Snow patrol: Ski and Snowboard team ready for season in January

Natalie Wilk readies at the start gate. Photo courtesy of Pitt Ski and Snowboard Club

Katie Epner, a passionate downhill skier, couldn’t find the sport she wanted at Pitt, but rather than wallow in her sorrows, she went and created a club for it.  

Epner is a lifelong skier who competed in races as a high school student in Rochester, New York. A senior media and professional communications major, she founded the Pitt Ski and Snowboard team along with Kyle Wakeen as a sophomore in 2013.

Today, the experienced riders on the Pitt Ski and Snowboard team are waiting for the snow to fall and the racing gates to open for them to continue their competition successes.

“Competing in races was the best decision I made in high school, and starting the team has been the best decision I made in college,” Epner said.

Epner got the idea to start the club before she even arrived at Pitt while researching extracurricular activities at the school.

“When looking at Pitt, I saw there was a ski team, but it wasn’t [University]-certified. So, sophomore year I said, ‘If no one’s going to do it, I will,’” Epner said. “Only one student remained from the last time the club was operated, so I had to start fresh.”

The team competes within the Allegheny Collegiate Ski Conference, pitting them against schools from across the region, including Carnegie Mellon, West Virginia, Penn State, Villanova, Bucknell and the Naval Academy.

While another club meant added competition, opposing schools were more than cordial during Pitt’s return to the slopes. “Hey, Pitt’s back,” or “Nice to see you again,” competitors exclaimed.

But the club wasn’t happy with only bringing Pitt back to the mountain. The team wanted to win, and it came close, finishing in second place in the conference in their first season back.

“That first year was awesome,” Epner said.

There were 18 skiers and 12 snowboarders during the club’s first year, but participation tailed off last year with only eight skiers and 10 snowboarders.

The team hopes to reverse that trend, and early recruiting efforts have been effective so far. Although the team’s official roster has not been set, Epner said 25 skiers and 24 snowboarders expressed interest in participating this year at various tabling events and preliminary meetings. They are still accepting registrations.

“I’m most excited to get out there with all the new members, skiing with everyone, riding with everyone, bonding with the team,” Epner said. “It’s so much fun. The competition is cool, too, but it’s a lot more fun than it is competitive.”

Despite the friendliness and the fun, everyone can’t go home a winner.

“We let people know this is an intense sport, we’re competing, we want to win, and I think we have a really good chance to do that this year,” Epner said.

Epner hopes the team can improve its freestyle — competitions in which judges grade competitors based on tricks — the other area they compete in besides the downhill races. The team will rely heavily on first year students and the 10 returning members from last year’s team. There are between 20 and 30 spots available on the team.

Natalie Wilk, a junior architecture major and Epner’s roomate, has been a snowboarder in the club since Epner founded it two years ago. Like her roommate, Wilk is ready to mix it up with the new additions.

“It seems like there’s a lot of new team members coming in, lots of new blood,” Wilk said. “I’m excited to get out there and meet new people.”

Karlos Jeri, a freshman athletic training major, is a new member who is eager to find a venue to snowboard competitively.

“I’ve always been interested in snowboarding and always wanted to join a team, but there were no clubs or teams near my high school,” Jeri said.

Growing up in a small town of Mansfield, Massachusetts, Jeri took weekend trips to go snowboarding and practiced his skills after school in his backyard.

The sport has built-in expenses, so naturally joining a club comes with some financial cost. According to Epner, the registration fee — which she said will probably be around $400 to $500 this year— covers expenses including lodging and lift tickets for the club’s five trips. Members have to provide their own gear, and helmets are mandatory. Weekly practices at Seven Springs are also not included in the fee.

All competitions are on double black diamond runs, which are the most challenging courses available. The team doesn’t hold tryouts, so Epner and other officers insist that that all applicants are advanced riders to make sure everyone is comfortable going down the runs and facing the ice.

“This doesn’t mean that anyone who hasn’t raced before shouldn’t join. They just need to be extremely comfortable on skis, and snowboarders just need to be able to perform on some features in the park. Most boarders already know if they’re capable or not,” Epner said.

The new season begins on the first Friday of the second semester when the team will embark on the first of five weekend getaways to different mountains across Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland. The team leaves for competitions on Friday afternoons and returns on Sundays.

After carrying out her vision at Pitt, Epner hopes the team leaves a legacy that stretches far past her graduation date.

“As I’ve learned, these things can just die off, and people can completely forget they ever existed,” Epner said. “We want to make this year better than ever just to keep the legacy going and to show our members that we’re looking for people to take this over … also, we want to win.”

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