TPHA building a foundation for elite development in the Sierra Nevada
Early into the third year of its young life, the Tahoe Prep Hockey Academy in South Lake Tahoe is taking all the right steps to build a foundation for a long-lasting future.
Things are rounding into shape nicely as the academy continues to provide unparalleled hockey development, a rigorous academic structure and a campus environment that is unlike anything most of its student-athletes have ever experienced.
For the second straight year, Tahoe is icing two teams for the 2018-19 season – one at the prep level and a second at the varsity level, and there are more than 40 players wearing the academy’s striking purple and white uniforms.
The academy’s prep team won nine of its first 12 games playing in the North American Hockey League’s Prep division and was sixth in the USA Independent Prep rankings through the first week of October. Tyler McNeil led the squad with 25 points (15 goals, 10 assists), while Jonah Fleisher tallied seven goals and Ziggy MacNicoll contributed 11 assists. Anthony LoRe registered 141 saves and Cameron Dunnigan totaled 113.
Tahoe’s varsity squad was off to a 2-2 start in Division I of the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League. Alex Boyko led the team with four goals and Nikko Escobar had three. Chase Sechrist and Brendan Coca each added three assists. Cameron Birchill made 66 saves in two games and Tyler Kitchen had 85 saves to his name in a pair of contests.
Wins and losses aside, the academy’s veteran coaches make a daily effort to focus on each individual player’s hockey development, and that in turn helps improve the teams’ success.
“Players are not going to move on to the next step in their sport or college career as a team,” said Michael Lewis, the head coach and athletic director at Tahoe Prep. “They need to be the best they can be as individuals. If we win as a team because each player is developing and improving their skills, that’s great, but it’s not the focus.”
A number of top recruits elected to make this academic year and hockey season their first at Tahoe Prep, including MacNicoll – who came from the Los Angeles Jr. Kings’ AAA program – and top California AA players McNeil and Leon Biller.
Leo Fenn, Tahoe Prep’s president and head coach of the varsity team, said that he and his fellow coaches aren’t always looking for the most accomplished players when out on the recruiting trail, but are more interested in their character, work ethic and their potential for development.
“Prep school isn’t for everybody – it’s for the serious student-athlete, and that’s the reason we recruit on character and work ethic,” Fenn said. “We know that what we do at TPHA works, and we look for individuals that have the temperament and drive to develop.”
One of the biggest challenges for the leadership in Tahoe as the academy was first getting off the ground was to convince high school-age hockey players and their parents to take a leap of faith and trust their hockey and academic development to an unproven entity. With just two years under their belt, though, things have changed considerably, and instead of having to sell the concept to families, Fenn and his fellow coaches are being approached on a regular basis. The interest in Tahoe Prep has grown so rapidly that the academy plans to open to international student-athletes starting next fall.
The spectacular location, the challenging academic schedule, the strong and supportive coaching staff, the model for player development format and the exposure that players receive from playing in high-profile games across the country are some of the many reasons parents have chosen to send their sons to Tahoe Prep.
“We are strong believers in the prep school model and what it can do for individual development that goes beyond the sport, especially for teenage boys,” said Mike Sechrist, one of the co-founders of Tahoe Prep and the father of a player on the prep team. “It gives them a chance to develop skills they need for life. The ability to work as a team, to make decisions and choices on their own, and learn how to follow a coach, are all real-world skills that they will use in whatever future career they pursue. It gives them the opportunity to mature in a way that is hard to replicate at home.”
Jackie Nordorf, whose son Jacob is a defenseman in his second year at Tahoe Prep, said that making the move to the mountains from the Los Angeles suburb of Gardena was a difficult decision but ultimately, the right one.
“We toured other schools,” she said. “We went to Chicago and Boston, but I didn’t feel comfortable sending Jacob that far away. The location really worked for us – I like the fact that if I need to, I can get to him quickly, and when we got to Tahoe we fell in love with it. I knew with Tahoe Prep that I had a coaching staff with integrity that cared more about my kid than just as a hockey player. They really care about these boys, and I know I couldn’t have done anything better for my son.”
And of course, the academy’s focus on academics isn’t just lip service. The academy has partnered with Lake Tahoe Unified School District to offer face-to-face classes on the South Tahoe High School campus as well as online options to support the team’s practice and travel schedule.
“One of my biggest reservations was the online classroom portion, but Jacob has excelled,” Nordorf said. “He struggled a little bit with time management, but that is a skill that will serve him well in college. Because of the travel, I like the blended approach. He’s still on campus, so socially he’s around other kids, not just the hockey players, and he can take his classroom on the road. I know when he leaves there he will be well equipped for college.”
Tahoe Prep has made major strides in the last 24 months with its gleaming new dormitories and facilities. The academy is also entering its third season of an Under Armour uniform sponsorship and most recently partnered with the new Barton Center for Orthopedic and Wellness. Under the supervision of performance and wellness coordinator Ryan Carr, a former Division I college athlete and strength and conditioning coach, Tahoe’s prep team will undergo performance athlete training year-round. The organization is also an official partner of United States Ski and Snowboard Association, and that also brings instant credibility to its relationship with Tahoe Prep.
“We focus on developing the student-athlete to their full potential – on the ice, academically, and for future life success,” Fenn said. “The skills-based model that we offer makes us the best place in North America for kids to pursue their hockey development.”
Nordorf knew there would be some uncertainty in joining in on the bottom floor of Tahoe Prep’s growth, but she couldn’t be happier with how things have worked out.
“It isn’t easy to be a trailblazer, but all of their hard work is coming to fruition, and it’s an exciting place to be right now,” she said. “Jacob is having a really good time. The academy has good quality players from all over the country.”
— Greg Ball
(Nov. 5, 2018)