A Mainer for most of his life, Tim Whiton jumped on the chance to take his first college head coaching job back in his home state. It wasn’t just the chance to move back to New England that snagged his attention. As Whiton heads to the University of Maine Presque Isle (UMPI), he is also excited about trying to build up a program that has seen four other head coaches come and go in the last ten years.
“Honestly, if you are a college skier and you like to ski and you like to train — and you actually like to ski, not just ski race — there is really no better place to be,” Whiton said. “You have two world-class facilities, one within five minutes, the other within 45 minutes. You have skiing six-plus months of the year, that’s unbeatable any place in New England. Long term, we are definitely looking at building that program to be competitive nationally.”
Joey Bard, an UMPI alum himself, left as head coach this spring after two years with the program. Last season was a success for the team; the men took third place as a team in the 10 k classic at NCAA Regionals at Bates College, including a third-place finish by Connor Hrynuk, on a particularly warm and sloppy day.
“I know that day was sort of an anomaly, but having talked to some of my other sources in Maine, those guys are definitely really talented and definitely have been putting the work in,” Whiton said.
“So hopefully results similar to that will be a little more consistent next year.”
But UMPI often lands near the bottom of the results sheet at Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association carnivals. They have no alpine team, which immediately means the Owls have only half the opportunity to score points. Last season, the team consisted of just six men and one woman, further hampering their ability to score points in the women’s races.
It’s also a question of results. In the last five years, just six Owls have landed on the EISA ranking list, and the only one who actually qualified for NCAA Championships – Eirik Fosnæs – transferred to the University of New Hampshire the following year.
So to build a program that is competitive nationally, Whiton has to do several things. One is to get more skiers. With last season’s sole female team member, Lydia Streinz, graduating, an immediate focus is to grow the roster.
“We have two or three [women] who will definitely be there as freshmen, and a couple others I’m reaching out to right now to try to convince them to commit,” Whiton explained. “And a couple other boys. So the team will automatically be bigger than last year, and younger. Right off the bat, the goal is to fill some roster spots.”
The second goal, then, is to raise the program’s results.
“We want that program to be one of the best programs in the country,” Whiton said. “That’s a pretty lofty goal for any school in Maine to be saying that, especially Presque Isle, but the facilities are there.”
As one strategy, he will be recruiting from nearby – “certainly, we want to give opportunities to Maine skiers” – but also nationally. In years past the team had a strong contingent of athletes originally from the Midwest, but last season five of the seven members were from in-state. Whiton believes that the lure of lots of snow and world-class training should again draw student-athletes from outside the state.
To help skiers make progress in training and racing, Whiton will also rely on a sports physiology laboratory that his wife, who is currently finishing her PhD, will eventually set up at the University.
Whiton has had several bosses to learn the coaching ropes from. He graduated from Bates College in 2009, and since then has had two stints of assistant coaching at Bowdoin College under Nathan Alsobrook. He also coached the Gould Academy high school program in southern Maine, and while living in Bozeman, Montana, served as the assistant coach for Kristina Trygstad-Saari during her year of tenure at Montana State University (MSU).
“I was pretty psyched to start with the MSU team,” he said. “We had two first-team All Americans that year, it really made me realize how much I enjoy [coaching], and not to toot my own horn too much, but that I was good at it. It was an awesome opportunity. It was a bummer that Kristina didn’t stay because I was excited about working there for a couple of years.”
Whiton will be serving double duty as both ski coach and admissions officer, and he has already thought about why the school should seem attractive to potential athletes and students.
A big reason is economic.
“To be able to get a scholarship to ski out west, you have to be one of those athletes who is competitive with the European skiers,” Whiton said. “Or in the East, you have to be extremely competitive to ski at schools like Dartmouth or the University of Vermont, and/or you have to be able to afford it. Out-of-state tuition at the University of New Hampshire is over $40,000 per year, maybe $45,000. Presque Isle has really good academic programs, especially on the sports performance and athletic training side of things. It’s a great opportunity to save money and get a great education and then ski and ski race at a high level.”
At UMPI, annual tuition for a Maine resident is currently $6,600, for estimated total costs of just under $18,000; for out-of-state students, estimated total costs are around $21,500.
According to a university press release, U.S. News and World Report named UMPI among the 50 best regional colleges in the North, the 15 top public schools in the North, and the top ten regional colleges in the North in terms of graduates with the least debt.
“I can think of a number of Maine kids in the last ten years who I know specifically, who could have developed into decent skiers, top-30s or top-20s at the EISA level, but they wanted to go to school in Maine and they couldn’t afford [private universities],” Whiton explained. “So they went to University of Maine, and they stopped ski racing. There’s a lot of potential to create more opportunities for athletes.”
But even for without considering only those who already live in the state, Whiton also wants to tout northern Maine as a good place to put down roots (as he and his wife, Tara, are doing).
“The opportunities in rural Maine are great for young people,” he said. “There’s not necessarily those concrete jobs, but the lifestyle and the community, if you want to be outdoors and you want a strong cohesive community, that’s all there. Having lived in a lot of parts of the country and a lot of rural parts, you see rural America just bleeding people slowly, especially young people… [but] if someone wants to be creative, there are endless opportunities to start small businesses, to plug into your community and really build something long term. I’m sure you remember with Maine Winter Sports, their goal was to use skiing as an economic engine for northern Maine. It’s sort of the same situation. We are trying to show people, especially young people, the opportunities that are there and how great it really is.”
Whiton himself had one of his first experiences with serious ski training up in Maine’s Aroostook County, while he was still in high school.
“The summer I turned 16, right as Maine Winter Sports Center got started I went up there for about two months,” Whiton recalls. “Pete Vordenberg was there, Dave Stewart, Holly Brooks, Eli Brown. They were the coaches for the summer. It was a small group of us. Mostly Maine kids, but a few from the Midwest. That was my first big foray into training year round.”
Now, he will be leading young athletes towards senior-style training loads on that very same ground.
“It is kind of a full circle,” he laughed.