 4-5 events at Snowflex, Liberty will travel to Wintergreen Resort in nearby Nelson County, where it practices regularly, for competitions on Feb. 11-12 before going to USCSA’s Southeast Regionals at Seven Springs (Pa.) on Feb. 18-19.
By Ted Allen/Staff Writer