The Mount St. Joseph Academy varsity eight crew poses with their gold medals following the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta. From left, Emily Carbone, Rose Ehrlich, Lauren Matchett, Dana Zielinski, Darian DiCianno, Katie O’Connell, Julie McGlynn, Dana Lerro, coxswain Erin McElroy. (Photo courtesy of Zielinski Images)

by Tom Utescher

Not as many high school crews are in action for the fall regattas as during the primary spring racing season, but all the top programs are out there, and Mount St. Joseph Academy reaffirmed its place in that elite company with a series of impressive autumn outings.

On October 8 and 9 the Magic varsity eight won both the Navy Day and Kings Head regattas on the Schuylkill, and two weekends later they competed at the Head of the Charles in Boston, topping every other single-school crew and finishing third overall behind two clubs from California.

Back home at the end of the month, the Mount V-8 shrugged off the second-place mantle of the past few seasons and won the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta. After this steady diet of “head” races, distance events (usually 2.5 miles) where crews leave the starting line one-by-one at set intervals and are ranked solely on time, the Magic ended their fall foray with two “sprint” regattas in which boats race side-by-side.

On the weekend of November 12 and 13, Mount St. Joe made the switch to short-course racing without missing a stroke, winning both the 2000-meter Frostbite Regatta in Philadelphia and the 1500-meter final of the Bill Braxton Memorial Regatta in Camden.

Last spring, the Magic were rebuilding after severe graduation losses, but they still managed to win the Philadelphia City Championships and reach the finals at the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships. The Mount returned six rowers out of that boat, plugged in an experienced coxswain (senior Erin McElroy) and, somewhat surprisingly, handed over the other two oars to girls who had been novice (first-year) rowers just six months before. There are eight 12th-graders in the MSJ line-up, the most since the all-senior V-8 of 2004.

Five-seat Darian DiCianno has been in the varsity boat since the beginning of her sophomore year, and this fall she was paired with six-seat Katie O’Connell, a member of the U.S. Junior Developmental Team. Just behind them are seven-seat Julie McGlynn and stroke Dana Lerro. As sophomores, both spent time in the MSJ lightweight eight, as did two-seat Rose Ehrlich, who’s now working with bow-seater Emily Carbone.

The second pair in the MSJ flagship are the newcomers, senior Dana Zielinski and sophomore Lauren Matchett. Last spring Matchett was in the MSJ freshman eight and Zielinski, although a junior, was also a rookie rower. Zielinski has been a standout swimmer for the Mount since her freshman year, and this season she’s team co-captain along with O’Connell.

Veteran varsity coach Mike McKenna found that, in this instance, blending oarswomen with different levels of experience was not very difficult.

“The six returning girls are fourth-year rowers who are coming back one year older and stronger and fitter,” he said, “and the girls who came in are strong and athletic, so the net horsepower in the boat is up considerably. I still didn’t expect we’d be this fast with two novices jumping into the boat, but they both progressed very quickly. Last year’s boat was very good technically, and that seems to have carried over.”

In September the first scheduled race, the Kings Head, was postponed due to the effects of tropical storm Lee, so the Mounties had more time to prepare.
“They came in fit, which is important, and technically they rowed together well right out of the box,” McKenna related.

On the second weekend of October, the Mounties won the Navy Day Regatta by 28 seconds and the rescheduled Kings Head by almost a minute.

The Navy Day junior varsity event was won by the Magic’s lightweight eight, which then finished second in the varsity race the following day. Since there were no specific lightweight categories in the fall events, the Mount raced a sort of light-heavyweight line-up, with true lights Kate Mirabella, Kait Loftus, Michaela Karrash, Leah McGlynn and Lexi Meister, openweight rowers Maddie Lawn, Kiera McCloy, and Meg O’Brien, and Annie Tenzinger as coxswain.

Two weeks later, both MSJ vessels were up in Boston for the Head of the Charles. With contestants having to navigate a twisting course while trying not to scrub off time on the bends (as well as avoiding other boats), the HOC is often called a coxswain’s race. Although McElroy was in her first season in the V-8, she came up through the standard MSJ process, coxing the JV eight as a sophomore and the lightweights as a junior.

In Boston, McKenna said, “She did very well; she had raced the course before with the lightweights. Overall, that’s the best I’ve seen us row there [the best previous finish was fourth place]. When you can beat Community Rowing up there, you know you’re doing well, and the two that beat us are both very strong clubs from the West Coast.”

The Oakland (Calif.) Strokes won in 17 minutes, 12.58 seconds and another Bay Area crew, Marin Rowing Association, was second in 17:21.01. The Magic clocked in at 17:30.17, nipping the powerful Boston-based club, Community Rowing Inc. (17:30.46). Second among the true high school crews was defending scholastic national champion New Trier High School from Illinois, which placed 10th, and second out of the Philly area crews was the Mount’s Catholic Academies colleague. Merion Mercy (17th).

“The girls really nailed it that weekend, and the interest from college coaches went up dramatically,” McKenna observed.

By the start of the NCAA Early Signing Period on November 9, all eight seniors in the varsity boat had committed; Ehrlich and McGlynn to Drexel, McElroy and O’Connell to Northeastern, Zielinski to Clemson, Lerro to Duke, Carbone to Georgetown, and DiCianno to the University of Southern California.

Up at the HOC, the Mount “lightweights” had held their own, coming in among the top half of the field (29th of 74) and thus qualifying for an appearance in the 2012 event.

The next weekend the Mounties were back home for the Head of the Schuylkill, where for two years in a row they had finished second to the Connecticut Boat Club, one of the premier club organizations in the country and winner of the fours event at the 2011 HOC.

“The timing of the races was such that we were able to break up the V-8 and race a four, and they actually beat the four that won the Head of the Charles,” McKenna noted. “I believe this year CBC is reloading, to a degree, but they’re always very good.”

In the eights race, the Magic won in 13:25.92 and CBC was second in 13:42.72. For the fall season finale, the Mounties would transition from head races to the shorter Frostbite and Braxton races.

“Our crews tend to do well in the head races because they tend to row reasonably efficiently,” observed the Mount mentor. “With sprints it’s hard to tell until you actually get up against the other boats. In the last two races we faced strong crews like Mercer [Junior Rowing Club] and Radnor and Merion, so it looks like we have some speed, as well.”

In the Frostbite they captured first place in the fastest of the varsity flights, timed in 7:02.90. Even with three former lightweights on the roster, the Mount had enough power to edge Mercer in the 1500-meter Braxton final, winning in 5:03.76 to the New Jersey boat’s 5:26.44. The MSJ light eight also made it to the final and came in sixth in 5:26.44.

The Head of the Charles aside, the most important titles in high school crew are contested in the spring, so the members of the Magic V-8 will be working through the winter to maintain their mojo. The routine will include ergometer work, core fitness and strength training, and aerobic spin sessions.

McKenna knows from experience that personality clashes can arise when a group of athletes spend a great deal of time together, but he doesn’t foresee that occurring in the current varsity eight.

“Particularly when you have a lot of seniors, there can be some history that gets in the way, but the thing that differentiates this group is that there’s very good chemistry among them,” he said. “They genuinely like each other and they get along without any drama.”