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ELKO — When Great Basin College President Joyce Helens was appointed to her position in August 2017, she wanted to look for ways to improve GBC.

She said by observing the environment, filling notebooks with ideas and reoccurring themes, asking questions and talking to the community, she noticed several common issues, concerns and hopes – one from parents and the area as a whole.

“A lot of people asked ‘how come there is not an athletic department,’” Helens said.

She said there used to be a “basketball club” but GBC has never competed in an actual conference.

“People were saying, ‘well, we should.’ When we were talking to Tim (Wickersham), the principal at the high school, he said, ‘we have been waiting 50 years for you to be talking about this and doing it,’” Helens said.

It was after the input she received from several voices, including Wickersham’s, Helens decided a task force needed to further investigate the options, financial burdens and realistic options for developing an athletic program.

Electric technology Instructor Kevin Seipp, mathematics Instructor Jin Ho Jung and GBC Foundation Director Matt McCarty dealt with duties of exploring the data and collecting of information regarding colleges similar to the size of GBC and how specific institutions have experienced success through athletic programs.

“They talked to community members, they talked to athletic directors of other colleges in the Scenic West Conference. They had just done so much work, it was impressive,” Helens said.

“Whether it was Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Utah – it was colleges that looked like Great Basin,” she said. “So, the question was what’s the difference? It was always athletics.”

“When we asked around the community – we’re going to start small – where do we start? It seemed like it was women’s volleyball,” Helens said. “We talked to people like Stewart Wilson and Jennifer Sprout, and they said there is ‘so much interest in volleyball.’ Talking to those individuals, it’s just waiting to happen.”

“The (task) team came up with women’s volleyball then men’s and women’s soccer,” Helens said. “We needed a phase-in because, of course, we don’t use any state dollars for this at all. It had to be funded otherwise.”

“If all these students are going to our bordering states, and they’re going because of athletics – they also bring friends with them. We thought it may be one team member brings one person, but it turned out that number was more like two and three,” she said.

Several months ago, the committee went in front of the Board of Regents.

“What we told the Board of Regents was that we felt it was really a growth process for us. We’re going to start small. We won’t start if we don’t have the money, and then we’ll come back,” she said. “According to policy, you need to have authorization to join a conference – especially for women’s volleyball.”

Needing to raise $130,000 from within the school by November, the plan was to set for a preliminary, hopeful start-up date for fall 2020 for the women’s volleyball program.

Helens said while committee members were talking quietly among themselves, calls starting coming in from “pretty famous kind of people” who said they’d ‘love to come there, love to coach, bring students with them, parents with students saying my daughter is interested and when are you going to do this?’

“We have gone around town, and people are interested in investing in this. We are looking for pledges. If everyone is saying what a great idea this is and that they’ve been waiting 50 years for you to do it, can you help us support it? Once again, we’ll use no state dollars,” Helens said.

“The real reason we wanted to do this is simple, student success – retention and graduation,” Seipp said.

Student fee, poll

Seipp, now the Athletic Committee Chairman, said GBC students voted to support the endeavor and pay a $3-per-credit fee.

“The fee will generate roughly $200,000 per year for our program to sustain just volleyball. With the administrative side and the sports side, it’s about $240,000. So, just our students are going to cover about 85 percent of that for us,” Seipp said. “The main thing we’re looking for now is we need that startup money, that seed money.”

A poll that was sent to about 3,800 students resulted in approximately 1,500 responses – one of the largest-ever returns in the history of the school.

Seipp said 72 percent of the students supported an athletic program and 63 percent supported the $3 fee.

“We actually had more responses saying they would pay a $4 fee than any other answer, but when we averaged all of them out we went with the $3 fee,” Seipp said.

Moving forward

Working with McCarty and the GBC Foundation, the parties agreed on a contribution-donor match up to $50,000.

The committee has placed a Nov. 30 deadline on itself.

“From a sports side of it, it just makes sense that we have this,” Seipp said. “All the schools around us, TMCC (Truckee Meadows Community College) is the newest member of the conference we’re looking to join (Scenic West). Other schools in that are CSN (College of Southern Nevada) down in Vegas, Salt Lake Community College, CSI (College of Southern Idaho), Snow College, Utah State University — Eastern and Colorado Northwestern Community College.

“There are seven schools already in this conference that are all around us. It’s an elite NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) conference. There are national champions every year coming out of this conference, especially in volleyball. CSI has won I think eight of the last 12 national championships,” Seipp said. “It’s an elite conference to come into, but it’s going to give great exposure for our college, our students, our student-athletes and it seems like this is what this campus is lacking right now.”

Seipp said the athletic program will be a way to “get students back on campus, give them the energy to be supportive of our campus and want to visit this kind of thing and become a part of it.”

GBC will be known as the Bighorns, now coming with a visual aid.

In September, GBC held a contest for students, faculty and staff – all submitting their art examples for an athletics mascot.

The winning artist was Dori Andrepont, a student who also works at the college.

Opportunities, Challenges

“In talking with some of the community members who have kids in high school, they said ‘the games you go to at the high schools are full. We’re happy to root for this, and we have never had that opportunity at the college, so we’ll come there too,’” said Helens.

She said despite the large amount of energy and support, the idea did not come without those who question it.

“Great Basin College is not just in Elko. We’re spread out over 86,000 square miles. That presents challenges as well as opportunities, and we’re online quite a bit. So, you could have an online student in California asking ‘why would I pay the fee if I’m not there?’” Helens said.

She added that people at GBC’s site in Pahrump have said they like golf there.

“The idea wasn’t that it won’t be anywhere but in Elko, it’s that we have to start in Elko. It’s OK to say Elko is the main campus. We have other wonderful campus centers, whether it’s Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Pahrump or Ely, and they all have some it – but it’s a branch,” said Helens. “Really, Elko is the tree. If Elko does well and thrives, then the branches will be healthy, but if, for some reason the tree isn’t, there will be no branches. We always want to be so fair because we know we want to serve all those communities, but it’s OK to say this is the tree. This is where everything else came from.”

Optimism

“Some will say athletics belongs to universities, but we know also athletics plays a very important role in rural Nevada, as with other rural areas around the nation,” Helens said. “It’s part of our culture and we see that in our high schools.”

She said there are great partnership possibilities when GBC possibly expands to other sports beyond volleyball — as far as development of fields — but for now, the school does not need to build anything.

“We have the gym. We’ll probably reconfigure it, maybe move the climbing wall, maybe get some bleachers in and that kind of thing but we have what we need,” Helens said.

“A lot of our faculty members support the athletics,” said Jin Ho Jung, chairman of the Faculty Senate. “Before I came here, I used to work at Miles Community College. It’s a small town in the southeastern part of Montana. The enrollment was like 500. People came from all over. They could recruit the students from other countries like Australia and Eastern European countries. They bring the diversity to a small town,” he said. “When they had a ballgame, the whole town came out. I hope to see that same effect in Elko too.”

Sponsors

McCarty said the college is looking for pledges, needing approximately $70,000 from outside contributions before the Nov. 30 deadline.

“Gary Morfin is our first five-year booster club sponsor at $2,000 per year, so that was a $10,000 pledge. One of our institutional advisory club members, Vince Juaristi, is another one of our first donors.”

“We’ve seen at the high school level how supportive Elko, Spring Creek and the greater-Elko area are of athletics,” he added. “This is money that truly is donor, community supported. It’s a grassroots effort, so it’s exciting.”

“It’s an easy revenue generator for the institution as a whole, just looking at the numbers we anticipate to come in with the student-athletes,” Seipp said. “That generates roughly $140,000 per year just in additional revenue from the student fees and tuition.”

The $240,000 startup cost is to build the athletic department as a whole – starting with volleyball – not the cost of each sport that may be added down the road.

“As we add additional sports, there will be slight increases to the department costs but overall, the department is already established. Then it would truly be only those costs to be able to add in men’s and women’s soccer, to add in baseball, softball, basketball – whatever it is – with minor increases to the administrative side. Once it’s there, we have the ability to move further faster.”

Pledge or Donate

For information on how to pledge or donate to the GBC athletic department, visit Berg Hall at 1500 College Parkway, call Foundation Director Matt McCarty at 753-2260 or email matt.mccarty@gbcnv.edu.

Direct donations may be mailed to PO Box 2056, Elko, NV, 89803.

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