Imagine if homework consisted of operating chainsaws, wielding axes and log rolling.
That’s exactly the case for members of Morrisville’s woods sports team.
Now wrapping up its second year, the woods sports team is an academic special project where students participate in a traditional woods skills course that teaches the operation, safety and preventative maintenance of traditional tools used by lumberjacks and lumberjills. Their studies involve instruction via hands-on operation of equipment such as chainsaws, crosscut saws, bucksaws, axes and Peavey tools.
Members also participate in intercollegiate lumberjacking competitions across the northeast, traveling to approximately three events each semester and competing under the name “MSC woodsmen.” One men’s team and one women’s team with six members each and a “Jack and Jill” co-ed team consisting of three men and three women all compete as a unit at events, which are held in singles, doubles and triples format.
Students on Morrisville’s team hail from a variety of majors and backgrounds, with some having little to no experience with traditional woods skills. Most, however, find a common theme as soon as they join the team.
“One practice and I was hooked,” said Zach Davis, a natural resources and conservation student and three-year veteran of the team.
“I went to one practice and the next thing you know, I fell in love with it and made it a priority,” echoed two-year team member Emily French, a senior majoring in human performance and health promotion.
Some practice sessions, which are held in the open field behind the college’s aquaculture center, last for hours as members work to perfect their timing and technique in preparation for a variety of events ranging from cross-cut sawing and wood chopping to axe throwing and fire building.
During the winter months, a day’s practice may consist solely of clearing the field of snow or processing wood just to be able to get in a session the following day.
“We’ll spend an hour trying to clean up wood just so we can chop for the next day because it’s frozen,” French said. “That’s just what being a lumberjack is all about.”
That gritty mentality stems from the team’s volunteer head coach Seth Carsten, an MSC instructional support assistant whose lumberjacking days date back to the 1970s. A former professional woodsmen’s competitor, Carsten remains an avid fan of the sport. As he notices the growth of woods sports at the collegiate level around the region, he sees the value of having the program at Morrisville.
“We’re using it as a recruiting tool,” he said. “It’s a special interest and extracurricular draw for students.”
The growth of Morrisville’s team has been rapid, nearly doubling in roster size since its inception thanks to its welcoming environment that encourages students of all skill levels to join.
“People on the team are absolutely awesome,” exclaimed Mason Muoio, a freshman majoring in natural resources and conservation. “It was so easy to come here and not feel judged. Everybody wants to work with you.”
Muoio and fellow classmate Andrew O’Connell have joined the rest of the team in spreading the word around campus to help the program prosper.
“We’re always looking for more people to join,” said O’Connell, whose swinging abilities as a lifelong baseball player have helped him become a top chopper for the team. “You come out, we see what you can do, and we see where you can best help the team.”
This continued enthusiasm from team members, both old and new, played a significant role in Teresa Link’s decision to return to Morrisville following a year away while attending ranger school.
“I came back because of the faculty and the wood sports team,” explained Link, an inaugural team member who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in renewable resources technology. “I couldn't leave a team I put so much work into.”
Along with bestowing his immense knowledge of woods sports to the team, Carsten has supplied his personal equipment, finances and countless hours of time to the program. He’s been glad to do it, though, knowing the team shares his same passion for the program and seeing it succeed.
“There was a lot of student interest so I knew there was enough kindling on the fire,” Carsten recalled of the team’s beginnings. “Success always fuels the fire. After our first event, I saw their enthusiasm and the drive and desire that they had.”
The team’s beginnings trace back to 2011, when Brendan Kelly, MSC assistant professor of forestry and renewable resources, began receiving inquiries from students interested in starting a program. Kelly had interest himself after previously dabbling in the sport and felt Carsten would be the perfect addition based on his background.
“I needed somebody who could coach and really knew how to do it, plus Seth had competed in the past,” said Kelly ’93, who serves as team manager.
Following that initial interest, Kelly’s students and members of the college’s Conservation Tri-Society began gathering research on budgets, funding and equipment needs through other northeast wood sports schools. Carsten, meanwhile, used his many contacts in the sport to help MSC observe various competitions to get a feel for what an event entailed.
The project grew legs in the fall of 2014, when Kelly, Carsten and a group of students attended an athletics board meeting to make their pitch. The effort landed a donation the following spring, which allowed Carsten and a group of nine students to participate in their first official competition.
“Getting everyone together, encouragement and communication were the keys in the beginning,” said Link, who helped with research, recruitment and coordinating practices as the team got started.
Faculty and campus departments have since pitched in to help the team overcome its tight budget. Wood is provided from felling trees through the college’s natural resources conservation program, with the residential construction program helping cut practice logs using the college’s sawmill. The mechanical engineering department has helped construct tools, with Carsten and Kelly gathering other equipment from around campus as well.
The group raises funds by splitting firewood that can then be purchased through the college. They also hope to increase their capital through raffles, auctions and selling custom-made T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts, which feature the team logo originally designed by Link and Nicole Duchene ’14.
Monetary donations that also help defray costs of equipment, travel and registration fees have come through employee voluntary payroll deductions and small gifts from around campus. Outside sources have recently contributed as well, including a $500 donation from a local branch of the national Davey Tree Expert Company.
As the team evolves, Carsten and Kelly would like to host a competition on campus someday and ultimately elevate the squad to a club or varsity sport. For now, the team is just enjoying the opportunity.
“I didn’t know anything about the sport until (coach) talked my ear off about it,” French said with a laugh. “Now I love it; it’s such a great time. I think everyone should swing an axe once in their lives.”