Sam Morse was a star-struck 11-year-old the last time Sugarloaf hosted the U.S. Alpine Championships in 2008.

“It was just really cool watching the best in the world throw down on my home hill,” he said. “I was one of those little kids screaming at Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn for an autograph. Now, I’m in the thing, which is pretty cool.”

The championships return to Sugarloaf on Wednesday with 18-year-old Morse one of the headliners. The top-ranked junior downhill skier in the country is winding down his first year on the U.S. National team with a return to his “home hill” and neighboring school, Carrabassett Valley Academy, which hopes to add him to its list of Olympic-medaling alumni.

Morse grew up seven minutes from the Sugarloaf parking lot. Although he returned home for several races this winter, his stays were short because he was one of two skiers in his age group named to the developmental national team last May. He spent the summer training with the national team, the fall skiing in South America and the Rockies, and the winter criss-crossing the Atlantic for International Ski Federation, North American Cup and European Cup races.

Five years at CVA (four as a student and one as a post-graduate athlete) helped prepare Morse for whatever challenge he would face on the slopes. He also had some help on what to expect when he wasn’t on skis. His older brother, Ben, preceded him at CVA and competed on the national team. Four years Sam’s elder, Ben spent one year on the team then enrolled at Dartmouth College, where he was captain of the ski team.

But taking on a full-time job, even one that is his passion — while his friends and CVA classmates were beginning college — required Morse to mature beyond anything he’d prepared for in Sugarloaf’s shadow.

“You grow up quick outside of the States,” he said. “You learn time management skills. You do your laundry. You learn to make adult decisions. You’re traveling all of the time. I think I could be a pretty good travel agent now.”

Some of the adult lessons were very sobering. On Jan. 5, two of Morse’s teammates on the Development Team, Bryce Astle and Ronnie Berlack, were killed in an avalanche while freeskiing in Austria.

Two days later, Morse finished 23rd in a European Cup race in Wengen, Switzerland, after starting 46th on one of the circuit’s most challenging tracks. While he and his deceased teammates weren’t close friends, the tragedy caused him to re-examine what he had been dedicating his life to for the previous seven months.

“There was a lot of emotion and passion in that event,” he said. “It really humbled me in knowing this is just a game. This is for fun.”

Morse credited his faith, which has always been at the center of his life, with helping him stay grounded through the ordeal. Both of his parents, Pam and Earle, are Baptist ministers who lead Sugarloaf Area Christian Ministry, located at the base of the mountain.

The past year with the national team exceeded Morse’s expectations. However, he isn’t guaranteed a spot on the 2015-16 team, and even if he does earn one — with two more years of junior eligibility remaining — he still has a long way to go to follow in the footsteps of Miller and compete for Olympic glory.

“Making the team is every ski racer kid’s dream come true, but it’s a step up the ladder,” said Morse, who has been accepted at Dartmouth and would study engineering there if he decides to enroll.

“As you slowly work your way up the ranks, you climb up one ladder and then you’re at the bottom of the next one. It’s exciting and it’s challenging,” he said.

A strong showing this week would help his chances of a second year on the national team. It helped last year when he finished in the top 30 in the slalom and giant slalom at Squaw Valley.

Morse has had some success at Sugarloaf recently and performed well in some of the biggest races on his schedule. He posted first- and second-place finishes in the FIS Super-G race at Sugarloaf on Feb. 24. He followed that with a 12th place in the downhill and two top-25 finishes in the Super-G and Alpine combined at the Junior World Ski Championships in Norway.

Last week, back in Carrabassett Valley, he was the top finisher among 18-year-olds, fourth among Americans and ninth overall, in a combined national championship and NorAm downhill race.

“I’m expected to perform on my home hill, so there’s definitely some pressure there,” he said.

That pressure is more internal than external, Morse admitted. But the external sources have increased since he caught the attention of the national team and North American skiing media last year.

With that attention comes comparisons to Miller, one of the most polarizing American skiers ever for his recklessness on and off the slopes.

“I think it’s fascinating, because in a lot of ways we’re really similar, and in a lot of ways, we’re not,” he said.

The similarities start with the CVA connection, which includes their coach, Chip Cochrane, and according to Morse, how they use his advice.

“We both have a similar approach on race day,” he said. “We’re both very confident in what we do. Your coaches are there to give you suggestions. But at the end of the day, it’s your decision.”

The comparisons diverge from there, Morse said.

“In terms of how Bode and I approach life, I’ve probably lived a little cleaner,” he said with a laugh.

Last November, Morse sat next to Miller, of Franconia, N.H., at an autograph session in Colorado. The two chatted briefly, but if anything, the encounter reminded him that he’s still not that far removed from the star-struck kid watching his heroes throw down on his home hill.

“Here are all of these little kids coming up to him, and they have no idea who this guy sitting next to him is,” he said. “They’re just so excited to be getting Bode Miller’s signature, and I’m just so excited to get to sit next to Bode Miller.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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