NEWPORT, N.H. (AP) — On a crisp February night at the rim of the forest behind New Hampshire's Newport High School, Ruby Spitz perches on long, wide skis at the edge of a steep ramp, 65 feet above the ground and peering down at a snowy, brightly lit landing hill.
This is a rare bird: A ski jumper in the only state where high schoolers still compete in the leaning-in, gravity-testing sport. In their own version of Friday Night Lights, these athletes are more interested in catching air than passes and would much rather soar than score. About 40 of them will square off Friday night in the state championships at Newport.
Ruby, a 15-year-old sophomore at Hanover High School, scoots forward and rockets down the in-run, hearing from teammates and rivals alike, "Have One!" — the jumper's creed for nailing it. At about 20 mph, she hits the end of the jump and soars past parents, athletes and coaches who've dug their feet firmly into shin-deep snow on the side of the hill.
"Twelve!" comes the call from a hill marker, and a cheer goes up. She's just sailed 12 meters, almost 40 feet, before landing with a clatter of skis and sliding to a stop.
"Once you do it, you get this crazy adrenaline rush," Ruby said. "And you just want to keep chasing that rush. It gives you a huge sense of confidence."
Maybe for good reason. Her coach, Josh Flanders, describes jumping as: "Essentially, you're trying to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
America has never embraced ski jumping, and when major colleges dropped programs about three decades ago, the last incentive for high school jumpers disappeared everywhere but New Hampshire, a state with a rich alpine history.
For a time in the middle of the 20th century, it was the center of the nation's ski jumping community, luring Olympic tryouts, World Cup competitions and national championships to the historic Nansen Ski Jump in the North Country. Two current members of the U.S. team, Nick Fairall, who is sidelined due to injury, and Nicholas Alexander, are from New Hampshire.
"Congratulations to New Hampshire," said Walter Malmquist, a spokesman for USA Ski Jumping. "Every year, despite the fact that they're the only state to conduct ski jumping championships, there are a lot of schools with athletes competing, which is pretty cool."
Ski jumping does not get the financial support enjoyed by glamour sports like football. Parents and students from the seven schools that compete volunteer to be hill markers, the local ski area loans its compressors to produce manmade snow, coaches groom the hills and a warming hut was built with donated lumber and labor.
Ron Beaudet has coached at Sunapee for 40 years and said the reason the sport has survived here while other states have dropped it is because of the volunteer work and the passion of the coaches.
"It's a classic sport," he said. "I've seen kids who you never thought would do this. I'm all for keeping it if it only turns one kid around."
Most of the kids have fallen; some have broken bones. Their reaction: Whatever.
"You just have to give up your fear and push through," said 15-year-old Dylan Burbank of Concord High School.
Beaudet said the future of ski jumping in New Hampshire is solid, with a core group, including the state high school athletic association, who are supportive and want to see the sport continue.
Malmquist, a former coach at Hanover who jumped in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, said while there isn't a pipeline from high schools to the Olympic hills, the scholastic competitions are still valuable.
"What our primary focus is, is to keep those kids on the hills," he said. "We want to have the programs to help them see that they have the talent to take it to the next level."
That's the challenge: Keeping them on the hills.
"There's just so many other things kids are doing nowadays," said Concord coach Rick Bragg who has a squad of just 13.
Not these kids on this winter's night.
In brightly-colored jumpsuits, helmets and goggles, about 50 competitors lug their skis up the snow-covered steps to get in a few practice jumps before the meet. There's banter, good-natured ribbing and encouragement from all.
"It's a very supportive environment up there," said Sophie Pratt, a 16-year-old sophomore from Concord.
After a practice jump, 15-year-old Anna Dickson from Hanover hollered up the hill at Flanders.
"I am so happy!" she chirped. The coach smiled and asked why.
"Because I did it!"