After team nearly folded, Breck locals Eva Hagen, Kate Zander lead Summit High School cross-country skiing
Tigers start season Saturday in Carbondale
BRECKENRIDGE — It’s a new era for the Summit High School Nordic skiing program. But in a lot of ways, it feels like a rebirth.
Just two months ago, Tigers skiers like Peter Vos weren’t sure there would even be a team this year. At the start of the winter sports cycle, Summit High didn’t have a coaching staff. With weeks to go before practice, Vos and his fellow cross-country skiers attended a meeting where it was relayed to them that no coach had been found.
The Tigers Athletics Department did have one last hand to play. Months earlier, Summit High Athletics Director Travis Avery reached out to Breckenridge local, accomplished ski mountaineer and experienced cross-country running and track coach Eva Hagen. Over the summer, Avery asked Hagen if she’d be able to coach the high school Nordic team. Hagen politely declined but told Avery if he reached the point of desperation, she would reconsider.
She did just that in November. That said, she only signed on after her close Breckenridge friend Kate Zander agreed to be a part-time coach. With two young boys at home, Zander also had declined the coaching responsibility months earlier. But once she found out Hagen would be in charge, Zander — a 2019 Team USA World Championships ski mountaineer — knew she’d be able to commit to contributing her time to the Tigers.
“I knew this could work,” Zander said. “Because Eva said, ‘Kind of pick the days you can coach, and we’ll make it work otherwise.’ So she kind of let me come on in a way it can be sustainable to me and my family.”
With the combination of Hagen and Zander at the helm, the Tigers Nordic program has gone from left for dead to a high ceiling of potential in mere months.
In Hagen, the Tigers have a high-level athlete and coach who has experience coaching women’s collegiate cross-country running at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.
In Zander, the Tigers can lean on an accomplished Nordic skier and ski mountaineer who can provide the level of cross-country skiing technical expertise that was lacking in recent years. Beyond Zander’s cross-country know-how, she also provides a true full-circle Tigers spirit to which this year’s Summit team can relate.
Sixteen years ago, Zander finished top 10 at state in her lone season racing cross-country for the Tigers. After moving to Summit County from Australia as a freshman at the turn of the century, Zander approached her high school career as one where she’d try out different sports. Till this day, that’s what she thinks is the beauty of being a high school athlete. It’s a time in your life when you can try different things and play three or more sports in a given year, not necessarily specializing year-round in one discipline.
After playing hockey for a couple of years as a high school student, Zander taught herself how to Nordic ski as a junior before joining legendary coach Gene Dayton’s Tigers team for her 2004 swan song.
Helping Zander and Hagen coach this year’s team is Gene’s son Matt, who also was a coach when Zander was a student athlete. With this trio leading the way — and setting a standard at their five-times-a-week practice schedule — skiers like Vos and his fellow captain Katherine Puc have accelerated their learning curve in a few short weeks ahead of Saturday’s season-opening classic meet in Carbondale.
Jan. 11: at Springs Gulch – Carbondale, classic (mass), 10 a.m.
Jan. 25: at Tennesse Pass, skate (individual), 10 a.m.
Feb. 1: at Snowy Mountain Ranch, dual event, 10 a.m.
Feb. 8: at Aspen, skate (individual), 10 a.m.
Feb. 15: at Steamboat Touring Center, classic, 10 a.m.
Feb. 27: State championship at Maloit Park, classic (mass), 3 p.m.
Feb. 28: State championship at Maloit Park, skate (individual), 3 p.m.
And to add to the family feel of this year’s team, Zander has coached several of the athletes previously with the middle school team.
“I really have a heart for these guys and this sport,” Zander said. “… There is a lot of heart in this team and a lot of unity. You know, I think there were probably some tears — a lot of nervousness — when they thought there might not be a team.”
As for this year’s Tigers team, Hagen and Zander have set a standard for what it takes to race as a Tiger. In the past, a lot of the program’s best skiers have been club skiers who haven’t attended practice regularly due to other Nordic commitments, which Hagen and Zander both respect. And though the new coaches expect club kids, such as Aubree Confer, to be some of the team’s top skiers this year, they have set a requirement of practicing with the Tigers at least once a week in order to race come the weekend.
On one hand, Hagen and Zander understand why club skiers might not have practiced with the program in the past. Perhaps the level of instruction, the level of focus, wasn’t always there. Then again, the Tigers team is just that: a team. And the team comes first.
That’s been the case in recent weeks while Hagen and Zander have devoted practice exclusively to classic skiing, a discipline in which they said team members sorely lacked skill. With attention to detail, the coaches said skiers have gone from, in one case, being afraid to go downhill, to embracing the intricacies of classic. Along the way, the kids have exuded more and more excitement, which then energizes the new coaches further.
“It’s a two-way sort of thing,” Hagen said. “I can see they are motivated, so I am motivated, too. They have hugely improved.”
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