The junior eight from Mount St. Joseph Academy (center boat), is ahead of Holy Spirit (background) but trails Maryland’s Walt Whitman High School in the finals of SRAA Regatta last weekend. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Most crew programs would have been thrilled to come away from the Scholastic Rowing Association of Amerca (SRAA) national championships with two bronze medalists and a third boat that reached the finals.

The rowers at Mount St. Joseph Academy realize this, but past successes have caused the Magic to have very high expectations of themselves, and the results of last weekend’s SRAA regatta on Camden’s Cooper River were not quite what they’d hoped for.

Out of a total of eight MSJ entries, six made it out of the first-round heats on Friday, and three of them reached the finals on Saturday afternoon.

The varsity eight, an elite crew which won both the 2012 Philadelphia City Championships and the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, was one of the bronze medal winners last weekend. The Magic finished behind gold medalist National Cathedral School (Washington, D.C.) and Saratoga (N.Y.) High School, taking the last medal ahead of Virginia’s James Madison High.

In the line-up for Mount St. Joseph were coxswain Erin McElroy and oarswomen (stroke to bow) Dana Lerro, Julie McGlynn, Katie O’Connell, Darian DiCianno, Dana Zielinski, Emily Carbone, Rose Ehrlich, Kiera McCloy. All are seniors save McCloy, a junior.

They had prevailed against a tough field of finalists at Stotesbury the previous weekend, and as Mount varsity coach Mike McKenna pointed out, “It’s very, very difficult to reach a physical and emotional peak one week and do the same thing the following week, and I think they were just a little bit flat. It wasn’t a bad race, but it wasn’t their “A” race, and that’s what was required in a group of this quality.”

DiCianno and Lerro had both been in the Mount V-8 that had won the City Championships, Stotesbury, and the SRAA regatta in 2010, and McKenna observed, “they had already commented earlier that the crews here are much faster than they were just a few years ago.”

Earlier this month, the Mount’s junior eight became City Champion and then had taken the Stotesbury silver medal behind Montclair (N.J.) High School. Last weekend at SRAA’s Montclair won again while Walt Whitman High (Bethesda, Md.) slipped in between them and the Magic, who won a pitched battle for the bronze (by 15 hundredths of a second) over St. Ursula Academy (Toledo, Ohio).

The lightweight eight, usually a mainstay in the Mount rowing program, did not reach the finals, but the lightweight four did, finishing just out of the medals with a fourth-place performance.

In the first stage of the regatta, the heat races, the MSJ junior four and second eight were unable to advance. Coming in fourth in one of six heats, the Magic’s varsity four (stroke to bow: Fiona Kelly, Quinn DeVore, Sarah Curcio, Bridget Fitzpatrick, cox Beth Weinrich) stayed alive by reaching the “repêchage” stage, a feed-in bracket that offers a second chance to make the semifinals. Here, the Mounties needed to be among the top three to remain in the running, but they finished fifth, ending their SRAA stay late on Friday.

The Mount’s freshman eight has been up and down this spring, going from a lackluster regular season to earning a place in the Stotesbury finals. This time they missed the medal race by one place. After coming in a very close second in one of four opening heats, the MSJ rookies (Bryn McGillin, Jenny DiPietro, Steph Eble, Tina Hendel, Alaina Hunt, Josie Marrocco, Kate Stromberg, Meg Kelley, cox Sabrina Ghantous) wound up fourth in a semifinal that included eventual gold medalist New Trier High School from suburban Chicago.

Bronze medalists at the City Championships, Mount St. Joe’s lightweight eight slipped to sixth place at Stotesbury, and last weekend they ended their run at SRAA’s in the semifinal round. In their initial heat (the first of three sections), the Magic (Kait Loftus, Michela Karrash, Maureen Flynn, Kate Mirabella, Leah McGlynn, Leah Ramos, Meg O’Brien, Lexi Meister, cox Annie Tenzinger) ranked third among the four boats to make the semi’s.

In the second semifinal race they missed the chance to advance with a fourth-place showing, clocking in at 5:22.4 while the third-place boats in both semi’s were at 5:17. The lights from Holy Spirit High School (Absecon, N.J.) won the gold medal by almost five seconds, completing what is considered the “triple crown” for Philly-area crews; City Championships/Stotesbury/SRAA’s.

The Magic’s other set of lean ladies, the lightweight four, gave an impressive performance for a school where the eights are preeminent. Two-seat Rachel Heller is a graduate of Chestnut Hill’s own Norwood Fontbonne Academy, and her crewmates are Elizabeth McKernan (stroke), Maura O’Donnell (three), Emily McHugh (bow), and Madi Kist (cox).

After placing second in their heat at the outset, the feathery four was involved in one of the closest finishes all weekend. While their semifinal race was won handily by Episcopal Academy, the miracle of modern electronic timing accorded second place to Woodbridge (Va.) High School in 5:56.262, while the Magic were eight one-thousandths of a second behind at 5:56.270.

Still, that placing was good for a trip to the finals, where the Magic finished up fourth in 5:50.152, ahead of Nutley (N.J.) High School (5:52.884) and Virginia’s Woodbridge High (5:59.683). Long Island’s Manhasset, a truly dominant light four this spring, took gold in 5:29.729, while silver and bronze medals went to Girls Inter-Ac League quartets from Episcopal (5:42.009) and Agnes Irwin (5:46.202).

Mount St. Joe’s junior eight featured (stroke to bow) Maddie Lawn, Maddie Wescott, Lauren Matchett, Jacqueline James, Jocelyn Ziemniak, Emily Ruddy, Gwynn Kieffer, and Natalie Simms, with Mary Raggazino as coxswain. Sophomores Matchett and Lawn each spent some time in the Mount varsity eight during the 2011-2012 school year.

Mount St. Joe started out in one of four heats and won its flight with the fastest overall time of 5:19.8, a tenth-of-second quicker than Walt Whitman’s trip in another heat. The Magic again put up the top time (5:17.42) as they won the second of the two semifinals ahead of Whitman (5:23.53). It’s easy to second-guess, but the Magic may have expended a little too much energy in its first two races on this hot, muggy weekend.

Montclair, which had won the other semifinal in 5:20.56, had to overtake the Magic late in the Stotesbury Cup Regatta final in order to capture the gold medal back on May 19. At SRAA’s, the Jersey girls took command much earlier and and won by almost two seconds over Walt Whitman (5:11.697 to 5:13.457).

St. Ursula came up to engage the Mount in an all-out fight for the last medal but the Magic pulled it out, crossing in 5:14.306, while the Arrows arrived fourth at 5:14.456. Farther back and well separated were fifth-place Holy Spirit in 5:25.094, and Lake Brantley (Fla.) in 5:36.829.

After winning all of their regular-season and medal races in Philadelphia this spring, the members of the Magic’s varsity eight sought to take the final step to capture the aforementioned “triple crown” for 2012.

They topped their rivals in the first of the six opening heats in their category, with the third-fastest time of the entire field behind Saratoga and James Madison. National Cathedral, which was the Stotesbury silver medalist behind the Magic, also won its first race at at SRAA’s.

The Mount went on place first in its semifinal bout (the first of three, with the top two from each moving on) and once more the Magic recorded the third fastest time overall, but in overview, the semifinal performances didn’t reveal much except for who the six finalists would be. In fact, Ohio’s Upper Arlington High School cranked out the best semifinal time, then brought up the rear in the medal race later on.

MSJ’s McKenna, who tracked the final contest all along the course, noted, “It was us and National Cathedral for the first 500 [meters], and maybe Cathedral had a seat or two. I actually thought we were in great shape then; I thought we were going to take over, but it didn’t happen.”

Cathedral’s Eagles pressed their advantage and secured the gold medal in 4:57.104, holding off a dramatic charge by Saratoga (4:57.617). After these two, the finalists were a little more spread out, with bronze medalist MSJ completing the race in 5:01.242, ahead of James Madison (5:04.324), 2011 champ New Trier (5:06.115), and Upper Arlington (5:14.580). It was the first time since 2005 that the varsity eight final was won by any school other than the Mount and New Trier.

After a few weeks of relatively routine practice, Mount St. Joe will engage in another frenzied stretch of competition, this time with a lot of travelling thrown into the mix. From June 8-10 in the Magic will race against top scholastic crews and against multi-school club crews at the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships in Oak Ridge, Tenn., then they’ll hustle back home and fly over to England for the Henley Women’s Regatta, held June 15-17.

At Oak Ridge, historically footnoted as one of the “secret cities” where the first atomic weapons were developed during World War II, competitors will race six lanes across for 2000 meters on a still-water course at Melton Lake. At Henley, renowned for the Royal Regatta held there each July, the women’s course is only two lanes wide and runs for 1500 meters against the current of the narrow River Thames.

McKenna isn’t concerned about the Mount V-8 shifting gears to adapt to these differing challenges.

“The 2000 meters is basically what we prepare for all season,” he said, “and it’s easier to adjust back to the 1500 than go the other way.”