INCLINE VILLAGE — What Nevada college athletics program can be considered among the most successful in the country?
The answer isn’t in Reno or even Las Vegas.
It is Sierra Nevada College, in tiny Incline Village.
The school’s ski and snowboard teams have won at least one United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association (USCSA) team national championship in 20 of the last 22 years, an unprecedented feat for the small, private liberal arts college.
What makes this program so successful?
“I have been asked the question many times, and it is a little hard to answer,” said Dr. Lynn Gillette, president of Sierra Nevada College.
Gillette attributes the success of the team, which is preparing for its first home meet at Diamond Peak on Feb. 2, to three factors: coaching, location and the support of its student-athletes.
Coaching by example
Branko Zagar is head alpine coach and athletic director for Sierra Nevada College.
“As the coach and leader of the program, he has set an absolute clear standard related to performance on the mountain and performance in and around the classroom,” Gillette said.
Zagar, who is from what was then Yugoslavia, was a nationally-ranked junior skier and a member of the Yugoslavian National Team from junior to adult.
At 17, he held the most slalom points in the world for his age group. Zagar retired from competitive skiing in 1990.
Zagar, who has more than 20 years of coaching experience in both the U.S. and Europe, is currently in his seventh year as head coach of the Sierra Nevada College Eagles.
“The team was really successful before I got here. I am just keeping on what was set up before,” Zagar said. “We have great athletes that are coming here and we work hard. As soon as they come here to school you are going to see us running everyday at the Village Green. You are going to see us every day at High Altitude Fitness until the snow comes.
“It is hard work. That is what makes us so good.”
Recruiting is one of the main factors in the team’s success.
Approximately 70 percent of the current team is from Europe, and its roster is populated by athletes from Croatia, Sweden, Norway, France and Slovenia.
Alums and current athletes are Winter Games veterans. The current women’s alpine team includes Olympians Tea Palic and Matea Ferk, who competed for Croatia in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. Ferk also competed in 2006 in Torino, Italy. Both women will be competing in the World Championships in Schladming, Austria on Feb. 9. On the men’s side, senior Luca Ricou is contending for a spot on Argentina’s team for the Sochi Olympics in 2014.
Each year, Sierra Nevada College offers scholarships to several athletes. The school says 90 percent of all athletes receive some kind of scholarship and 70 percent receive an athletic scholarship.
Ricou is grateful for the opportunity.
“The great part and what helps me a lot is that we are able to train every single day at before going to class.” Ricou said. “That is something that no other college has.”
The team’s home mountain is Diamond Peak, which is five minutes from campus. However, the Lake Tahoe area makes an attractive draw for any would-be collegiate skier due to the wealth of world-class ski resorts within an hour’s distance.
“Given we are sitting here in Lake Tahoe,” Gillette said. “It makes it so much easier to recruit.”
As the ski team’s success started to build, demand began to outstrip availability of spots on the team.
“We have basically tripled the size of skiing and snowboarding over the last six years,” Gillette said.
That growth includes adding men’s and women’s snowboarding teams which have won every collegiate national championship available, as well as men’s and women’s freestyle skiing. There are 45 athletes total on campus: 19 alpine skiers, 14 who are on the snowboard team and 12 freestyle skiers.
SNC’s teams compete in the NorCal Division of the USCSA. The season ends with the USCSA National Championships, March 3-10 in Sun Valley, Idaho. The alpine ski team also competes in Federation Internationale de Ski (FIS) University races.
“We are extremely proud to be the home mountain of such a prestigious team,” said Andrew Baird, marketing manager at Diamond Peak Ski Resort. “Really, the association with SNC helps highlight the strong ski racing tradition that exists at Diamond Peak. Any time you can be associated with that level of success, it’s a great thing.”
Athletes either buy a season pass at Diamond Peak or they work off the cost of their pass during the summer months.
“So far it is one of the best things that happened to me,” Ricou said. “I am really happy. It is a great location. Great skiing. Great coach. I definitely am not regretting my decision.”
“And number three, there is an incredible, supportive environment among the board of trustees, the faculty and the staff,” Gillette said. “They are so proud of the student athletes that it is self perpetuating.”
Zagar feels the same way.
“I have never seen a school like this, especially one this small. Even bigger schools are not always as supportive to ski racing as is this school.” Zagar said. “The atmosphere here on the team and around the school and around the community, it is just phenomenal.”
The total number of students at Sierra Nevada College is about 1,100, and about half of those students are undergraduates.
At the end of each season, during the teams’ ski and snowboard banquet, Gillette announces the average grade point average (GPA) for each team. Last spring the women’s alpine ski team had a combined 3.9. The average GPA for all the athletes last spring was 3.5.
“The reason I am so supportive of our ski and snowboard teams is because they are the best students on campus,” Gillette said. “They are the best students we have and they are leaders on campus. They have been a transformative effect on this campus.”