When it comes to collegiate alpine ski racing, NCAA Division I is not the only game in town. The United States Collegiate Ski Association has many top teams, and the races can be as competitive as D1. At a USCSA MacConnell division race in January at Whiteface Mountain—that was also a FIS race—two Castleton University skiers beat many D1 skiers on the start list. Granted, one of the Castleton skiers was Redneck racer Robby Kelley. But his teammate Paul Rechberger was not far behind.
Skiers who might not have low enough points to make a D1 team or who wish to regularly compete for their college teams can thrive in the USCSA.
But how does a young skier find a good fit? Some student-athletes may wish to take academics more seriously while also continuing to ski race. Others may be looking for a specific academic track or program—engineering, for example—or may wish to consider a broad range of schools.
Looking at USCSA results from the national championships in the past five years, we broke out the 10 colleges and universities with ski teams that finished in the top five at least once. Then we categorized them:
- Large universities with a wide range of academic offerings,
- Top-ranked schools (Ivy League, “potted Ivies,” and others with top-ranked programs), and
- Small mountain colleges that aren’t ranked academically by U.S. News & World Report but are good fits for students who thrive in smaller environments.
While several USCSA coaches recruit skiers from academy programs and at FIS, USSA races, and high school championships, many of these USCSA teams welcome walk-ons.
Of note: 193 institutions are participating in USCSA racing this season (some offer cross-country, snowboard, and freeski programs as well). Many offer varsity alpine teams with coaches; others are student led. Some have funding, others do not. And while some USCSA universities compete in NCAA D1 in some sports (e.g., UCONN in basketball), most are DIII schools and thus, do not offer athletic scholarships. However, may do offer financial aid and merit-based scholarships.
For a full list of USCSA colleges and universities, click here. Then click on a region, and you’ll see a comprehensive list of schools in that region that have ski programs.
The USCSA has several big universities with top-notch ski teams, including Northeastern, Tufts, Syracuse, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But the three that have recently finished in the top five at nationals are Castleton, Clarkson, and UCONN.
Although far from large (with under 2,000 undergrads), the Castleton University ski team is one of the best in the country. Last year, the Spartans challenged the perennial favorites, with the Spartan women finishing second and the men third in team results. In the East’s competitive MacConnell division this season, both teams swept the standings during the regular season, and the Spartans have their eye on a national title this year.
Coach Christopher Eder brings talented skiers from around the world to this small university in central Vermont. But the team is equally weighted with Americans. The typical Spartan racer comes to Castleton with FIS points in the double digits. But low points are not the only criteria on Eder’s list.
“The big prerequisite for us is that you have a ski racing background, even just high school,” he said. “I do look at points, but they don’t tell the whole story. Even with points, we’ve had skiers come here, their USSA points are way up there, then by the time they graduate, they’re in the double digits, like 70s.”
Although not nationally ranked by U.S. New & World Report, Castleton is a well-respected regional university that is growing.
Right behind Castleton in the MacConnell division men’s standings this season, Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, has about 4,300 students and is well-known for its tech programs. The Golden Knights ranked second in the men’s team standings in 2020, sixth in the women’s standings.
Coach Jeff Lathrop is looking for student-athletes with both strong ski and academic backgrounds—particularly students looking to pursue careers in the tech industry.
“Being one of the few tech schools on our circuit with a competitive DIII alpine team, it can be a niche for certain athletes, as well as a deterrent for others,” said Lathrop. “I’m really looking for skiers that will fit well in both worlds.”
Student-athletes who have found success at Clarkson are either skiers who couldn’t quite make a DI ski teams but are still passionate about the sport and want to continue ski racing in college, or skiers who might have been able to ski for a DI program but either wanted to make more of an immediate impact on a ski team, or simply wanted something different with their academic careers.
“The makeup of our team is skewed more towards athletes who were not on the FIS track, or who only raced a little bit of FIS,” added Lathrop. “We do have some that raced FIS ever since they are able to, but that’s a smaller percentage and are typically the ones who settled on Clarkson due to the academics, and everything the university provides outside of skiing.”
With 24,000 undergrads, the University of Connecticut is perhaps the largest school with a top-ranked USCSA ski team. At USCSA nationals last year, the Huskie men finished on the podium in GS—their best-ever finish. This season, both the men and women wrapped up the regular season ranked fourth in the MacConnell division (for the women, down from a historic best second-place finish in 2019).
A club program, UCONN’s team is large, comprised of FIS racers, serious USSA weekend skiers, and athletes with only high school experience, said coach Jeff Lagasse.
So what sets UCONN’s ski team apart? It’s a large, public university with nationally respected academics where athletes can take a wide variety of courses and select from a large range of majors.
“Our success on the hill and in the classroom gives opportunity for serious ski racers to not only continue to advance their ski racing at a high level,” said Lagasse, “but also know they will be getting a degree from a nationally ranked university, which boasts a 90 percent job placement within six months of graduation for all students.”
Ivy League, ‘Potted Ivies’ & other top-ranked schools
For the academically inclined, almost all the top-ranked U.S. colleges and universities have a ski team—from Dartmouth’s, Harvard’s, and Williams’s NCAA ski teams to the USCSA varsity ski teams Stanford, Columbia, and Cornell (all of which have qualified for nationals at some point in the past five years) to club teams at Amherst and Vassar.
Of the Ivies competing in the USCSA, Brown University has the best women’s team (the men’s team is a club program). One of the top women’s teams in the Eastern conference, the Brown Bears ranked third this season, and sophomore Maggie Beardsley (a Green Mountain Valley School grad) won the Castleton Carnival GS last weekend.
Recruited athletes have strong FIS backgrounds. But the Brown ski team also takes walk-ons—usually with solid USSA racing backgrounds. Skiers that are the best fit for the Brown ski team are those that want to continue ski racing at a challenging level and are also driven intellectually and academically and want to mold their own educational experience.
“I tell potential student-athletes that I look for three key components in a recruit: Obviously I’m looking for talented skiers that will help elevate our program, but I’m also looking for athletes who will represent us well in the classroom and campus community,” said coach Alex Norden. “And lastly I look for athletes who will embrace and support our team camaraderie.”
For those looking to ski at a top liberal arts college, St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota—ranked #62 in U.S. News & World Report’s list of national colleges—has one of the top USCSA alpine teams in the country. In coach Doug Nordmeyer’s first season with the Oles in 2019, the men’s and women’s teams both won USCSA divisional and regional championships. Then at 2019 nationals, the women placed third in the team standings (slalom and giant slalom combined) and fourth in the dual slalom, while the men finished eighth as a team and second in the dual slalom.
Throughout the winter, the Oles compete in USCSA, USSA, and FIS races at every opportunity. While many Ole skiers competed in FIS races as U16s and above, roughly half the team did not, and a few did not race USSA either.
“The typical St. Olaf alpine skier is highly intelligent and is pursuing a rigorous academic experience at the college,” said Nordmeyer. “Many go on to graduate school in many areas, including medicine, law and business. They like to compete and have high expectations. They also realize that in addition to complimenting academics, alpine ski racing offers a team approach (esprit de corps), providing a well-rounded and healthy collegiate experience.”
For those wishing to pursue a business degree, Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is what ski coach Joe Harty calls a “niche college.” It has a top-ranked business program, with the #1-ranked entrepreneurship program in the country. It also had the #3-ranked USCSA men’s ski team in the MacConnell division, and the Babson women’s team finished in second but challenged Castleton throughout the season.
Most of the skiers on the Babson men’s roster came up through ski racing academies, while half the women did. Jack Beney and Sarah Mangiacotti were the only skiers not from Castleton ranked in the top five this season. They both finished the regular season ranked third. Beney is a freshman from Burke Mountain Academy; Mangiacotti is a junior who attended Stratton.
“A lot of our skiers could ski at St. Lawrence, St. Mike’s, Bates [colleges that compete in D1], but they choose a different path,” said Harty. “Every week, one of them tells me, ‘I made the right decision.’”
In southern New Hampshire, Saint Anselm College—at Catholic college with about 2,000 students—has a top-ranked ski team that competes in the MacConnell division. At 2017 nationals, the Hawk men’s team finished fifth. This season, the Hawk men’s and women’s ski teams both ranked fifth in the MacConnell division and qualified for regionals.
The typical Saint Anselm skier is someone who grew up racing USSA, with maybe a year or two of FIS racing.
“Our team has a wide range of abilities,” reported a team representative. “In the past five years, we have had skiers from academies like KMS, CVA, and Gould, but we have also had athletes who only raced for their high school ski teams.”
Academically, St. Anselm ranked just outside the top 100 best national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report in 2020. Popular majors include business, nursing, and criminology.
Of note: once a varsity sport, the Hawk ski team became a club team in 2018. A few alumni helped coach the team on the weekends this season. The team trains three nights each week at Pat’s Peak, 35 minutes from campus.
Small Mountain Colleges
For the past several years, two small liberal arts colleges have dominated USCSA nationals: Sierra Nevada University on the shores of Lake Tahoe, and Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana. About 500 undergraduates matriculate at SNU, with five men and five women on the Eagles’ alpine team. RMC is slightly larger, with just under 900 students on campus.
Both colleges have small fully funded varsity teams. SNU relies heavily on European recruits, while RMC’s roster (9 women, 14 men) is more evenly divided between Americans and European talent. At 2019 nationals, SNU and RMC skiers claimed all the podium spots in women’s slalom and GS, and five of six podium spots in the men’s races (Castleton’s Rechberger was the only skier to break the SNU/RMC podium hold). SNU competes in the USCSA’s Northern California conference; RMC in the Grand Teton conference.
Also out west but in the Northwest conference, the College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho, is another small mountain college (just under 1,000 students) that has contended for top honors at USCSA nationals. Since 1979, the Yotes (as in Coyotes) have won 29 team and 23 individual national crowns. This season, the Yotes led the men’s standings in the Northwest conference, while the women finished ninth (with three women on the team).
Like the other top USCSA ski teams, long-time coach Ron Bonneau targets USSA, FIS, and high school skiers. But he looks for a certain kind of athlete—team players. And the school offers scholarships.
“Experience has shown that the team’s ability to share common goals, to focus on the process, and to promote their passion for the sport are those qualities that create the environment for successful participation,” he said. “The teams that I have had the pleasure to coach who genuinely enjoy working together by challenging each other on and off the mountain are those who make it to the podium.”
Of note: Bonneau is retiring at the end of this season after 30 years coaching the Yotes. He also served as the long-time Northwest conference coordinator.