It is the Empire State of Mind that "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." These words may have been said by Sinatra and repeated by Jay Z, but on the banks of Fish Creek in Saratoga May 11 and 12, it was a long string of rowing coaches. It's up to you, New York, to qualify crews for Nationals.
New York State Scholastic Rowing Championships is a unique qualifier for both SRAA "Scholastic Nationals" in Camden, New Jersey May 24th and 25th and concurrently as a regional qualifier for US Rowing Youth Nationals in Oak Ridge, TN, June 8th and 9th. This has produced a particularly savvy group of teen athletes, who can be overheard strategizing about their heat depending on if their opponents are club or scholastic. In a state burgeoning with new and established rowing programs, it gets an award for efficiency, but not without a share of strange medal presentations. Due to the fact that so many entrants come from "club" teams, which can be comprised of students from multiple schools and as such do not qualify for "scholastic" medals or qualifications, in more than a few instances a boat that wasn't even in finals earned a scholastic podium finish. It is the only qualifier of its kind in the country.
Saturday Time Trials, Semis and Smaller Category Finals
This race fills heats at both National events, and gives crews opportunities to race at a high level, but may need some tweaking in the future. In one race, Regatta Director Chris Chase had to go to 16th place in the time trial to bestow a scholastic bronze medal.
The time trial was a system created after too many historical semifinal and final event cancellations due to weather that also canceled or complicated National bids. In an effort to get every boat at the regatta a time at all costs, a time trail opened the regatta Saturday morning.
"The time trial means something," says Chase as the boats streamed down to the finish at the 9P bridge in Saratoga, "it is your final until you get a chance to row your final." Coaches in New York State felt that having a row and a recorded time was an important part of their trip to States.
At the coaches and coxes meeting, Chase noted that the 600-boat time trail could be considered a sizeable head race… but here they were doing it in 4 hours and before semifinals and with a few smaller category finals still on the schedule Saturday. It was an aggressive 11-hour schedule which lagged behind mid-day, but not so much that the collective hustle of officials (not so thrilled about their compressed lunch break) and volunteers couldn't get back on track, almost.
It rained on and off Saturday, a fact that was more a nuisance than a game-changer, but after 2 previous weekends of sun and warmth at regattas on the Saratoga course, it was a topic of conversation, particularly as straw was laid over mud at the tent area on the launch side of the creek.
Wind is the bigger issue in Saratoga, and at about 2 pm on a given race day, you get a sense of what's ahead. On Saturday, the wind was capricious; kicking up randomly, slowing times but not canceling races. Coxswains and officials alike struggled in the conditions, and after eight successive freshman and novice stake boat dramas, racing caught up on Saturday late afternoon into evening. Many of these afternoon races were finals for the younger set at the regatta, with parents of eighth and ninth graders showing some novice prowess themselves with horns and cow bells. Hat's off to the new parents of rowing at NY States.
The wind settled later in the day, and with it, the drama. On to pasta dinners and shared double beds in the hotels of Saratoga Springs!
In another attempt to get the critical contests of the regatta settled early, the Senior Eights were set to row just after single and double semifinals in the cool early morning of Mother's Day.
The esteemed lane 3 at State championships contained St. Anthony's Crew from Long Island for the first time ever. In the territory so familiar to crews from Chaminade (Westchester) and Canisius (Buffalo), St. Anthony's had the fastest time from the Saturday time trial, a development that did not entirely come as a surprise to Coach Jim Fink.
"We have been going to the Manny Flicks (the Philly early-season race series) to test our speed with different combinations," said Fink.
With seven seniors on board, St. Anthony's repeated its first-place time trial finish at finals. Perennial State favorite Chaminade was leading as they came into the sprint, and St. Anthony's coxswain Abigail Colasacco called to up the tempo, the crew went from a 36 to 42 rating. They powered their way through Chaminade and won by just over a second.
"This is the first class of true Varsity rowers," said Coach Fink. "It is a testament to their success as freshman… they stuck with the program." They have also had Fink coaching for their entire high school career, a consistency that has paid dividends. "We are aiming to peak late season," says the Scholastic coach, who will be going to Stotesbury Cup, SRAA Nationals and Youth Nationals in the coming month.
Says junior 5-seat Mateuz Gembarzewski, "We are just coming into out peak right now, reaching our true potential," he said. "We had great set and balance in the middle of the race, and we were able to raise the rate and pass Chaminade."
The Senior Women's Eight was next down the course, and with an 11-second time trial lead, it was Saratoga Rowing Association's race to win on Day 2. Saratoga is just emerging from an unusual training and racing year. After starting the school and racing year with a win at the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta, their next act had to be big. They traveled to Australia during the Rowing World Cup and won gold in the Sydney International Regatta U19 8+ race, and were in the finals of the Schoolgirls race. This early-spring race disrupted their normal winter training, and they have been a work in progress since.
They may also just be road-weary. "When we travel weekends we get behind in our school work and sleep," admits Shannon Merboth, who is 4-seat of the Eight and going to University of Pennsylvania in the fall. This seasoned engine-room rower is arguably petite, consistent with a crew who appears to have strength-to-weight ratio mastered. Four of the members weigh just about 130 pounds; none weigh over 145. "We just click, we have the same focus," she considers…and then a bystander listening said, "It's the aggressiveness, definitely the aggressiveness." Merboth just tilted her head to the side and said "Yeah, that might be it."
Despite whatever disadvantages in size and sleep they may have, the crew held onto that margin of victory on day two, winning by almost 12 seconds over Niskayuna in the final. It is worth mentioning that neighboring Niskayuna's second-place finish is a victory for a squad that struggled for finals lanes just a few years ago, and now appears to have fast boats in a several categories.
Later in the day, Saratoga twin dynamos Kelli and Kerri Wegner, about 128 pounds each, rowed a low rating but still won the Senior Pair. The girls will be heading to Boston University in the Fall to row openweight. (the picture, right, shows them in the 5 and 6 seat of the Saratoga Eight). the girls won the Saratoga Springs Rowing Club Scholarship this year.
There were a few names heard over the loudspeaker the entire weekend. There was the obvious Saratoga, host of the event (which has such a huge group of well-coached kids launching from the boathouse across from the general rowing public they could populate almost every category), but also Pelham Community Rowing Association, Manhasset and Canisius High Schools were consistently heard. (Tally? Saratoga won 9 events, Manhasset 5, Pelham 4, and Canisius 3 on Sunday alone; not separating Scholastic from Club).
At one point, Manhasset won three races in a row, almost flushing out the State Troopers for noise control on the shore. This was an enthusiastic group, and after they won the Lightweight boys and girls Fours, and the Boys Junior Eight, it was a frenzied few minutes at the State Boat Launch. They also won the girls Senior Four and the boys (160 lb.) Lightweight 4+.
"We come to States to give as many rowers as possible an opportunity, and to get as many boats as possible to the next level," says Hugo Guardado, Coach of Manhasset High School. The crew that rows in the Long Island Sound has boats like St. Anthony's and Chaminade to measure up with on the same body of water.
"Our varsity women's crew is only 16 athletes, "says Guardado. (Note: they must have brought 4 relatives per rower judging by the shoreline.)
Pelham Community Rowing Association won four events, specializing in lightweight rowing by chance and ultimately design. "We had our first sweep boat for PCRA at finals at Nationals last year," said Coach Guy Monseair. "It started a lightweight movement at the club… the rowers were inspired by the success. They worked so hard over the winter, it was a combination of skill and will," says Monseair, who adds that their motto of "no regrets" and the philosophy of always taking every practice to be "better-stronger-faster" challenged them daily.
The Pelham Lightweight Girls Eight won by more than ten seconds, after an undefeated season at regattas in Connecticut, New Jersey, at their home turf Long Island Champs, and now States. "We train with our hearts," says 6-seat Philipa Goodleaf. Four of the seniors in the boat won at States last year, "we were transitioning into a varsity team," she adds. Monseair said he wasn't sure if they had the speed, but they have only been getting better. Emily Sherer, the senior coxswain, says they will be going to Northeast Regionals to see how they stack up to the best teams in the Northeast, and who they will see again at Youth Nationals in the three weeks.
Monseair says he looks forward to the break while the scholastic championships are contended over the next two weeks, and the club crews can train. "There can be quite a bit of chaos around the boathouse with all the crews training," he said. "Now with the next few weeks (these qualified crews) can focus, do the mental prep they need," he says.
Canisius has been ubiquitous at the podium since NY States became a true championship regatta more than a decade ago. At the 2013 iteration of the regatta, they grabbed the 2V Boys Eight and both Lightweight Boy's Eights (150 and 160 pounds.)
After winning the Jesuit Cup races in Camden, Catholic Cup in Pittsburgh, Governor's Cup in Columbus and a local Buffalo regatta, the Canisius crew had confidence when they arrived in Saratoga. This is a Buffalo crew that managed to race four times before showing up here in May, a feat that may be lost on crews from less brutal regional weather. "They have a really hard training regimen, even in the winter" said Kevin Flaherty, who coaches Canisius with his father Tom and Assistant Coach Dan Grosenbaugh.
"The 2V crew is very aggressive, they won by open water," says Flaherty. "We really work on staying confident in the boat, keeping our race plan." Adds Grosenbaugh: "We focus on the boat and not gear our race to the other crews."
Although the team faces a punishing winter, they row as much of the year as possible, introducing new rowers in the summer then keeping kids on the water through summer, fall, and again in the spring. The team heads to Welland (Canada) to race next weekend, and will be at Canadian Schoolboys as June commences.
Throughout the day Sunday, wind picked up, creating a steady headwind for races. At the lunch break, there were 18 mph winds and 27 mph gusts. It settled to 14 mph winds after break and it was "game on." Times were slow, but kids figured out that concept of leaning into the wind, and it was everyone's wind—there really wasn't a bad lane unless the wind arrived from the west and some of the course is protected by a hill at lanes 6-5-4. Chief Referee Roger Frederick declared the course rowable.
This regatta ends Saratoga's three-week hospitality run; the hosts now have to load the trailer for the remainder of the season. It ended on time, and the Saratoga Varsity rowers descended on the launch and tent area as the clean-up crew. Most of the kids carrying trash bags will be heading to a Nationals of some sort. They made it here, Saratoga, New York.