Nordic ski success revolves around team fun

Irondequoit HS Nordic ski success revolves around team fun
Posted on 02/08/2021

When Ann Burns took over as head coach of Irondequoit High School’s Nordic Ski program in 2016, about 14 student-athletes were on the squad. Fast forward to this winter and the Eagles numbered 28 and took 15 skiers (9 girls, 6 boys) – their largest contingent ever – to the Section V Championships on Saturday.

How has the IHS squad doubled in size?

“She does a lot of recruiting,” said senior Claire Steckley, a sixth-year product of Burns’ sales pitch handing out flyers in the cafeteria at Dake Junior High School. “I had already been downhill skiing. I thought it’d be similar so I’d try out. … It was way different and so much harder than I thought, but the memories (made) with friends made it all better.”

The girls were in fourth after the 7.5K Classic (distance) race at sectionals and the boys sixth after the 10K Classic race. (sectional finishes won’t be decided until today’s relays at Bristol Mountain are complete).  Sophomore standout Lucie Graziano, a team co-captain with Steckley, was 12th overall and Steckley 15th on Saturday. Graziano qualified for states even though due to COVID-19 there won’t be a state competition. Senior Michael Metzler, a team captain with Zach Roussie and Michael Wagner, was tops among the boys in 26th place.

The tight-knit Eagles have a ton of fun, too, whether at practice or on road trips and that makes it appealing to newcomers, said Steckley. “One of the most fun teams I’ve ever been on,” said Steckley, who also played field hockey. “That’s what pushes me through it, laughing at practice every day with my teammates, the bus rides, making jokes – it’s just such a fun group and that’s why I love it.”

The spirit also comes from the veteran coach and her assistants, Skylar Brunner and Liam Mooney. They’re all IHS alumni, too. Burns graduated in 1976, Brunner in 2005 and Mooney in 2016. Burns was an assistant coach for nine years before taking over in 2016. “She recruited me when I was a freshman, over the summer,” Mooney said. “She has the knowledge and the passion. She just attracts everybody.”

Burns actually didn’t ski while at IHS. She was a swimmer and runner (she also swam in college). She began to fall in love with Nordic, also known as cross country skiing, while in graduate school. All three of her children – Alex (now 30), Julia (27) and Graham (25) – skied for IHS, but the family affair in the program extends beyond her own. “We’ve had a lot of repeat siblings,” Burns said.

The Eagles even benefitted from COVID-19. Roussie’s sister, Meghan, a freshman, had planned to go out for the IHS musical but the pandemic changed that and she decided to try skiing, Burns said. Annalee Capuano, a two-time All-Greater Rochester selection in cross country, also tried Nordic for the first time. The camaraderie works both ways. Metzler, who is headed to Mercyhurst College to study cyber security, tried cross country last fall, then recruited senior Connor Richardson to try Nordic.

The cross country running/skiing correlation is a natural. Burns often recruits runners, who learn quickly it’s a lot tougher to ski fast than run well. “It’s pretty technical,” Metzler said. “You need to time everything and find a good rhythm and stay with it.”

Steckley said the difficulty shouldn’t discourage newcomers. “Honestly, it doesn’t take much experience,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work and willingness to learn … it’s a lot of technique, so just coming to practice every day and giving it all your effort (is important).”

Making it fun, ultimately, is the best recruiting tool, Burns said. She often has her athletes “roller ski” around the gymnasiums at Iroquois and Rogers middle schools to expose youngsters to what Nordic skiing may look like.

The diversity on the team makes it appealing, too. The girls squad has 3 seniors, 2 juniors, 7 sophomores and 5 freshmen; the boys has 8 seniors, 1 junior and 2 sophomores. “There are so many different people from all different grades, all different backgrounds,” Steckley said, “I think a lot of people tell their friends (to join) and (Burns) does a lot of recruiting.”

Her coaching staff is diverse, too. Brunner is African-American in a sport that lacks many coaches and competitors of color, and Mooney is a name fans of IHS ski may recall. He has transitioned from being Fiona Mooney, as a star skier at IHS who finished second in sectionals as a senior and eighth at states. “Best skier in Irondequoit history,” Burns said. Mooney helped as an assistant coach while attending Monroe Community College, couldn’t continue while studying for two years at Syracuse University, but returned this season while doing graduate work remotely.

“Liam is very well-respected for his skiing ability but also what he brings to the program and how he accepts all of our students,” Burns said. “No one blinks,” at his transition, Burns said. “I think they embrace the diversity.” 

 - Jeff DiVeronica, WICSD Director of Public Information