Vail Daily winter season preps sports awards
Eagle Valley’s St. John wins Athlete of the Year and Vail Mountain School’s Florence wins Coach of the Year
After winning all but one race in the regular season and sweeping classic and skate state titles by 45 seconds 25 seconds, respectively, Eagle Valley High School’s Ferguson St. John is the Vail Daily’s winter prep sports athlete of the year.
“I’m honored — it’s really cool,” St. John said upon hearing of his recognition.
“I’m extremely proud of Ferguson regardless of the award,” head coach Paul Steiner stated. “He is a great teammate, a leader and very much deserving.”
St. John’s offseason pole speed improvements enabled him to double-pole the Snow Mountain Ranch state course en route to the classic technique title.
“Ferguson is willing to hone his technique while continuously extending his physical boundary (to) new normals,” Steiner lauded.
“(He) makes no excuses and does not shy away from putting in the effort required. The kid is tough and a great young man — that’s pretty darn awesome.”
Another key to his senior season surge was sharpening his mental skills. During his junior year, St. John knew he could win most races, but this year, it was a firm expectation. In his lone loss, a late-season surprise second to Sullivan Middaugh in Steamboat Springs, he “mentally fell apart.” The following weekend, he locked in his focus for two gun-to-tape wins.
“The mental side is huge in this sport,” St. John said.
St. John first learned the sport from his dad, Farnham, a Nordic ski instructor. “I’ve been classic skiing as long as I can remember,” he said, noting that he picked up skate skiing in high school.
That cross-country skiing uniquely elicits the joy of freely soaking in one’s outdoor surroundings was something his dad taught him to savor. It is, along with the team, Ferguson’s favorite aspects. “They motivate me — we just have so much fun together. We’re friends outside of skiing, too,” he said.
This spring, he and his buddies ventured up Shrine Pass for an overdistance adventure ski.
“We did it in the dark; it was a little icy and scary this time,” he said, noting their fall escapade up the same route was powdery and slow. Last Saturday, he and teammate Lukas Bergsten went to Leadville for the Equionox 24-hour ski challenge. “It should be a good time,” St. John said before attempting his 200-kilometer goal, which he surpassed by 24k. The camaraderie between his athletes, bonded by the lifelong sport and “Nordic lifestyle,” was Steiner’s intention all along.
“The whole crew is like family — not like, but is family,” he said. “This big fun ride is about taking the kids to the next level with whatever their goals (are).”
Though his selfless coach is a “close second,” St. John’s hero will always be his dad, who came to Colorado in 1998 from Minnesota and originally, the United Kingdom.
“He has taught me so much,” he said. In addition to passing along competitive genes to his son, the elder St. John has a penchant for offering technique instruction. The two analyze videos and photos of Ferguson after races, looking to fine-tune all of the most intricate details of an enterprise known for its outrageously wide-ranging physiological demands while being technically fickle to boot. “He’ll be like ‘Oh, see you’re shin angles on this slope aren’t quite sharp enough,’ and stuff like that.”
In terms of role models, his Eagle Valley mentor has left a sizeable impact, too. In addition to instilling a culture of competitiveness in a locale filled with fans who occasionally fail to distinguish classic and skate disciplines, Steiner has poured every cent, literally, into the team.
“He’s had the same tires on his truck since I was a freshmen, and they’re completely bald. Whenever we try to give him money, he just spends it on the Nordic team,” St. John said, joking that one thing he learned from his coach was that you can drive on the same pair of tires “forever.”
“Nothing can replace experiences, great experiences. Nothing can replace being a small part of their lives,” the coach said in defense. “When they’re willing to ski anywhere, anytime, you just do it — what more can you ask for? The kids and families are great — I’m forever grateful.”
The anecdote speaks to a more poignant reality for St. John: an awareness of his coach’s generous giving to the team, and a desire to reciprocate. Though talented enough to compete in club events, St. John eschewed Junior National qualifiers this season in order to pursue a Colorado High School Ski League team title with his Devils comrades, which they won, earning their leader CHSSL’s 2022 Nordic Coach of the Year award.
The coach argues the transcendent value inherent to skiing supercedes individual or corporate accolades. “Having courage to face challenges, create new normals, make positive impact and enjoy Nordic skiing for life — effort requires no talent!” he said in relaying his philosophy, which St. John so fully embodies.
Next year, St. John will either head to Western State University or to New Zealand, where his mom is from, to study mechanical engineering. Even if collegiate skiing isn’t in the picture, the sport is sure to have a place in his life.
Steiner said of the athlete, “In his words: ‘I do it for fun.’ My hope is that he’ll continue to do it for fun and ignite the passion for Nordic in others.”
“My hope is that Ferguson and Lukas and Brody take advantage of their youth and embark on many, many fun adventures together.”
Athlete of the Year
Fall 2021 – Sam Blair, Eagle Valley High School
Winter 2022 – Ferguson St. John, Eagle Valley High School
Coach of the Year
Fall 2021 – Dave Cope, Battle Mountain soccer
Winter 2022 – Caleb Florence, Vail Mountain School basketball
Vail Mountain’s Caleb Florence wins winter sports coach of the year
At most schools, committing to the now 11-months-a-year, AAU-laden prep basketball circuit means abstaining from one particularly risky winter activity: skiing. At Vail Mountain School, simultaneous competition in both sports is common practice for Caleb Florence’s key starters. He has taken the perceived challenge in building a basketball-rich culture in stride.
“By building a relationship and rapport with my players and cultivating a specific role within the team, I find individuals feel far more recognized, valued and ideally possess a greater understanding of their unique specialized role within the team,” Florence said. “The deeper the connections we can forge between players before the season begins, the more our coaching staff can push, challenge and ultimately overcome as a collective unit during the season.”
In guiding the Gore Rangers to an 18-4 record and no. 4 seed in the class 2A state tournament in just his third season at the helm, he is deservedly the Vail Daily’s winter prep sports coach of the year.
Florence arrived at the school as an upper-level math teacher in 2018 and started coaching middle school hoops and high school lacrosse. In 2019, he took over the varsity team with Andrew Behrendt. Initially, they worked to simply build excitement around playing hoops, emphasizing fundamentals and togetherness on both ends of the floor. Instilling competitive confidence came next.
“I strongly believe that any team that is fundamentally sound, mentally tough and unselfish will have a chance to be successful and win,” he stated.
Entering his second season, Florence felt able to challenge his athletes more, and they responded by upsetting no. 1-seeded Vail Christian en route to the class 2A District 5 Tournament championship. At 12-9, it felt more Cinderella than well-oiled machine. Still, the intentional shift towards focusing on player’s individual needs against the backdrop of the program’s overall picture was working.
“I ask my players everyday, ‘how can I get one-percent better today?’ in an effort to cultivate a learning and growth mindset,“ Florence said of the macro-to-micro ideological pivot.
Carter Wilson, Florence’s high school coach, fostered a deep respect, trust and desire to improve among his players, traits his protege has emulated.
“As a coach, I strongly believe that players, and more generally young men, need role models, not critics, in their lives,” Florence said.
“It is my hope that through mentoring, consistency and care, players will organically uphold the standards that they know our program expects of them, and a cascading and self-perpetuating culture of excellence will persist, one year to the next, pushing these players and students to be the best versions of themselves each and every day.“