In the competitive scholastic field of New Jersey-Philadelphia rowing (and home course advantage), it was two Washington, DC-area crews that prevailed in the the Grand Finals of the big Eights at Scholastic Nationals on Cooper River Friday and Saturday. Gonzaga College High School (for boys) and the National Cathedral School (for girls) powered down the Cooper course for wins, pushing a few perennial favorites off the podium in the process.
The route to Scholastic Nationals - from Florida State Championships, Midwest Championships, Garden State Scholastic Championships, New York Scholastic Championships, Philly City Championships, Virginia States, and Washington Metro Interscholastic Champs - produces heats with wildly varying abilities. Friday racing was about narrowing the field, and it took Saturday AM to further whittle the numbers during semis. Racing became interesting, and margins from 1st to 6th went from 30 seconds to split seconds, and the results in many races were posted with the photo finish evidence, thank goodness...no official wants to face a protective high school athlete's parent.
This former "school-boy" regatta, one of the oldest in the country, is a race with a huge posse of experienced officials, all who love this regatta; the best tent cities and requisite cooking arenas; and certainly the largest amount of vendors with day-glo clothing. And once you can elbow your way through the crowd at the finish line (this year, an impressive number of purple-wearing Gonzaga supporters, more on that later) you see that organizers effectively bring together some of the best scholastic crews in the country. The 1500 meter course at Cooper avoids some of the tight turns and shuffling about at the crowed 2k start near the shore, and gives rowers a warm-up area that is not available on the usual 2k course.
The weather in New Jersey was agreeable - if you could stand the slightly elevated heat. Days started overcast with moisture in the air but little or no perceivable wind, the usual tell-tale directional flapping of the flag over Camden County Boathouse was absent, and all lanes were fair game for wins. There were 28 racing categories, an ambitious list (but still no pairs!). Later in the day the clouds moved out and the sun gave many kids a "uni tan" to take home.
Crews came from Palo Alto, CA, Miami (Belen Jesuit), Winter Park, FL, Melbourne, FL, Illinois (New Trier HS), but many were from mid-Atlantic area, with Philadelphia and New Jersey crews often filling heats, particularly in sculling events. Many of the smaller private schools in the Philadelphia area focus on sculling only.
One newer program, Penn Charter, started just 4 years ago by head coach Hanne Gradinger-Duncan, and produced the winning Women's and Men's Junior Doubles at finals today. The double of Heidi Zisselman and Maria Georgiou credit Gradinger-Duncan with their success this season.
"She is the foundress of our team," gushed Zisselman, stroke of the quad. "It was a tough race...at Stotes we got second to a Canadian crew, but only by .4 seconds, we really wanted to win this one," added partner Maria. "We've been competing against Ridgewood (note that both the men's double and the women's double have battled the New Jersey team all season), and they beat us at Cities by one second," added Heidi. The Men's Junior Double of Spencer Grant and Kevin Kelly also earned a silver at Stotes with a second to Canadian crew E.L. Crossley, but won here at Nationals. "Last year we stroked at a 28, this year we did most of the race at a 32," says Kevin, who also added that the pair changed seats from last year when they earned an 8th at Stotes. Grandinger-Duncan is a middle school art teacher at Penn Charter, and she is currently assisted by 2011 Pan Am Gold medal winner and Philly native Joe Spencer. They row out of Vesper, on Philadelphia's boathouse row.
The Women's Varsity Single was won by a school in Chestnut Hill (a suburb of Philly). Jennifer Sager won her races through to finals, and looked strong at her finish, 4 seconds ahead of the field, rating at 32. Allison Whitty of Ridley earned a second, and Mother of Divine Grace rower Mary Patrice Hamilton got the bronze. Conestoga (Philly suburb) rowers Ali Siegele and Nicole Destefano won the Women's Varsity Double and the Conestoga women also won the Varsity Quad. Ranney School student Craig Slater won the Men's varsity single by a solid 5 seconds, a statement in the singles ranks that those winning were both skilled competitors. Slater won at Stotesbury last week, and is basically uncoached. He is heading to Harvard's rowing program next year.
Malvern Prep has established itself as a sculling powerhouse with Craig Hoffman coaching from their Conshohocken, PA boathouse. This year was no different at Scholastic Nationals. "The boys were not favored but they executed their race plan and at 750 put a move on, winning their race," he said of the Varsity Men Quad. The "heavy" quad is stroked by Alex Stoczko, who weigh in at about 150 pounds. Similarly, the winning Malvern Prep lightweight quad is bowed by an 115-pound coxswain. Julien Venoski will be going to Cal Berkeley as a cox, but says Hoffman, "he is a very good sculler." The Malvern Prep boys are going to Youth Nationals with a lightweight double, and heavy double and quad, in 2 weeks.
The Junior Eight race pitted New York-Pennsylvania-New Jersey in the center lanes. The same crews: St. Anthony's, St Joseph's Prep and St. Augustine faced each other in the Stotesbury Cup last week with "The Prep" winning that race and New Yorkers' St. Anthony's second. This Memorial Day weekend, it was St. Augustine from Richland, NJ who came out on top. Coach Joe Maguire, who has been with the program since it began 15 years ago, says "The team just committed to each other and focused on improving their own boat speed and did not let outside influences affect them."
Says Bill Reeves, the sophomore coxswain of the St. Augustine crew, "This race was a lot like the Stotes, but we got them at the sprint this time. We went all out, went to a 46 (stroke rate), cut out the layback..." He added, "we like to go fast, and we have been working on our sprint." Apparently it worked. Says 5-seat Dan Stinson, "the conditions here are similar to what we practice on (Lake Lenapee in May's Landing), so we felt good." He adds, "it also because of James Bonney, our captain and bow seat...his leadership..." The team all nodded in agreement on this.
In the Women's Second Eights, it is the Midwest Champion New Trier (they won the Midwest in 5 events, and earned the High Points Trophy for 6th year) who took the race, winning by one of the largest margins during the finals. When approached by row2k, one of the girls in the Eight (Emily Swift) said, "Is this about our YouTube video that went viral on row2k?" The truth is.. well, no. Their cheerful bus-ride version of "Call Me Maybe" might not be as good as their rowing, but this is a crew that really wanted to talk about how nice their opposition was, an what good friends the gals in the boat remain. "We are all good friends, we hold ourselves and each other accountable," says the concurrently-speaking crew, "for four of us, this is our last race." Coach Marchuk adds that the freshman eight won (which bodes well for her to continue this winning trend) and this 2V. The Varsity, who has won in past years, finished out of the medals today.
For Marc Mandel, "It would be tough to beat these last two weeks." The Gonzaga College High School coach of four years won both the Stotebury and Scholastic Nationals with his crews. This weekend, Gonzaga won both the 2V and the 1V races. "This fall we made some technical changes, and we also had some good winter training," he added. "We got fifth at Head of the Charles rowing at a low rating but that was more a by-product of our training up to then." Mandel says, "We have had a good, but not great, last two years...this year the kids are undefeated," The Gonzaga team are "not huge kids" he says, "they just get it done, there is good senior leadership." There are five seniors in the winning Varsity Eight, one of them the towering coxswain Stephen Ueland, who is in fact, taller than the stroke of the boat, Phil Bates. Ueland had a growth spurt this year, and at about 6'3", he is certainly the tallest coxswain every interviewed by this row2k reporter. Thankfully for the men in his boat, he still weighs 125 pounds. Bates, who is headed to Harvard after a gap year, says he plans to train more during his year off. The year off, he says after conferring with Coach Mandel, will be spent at least partially competing at Henley Royal Regatta in England.
Says Mandell of the 1V, "they run their race plan...they were favorites, they needed to dictate how the race went," Of the 2V, he says, "it is a hodge podge of seniors, juniors and sophomores. They had lost to St. Alban's (the brother school to Women's Eight winners National Cathedral) in the Stotebury, so they really wanted this race and they refocused their energy to achieve that." Gonzaga has never won the 2V at Scholastic Nationals before, so these boys wanted to make history, it seems.
Coach Mandell landed at Gonzaga after a stint as the Freshman Heavyweight Coach at Georgetown. He felt coaching at the high school level was more about developing athletes than recruiting, and that appealed to him. It looks like it was a good move. The history and economics instructor is going home with two golds for his teams.
Coach Greg King of the National Cathedral School, winners of the Women's Varsity Eight, has only been at the school for two years, but entered a school where "it is an academically rigorous school....they have great families that push them hard but also really support them." National Cathedral School is the sister school to St. Alban's, who is no stranger to earning medals in championship regattas. Says Coach Ted Haley of Coach King, "He has done a fabulous job there."
National Cathedral School almost didn't even make it to the finals. Right before semis, they lost their skeg. In a frantic few minutes, several folks helped NCS get a new skeg on the boat and get to the start--they shoved off about 14 minutes before race time, and other crews were already in the queue behind the starting docks. "They did what they had to do, and finished second behind Upper Arlington," says King.
In the finals, it was a very different story. "The crew has surprised themselves this year." He adds, "We really didn't taper, we knew we had some speed. We qualified at the Virginia Champs with a silver to James Madison (who won 4th here at Nationals), then a silver at Stotesbury (to Mount St Joe's, who earned a bronze here)." It seemed like they were on a good path, and being placed in the first lane, they may have also surprised the center lanes of finals Saturday, where Saratoga from New York was leading from lane 3. At the end of the race, there was that uncertain pause...who won?
After a few seconds, a parent who had run to the shore yelled to NCS, "you won!" But coaches and athletes were still skeptical. It was after they docked and got on land that it really sunk in--they had won. This eclectic crew of girls (coach says they range from 5'4" to 6'0 tall..."they are hard to rig for...") were elated. Probably no more than Saratoga, who has always brought strong Eights to any race they attend in recent years.
Another crew from Saratoga had a close race, but with the opposite results. In the Men's Varsity Fours, Saratoga men won over Espiscopal Academy, a crew they had won against at Stotesbury by open water. Says Coach Chris Chase of their success as a crew, "They worked really hard on the ergs, two of them in boat are monsters, and they are all good technical rowers. There are not a lot of words (in his coaching), we don't have any built-in moves, they are just good guys, not a lot of thinking that goes into it," he explains.
"The more I try to introduce new things, the more they think, and that is too much..." explains Chase. " I had a bad feeling into the final, as in the semis they didn't row their race--they jacked it up to a 37...they took that to the finals and they rowed too high there too, but thankfully they got lucky, they needed every inch," he says. They won by one-tenth of a second. He says this crew rows better long and low, and he is looking forward to the 2k distance at Youth Nationals on the horizon.
"I can't say enough about our opponents, Episcopal Academy; they had a brilliant race plan and they are just good kids, on the water and off," added Chase.
"We are going to Canadian School boys--going for a triple crown-all the scholastic events, Stotes, Scholastic Nationals, Canadian School Boys, then off to Oak Ridge for Youth Nationals," he says. They are really busy this spring, but the rowers are all seniors and good students, so they can miss a couple days of school. The stroke of that crew is Arik Torkelson, who won the team scholarship this year (which considers academics, rowing and community service) and is attending Cornell in the fall. Three-seat Liam Casey is going to Brown and was third at CRASH-B's, and first American. Luke O'Brien, two-seat, is going to Colgate; bow John Howe who is also a sailor, is going to Maritime; and coxswain Rachel Bowen is headed to Drexel.
Saratoga is a deep team took home several hardware to the Adirondacks. Their two freshman quads--one with the sister of Liam Casey mentioned above. Fiona Casey's crew was one of the largest time margins of victory in finals, 14 seconds. Men's freshman also won, and in all Saratoga earned 8 medals.
Great racing at Scholastic Nationals! This is a tough race to find all the victors in the trailer mosh pit, so my apologies to crews I didn't get to, but congrats to all on several 1500 meter-bouts in the South Jersey heat.
Thanks to: SRAA President Dennis Smith for his gracious hospitality for reporters, and for putting the events only Polish-speaking official (AKA Ryz) with the only Polish-speaking reporter, Dziêkuj±! (thank you!)