By Zach Smith
The Florida Southern water ski team has opened up its season in style and is looking to build upon its success to win a national title.
The Moccasins are coming off an impressive second place finish at the National Collegiate Water Ski Association Eastern Regional. The men finished second in the slalom. The men also finished third in the trick and jump competitions. The women finished second in the slalom and jump, and were third in the trick competition.
The University of Alabama scraped past FSC on the final day of competition at regionals to take first place by a margin of just 80 points. Florida Southern has been the regional runner-up in each of the past three seasons but is hoping to score the number one spot this year. FSC’s high finish in the regional competition earned the team a spot in the 2016 NCWSA National Championships.
Head coach Curtis Rabe feels that regionals were a big confidence booster and he also believes his team is more than capable to bring a championship back to Lakeland.
“It gives us a ton of confidence. We barely lost to them and we had some hiccups along the way that could’ve pushed us over the top. If they’re the number one team in the country, I am very confident that we can pull this off if everyone skis to their full potential,” Rabe said.
With the stage set, the Mocs now have their eyes set on winning that national championship, which started on Oct. 13 at Imperial Lakes in El Centro, Calif. Florida Southern will be entering the championships ranked second nationally, trailing only Alabama.
This season, the team has been without key skiers on both the men and women’s teams, but both teams did well to bring on great replacements like freshman Allie Nicholson.
Nicholson was born to ski. The Tennessee native was born into a family fully immersed in the sport. Her mother and father were on the lake a number of times in competitive tournaments and her brother, Zane Nicholson, won two national titles in slalom. Allie Nicholson won national titles in slalom at the age of 10 and the age of 13.
Thus far this season, the slalom specialist has performed extremely well. Nicholson won the slalom competition at regionals with a score of 99.0 (3.00 buoys at 38 feet off) to earn 300 points. As the team enters the biggest tournament of the year, Nicholson isn’t cracking under the pressure.
“I’ve been competing in water skiing for 11 years. The team aspect, kind of having a lot of people counting on you versus just my family sitting on the shore pulling for me is where the pressure comes in, but at the same time I am used to the competitive aspects of the sport,” Nicholson said.
The Mocs took second place at the NCWSA National Championships last year. Both teams finished second overall behind Louisiana Lafayette. The second place finish was the team’s highest ever finish at the National Championships in program history, but Rabe and his team left feeling that they still had more to achieve in his second year at the healm.
“First place is the golden key. It is what I strive for each and every day,” Rabe said. “Second place is great and something to be proud of, but the very next day it was back to work and let’s take care of business.”
Rabe joined the Mocs after the team suffered a huge blow with the death of their head coach Roger Skalko before the start of last season. Rabe replaced Skalko and brought a great deal of experience on the water. He served as a judge and event official, and was also a member of a gold-medal winning United States team at the 2014 Water Ski World Championships.
Rabe’s arrival has significantly improved the team’s chances to win at nationals. Junior Cole McCormick said that Skalko specialized in slalom, whereas Rabe specialized in tricks and jump. McCormick said that the addition of Rabe has only bettered the skiers over the past 2 years, as Rabe’s different coaching style has been able to push the skiers to be better all-around skiers.
However, Rabe had never coached at the collegiate level. In turn, there were a number of growing pains as Rabe and his skiers collectively worked together to install a new culture and style, but Horton said it only brought the team closer together.
“There were quite a few rough patches at first,” senior Ellie Rae Horton said. “In the grand scheme of things, it united us more as a team because the team had to step and we had show Curtis the way instead of Curtis showing us the way. Even though there were frustrations, it ended up making us more of a team and a family.”
Horton had a second-place finish in the jumps and a third-place finish in the tricks competition at regionals, and has witnessed the team transform from a group of individuals to a family.
The sense of unity and family is not foreign to this team. Horton said the skiers have not forgotten the lasting impact that Skalko had on this team as they enter the biggest competition of the year.
“He kept us passionate about the sport. Roger consistently reminded us why we do it and that’s out of love,” said Horton. “He made us all a family. So I think that is the biggest impact that he had on us that still carries into the team today.”
Results for the national championships will be available following the competition’s conclusion at www.fscmocs.com/sports/waterski/index.