Penn State sports have a lot of history, but little-known is the story of the Penn State ski team, founded in 1936 by a future ski industry hall-of-famer, and it’s still going strong as it prepares for next month’s national championships.
The team is a student-run club sport that focuses on alpine skiing with about 40 to 50 members, team president Doug Syrett said. The championships are March 2-9 in Sun Valley, Idaho, according to the United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association.
But 77 years ago, the club was an idea in the head of Max Dercum, an associate professor of forestry at Penn State who went on to co-found several of Colorado’s most well-known ski areas.
Head coach Tom Kennington, a State College real estate executive, tells of how Dercum not only began the team, but he also helped create its first home on a mountain called Bald Knob.
“I think they cut the trail and built the lift with a rope tow with a car engine,” he said.
Kennington said it was while coaching the team that Dercum met his wife, Edna, who was on the team. After Edna graduated, the two moved to Summit County, Colo., where they opened some of the first trails at the Arapahoe Basin and Keystone ski areas, he said.
The team went on hiatus during World War II but returned in the 1960s to ski at a mountain called Skimont. The name eventually would be changed to Tussey Mountain, where the team practices today, Kennington said.
Kennington credits Tussey Mountain for the team’s success in alpine racing.
“We have that great training facility 10 minutes from campus, which is a real competitive advantage,” Kennington said. “We owe a lot to Tussey Mountain for their support, and they have literally been great for us and to us.”
The Dercums would go on to be inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum — Max in 1983 and Edna in 1991. According to the museum’s website, Edna died July 15, 2008, at age 94, and Max died Sept. 30, 2011, at age 98.
Their creation here is thriving, Kennington and Syrett said. Both say the current team is the strongest that either can remember. Kennington said that only once since 1986, when he became involved with the team, has the men’s and women’s teams not qualified for the national races.
The team competes in the Allegheny Collegiate Ski Conference in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association. Teams in the conference include Carnegie Mellon, Villanova, West Virginia, Navy, West Chester and Bucknell, said Syrett.
The five fastest male and five fastest female skiers are on the A team, and the rest are on the B team. The A team competes in the regional and national championships, according to Syrett, but a skier on the B team can bump an A team skier by becoming faster.
“So not only are you competing against other schools, there’s also that friendly competition between teammates to try to get those top spots to race at nationals,” said Syrett.
Traveling to races can be expensive. Team vice president Adam Drobish, a senior, said the team will often clean part of Beaver Stadium to raise money.
“It needs to be done, it’s not as bad as it sounds, and it helps out so much for money,” he said.
Senior Ben Carroll said he hopes to get back to Sun Valley for the nationals, but he has a soft spot for home base.
“Tussey obviously holds near and dear to our hearts because we race that all the time,” he said.
In the end, nationals will come and go for the skiers, as will their time at Penn State. But for some, the need to ski will always be there.
“My goal is to just keep skiing for the rest of my life, basically,” Drobish said.