Maria Georgiou (left) and Heidi Zisselman propelled one of the two Penn Charter doubles that won gold medals at Scholastic Nationals last weekend. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Good things – or should we say “gold” things -came in threes for area sculling programs last weekend, when two boats from Penn Charter and one from Springside Chestnut Hill Academy captured gold medals at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America (SRAA) national championships on Camden’s Cooper River.

SCH senior Jen Sager, who made the switch from a highly-successful senior quad in 2011 to a senior single this spring, added to her 2012 medal collection by winning the gold at SRAA’s by more than five seconds.

Kevin Kelly (stroke) and Spencer Grant (bow) won for the PC Quakers in the boys’ junior double, and in the same category for the girls the victors were fellow 11th-graders Heidi Zisselman (stroke) and Maria Georgiou (bow). Penn Charter’s modern-day rowing program was started only one year before these four juniors entered high school, and the Quakers had never even qualified a boat to race in the SRAA’s until this season.

The lone entry for the SCH boys was senior Carl Delacato, competing in the senior single. As the regatta got underway on Friday he placed second in one of three heats, earning inclusion in the group of one dozen solo scullers (four from each heat) who advanced into the two semifinal races held at the start of competition on Saturday.

On Friday, Germantown Friends School junior Andrew Bair was in the same category – and in fact the same race – as the Blue Devils 12th grader. Bair also qualified, placing third in heat number two, and the following morning the two athletes found themselves on the course together once more.

Here, only the top three finishers in each race would continue on to the final round, and both missed the cut. Bair was fourth in five minutes, 40.26 seconds, three seconds out of third, while Delacato came in fifth in 5:47.85.

Because he’s still an 11th-grader, Bair participated in the junior single category that was offered in most regattas earlier in the spring. He won all of these events, ending up with a gold medal at the Philadelphia City Championships on May 6. Starting with the prestigious Stotesbury Cup Regatta two weekends later, he stepped up to the senior single, passing the initial qualifier there and then winding up sixth in his semifinal.

“I didn’t have an especially good race, but I thought it was a good learning experience,” he explained.

One lesson he absorbed was that, “increasing my stroke-rate (strokes per minute) is important. I’m a pretty big guy (6’4”), so it can be hard to get that rating up. I also need to get stronger, obviously. A lot of these guys have faster 2k’s (ergometer scores) than me, so I have to get that down, which is the plan over the summer.”

Just before the male solo acts, SCH’s Sager was on the river at 8:00 AM on Saturday for her semifinal. She had been 11 seconds faster than any of her rivals in the Friday heats.

After winning the City Championships at the beginning of May, Sager took home the silver medal from Stotesbury, where she lost by two seconds to Eliza Frank from Buffalo. She was looking forward to a rematch with the New Yorker, who was initially listed among the SRAA entries but then dropped out a few days before the regatta began.

Sager won her semifinal at Scholastic Nationals to reach the medal race, but her winning time here was only sixth-tenths of a second faster than the figure put up in another race by Alison Whitty of Ridley College in St. Catherine’s Ontario. Whitty had raced at Stotesbury, where she was knocked out in a fast semifinal.

At the SRAA finals in the middle of the humid afternoon on Saturday, Sager won in 6:13.710, while Whitty became the silver medalist in 6:18.962. Mary Hamilton, a home-schooled rower from northern New Jersey, collected the bronze medal in 6:23.937.

Out of the competitors from CHASS and Penn Charter, the singles rowers had the toughest path to the finals, having to race twice to get to the medal round. Because of the small number of total entries, the semifinal stage was completely eliminated for the two doubles and a girls’ junior quad from Penn Charter, and for a girls’ senior quad from SCH.

Another boat raced by the girls from Springside Chestnut Hill, a lightweight quad, had no preliminary races at all, going straight into a Saturday afternoon final along with the other four light quad crews that attended the SRAA’s.

This group of Lions (stroke to bow: Mozelle Rosenthal, Chelsea Richardson, Anna Rose Bedrosian, Mia Gold) bagged a bronze medal in 5:49.075, placing behind fellow medalists Conestoga High School (5:34.940) and Haddon Township (5:38.534) and ahead of Saratoga (N.Y.) High School (5:58.654) and Baldwin (6:15.915).

The SCH varsity quad (Alana Noble, Katie Blake, Emily Eisler, Anna Valciukas) came in third in its opening heat race on Friday, earning a spot in the finals the next day. There, all the boats wound up at least a few seconds apart, with Conestoga (5:24.172) beating Episcopal (5:28.476) for the gold medal, while SCH placed sixth (5:45.479).

PC’s junior quad (Katie O’Malley, Celina McCall, Julia Mammone, Tara Malone) has just missed the cut-off for the finals at Stotesbury, but at SRAA’s they got in with a third-place row in their heat on Friday.

Conestoga put up the faster time of the two heat winners, but the gold medalist from Stotesbury, New Jersey’s Haddon Township High School, came through again to win the SRAA finals last weekend. Their time was 5:33.296 to Conestoga’s 5:38.143, and Penn Charter crossed the line sixth in 5:50.954, about a second-and-a-half behind number five Maclay School of Tallahassee, Fla.

Clearly, PC’s best chance to medal was with its two junior doubles. Back at the time of the program’s humble beginnings in 2009, it would’ve been difficult for the Quakers to imagine themselves in this position.

“It’s been a struggle and there have been plenty of growing pains,” noted head coach Hanne Gradinger Duncan. “Back then the coaches were educating not only the students, but also the school administration, which knew nothing about rowing.

“At one point,” she related, “they asked me if we really needed a [motor] launch. I said yes, I have to be out there with them and I can’t swim alongside the boats. A football or basketball coach wouldn’t be expected to coach his team from a couple hundred yards away. But the rewarding thing was that it wasn’t long before I saw that my passion for the sport was carrying over to the kids.”

A faculty member in the middle school art department at PC, she remembers teaching Georgiou, Grant, Kelly, and Zisselman when they were eighth-graders and Charter’s crew program was just getting underway.

“They all were sort of searching for their sport for upper school,” she recalled. “When they came out the next year, you could see the potential. Now all four of them are serious about rowing in college and they already have some colleges looking at them.”

[Interestingly, Kelly lives close to Germantown Friends’ Bair, but the two didn’t meet until they went on a college visit to Harvard at the same time.]

Competing in the junior category last year as sophomores, the four Quakers were routinely racing against older rivals, but this spring they were ready to make their mark.

“Both boats have been in the top three of every race all season long,” Duncan said. “They’re not as big as many of the kids they go up against, but they’ve got a lot of heart. Because they’re classmates, they have a kind of friendly battle with each other. They get off the water and it’s ‘we did this, how did you do.’ “

The boys won the City Championships and were second at Stotesbury, while the girls were silver medalists at both regattas. The Stotesbury gold medalists in their respective categories were Canadian crews that weren’t entered in the SRAA’s, but the two PC duos knew there would be some serious sparring with New Jersey’s Ridgewood High School, whose girls were first and whose boys were second at “Cities.”

In the SRAA heat races each Charter tandem won its section. The girls had the fastest overall time ahead of Poughkeepsie High School, while the PC boys found that the Ballston Spa’s winning time in the second heat was nine seconds faster than their own in the first race. These two New York boats had each placed fourth at Stotesbury.

For the finals, Duncan revealed, “Basically what we told them is that whoever wants it most will win. The girls went right out ahead, but the boys were way back at the first 500 and they walked through all five boats to take it right at the end. They like to come from behind, which can be a bit nerve-wracking for the rest of us.”

The Charter boys indeed provided a hair-raising experience for their fans, edging Ballston for the gold, 5:06.164 to 5:07.010. The battle for the bronze was much closer still, with Ridgewood (5:09.996) claiming the last medal over fourth-place Conestoga (5:10.101). Roman Catholic was fifth in 5:16.833, ahead of New York’s Friends Academy (5:19.863).

Well before the finish, the girls’ final had evolved into a two-boat race for the gold, which was won by Georgiou and Zisselman (5:44.725) over the duo from Ridgewood (5:46.460). Poughkeepsie crossed in 5:55.117 to collect the bronze medal, and was followed by well-matched Hillsborough High (Tampa, Fla.) and Conestoga (timed in 6:07.371 and 6:07.656, respectively), and by Rye (N.Y.) High School (6:34.077).

Penn Charter mentor Duncan, who grew up in Kansas and rowed for the University of Colorado crew, is leaving the school to head all the way out west with her husband, who has accepted a job in Portland, Ore.

“It’s a little bittersweet to leave a program that I started, but I’m going out on the perfect note,” she reflected. “Penn Charter crew has really come of age, and the new coach will be able to hit the ground running.”