Seen here racing in the rain on the Schuylkill back in April, Norwood Fontbonne Academy grad Rachel Heller (’09) helped Mount St. Joseph’s lightweight four finish seventh overall at the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships last weekend. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Last weekend the top crews from Mount St. Joseph Academy made their annual June pilgrimage to race against the best of the best. The U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships, held for the second year in a row at Melton Lake in Oak Ridge, Tenn., features not only elite boats from individual high schools, but also junior club crews made up of rowers from more than one institution. The event is held on a 2000 meter course, as opposed to the 1500 meters commonly found in scholastic racing.

The Mount varsity eight, the gold medalist at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta and winner of the bronze medal at the Scholastic Nationals over Memorial Day weekend, reached the semifinal round in Tennessee and then ended its stay in the B Final, which includes the half-dozen boats that finished fourth through sixth in each of the two semi’s.

The MSJ eight (stroke to bow: Dana Lerro, Julie McGlynn, Katie O’Connell, Darian DiCianno, Dana Zielinski, Emily Carbone, Rose Ehrlich, Kiera McCloy, cox – Erin McElroy) finished fourth in the B Final, equivalent to 10th place overall. The members of the Mount flagship hope to fare better this weekend, when they’ll be racing in England at the 2012 Henley Women’s Regatta.

Mount St. Joseph also had its lightweight four and lightweight eight qualify for the Youth Nationals last weekend. The four ended a successful season by finishing first in the B Final to rank seventh in its category, while the light eight, which has struggled to hit its stride this spring, bowed out in the second round, prior to the semifinals. In previous appearances at the Youth Nationals, Mount St. Joe had at least one boat earn a spot in the A Final (once known as the Grand Final) every year since 2006, when the light eight claimed the gold medal.

Traditionally, the emphasis had been on the eight-oared boats in the MSJ program, so the lightweight four’s performance at Youth Nationals this year was noteworthy.

“They did very well and everybody was happy about that,” said Mount varsity crews coach Mike McKenna.

Each of the three Magic crews were seeded into one of four heats in its category as the racing began on Friday. The winner of each heat would advance directly into the semifinal round, while the other boats battled it out for a spot in the semi’s during the repechage stage, a variety of feed-in bracket.

The varsity eight was able to skip the “reps,” marching straight into the semi’s by winning its heat by four seconds over a Seattle club crew, Green Lake. At 6:42.319, the Magic recorded the fourth-fastest time out of all 22 participants, behind only California’s Marin Rowing Association (6:34.217) and Oakland Strokes (6:39.589), and New York’s Saratoga Rowing Association (6:37.935).

Grouped with the fastest boat out of all the heat races, the Mount lightweight four (stroke to bow: Emily McHugh, Rachel Heller, Maura O’Donnell, Elizabeth McKernan, cox – Madi Kist) finished second behind Cincinnati Junior Rowing Club and went into the repechage round. Here, also, there were four flights, with the first and second-place finishers going on to the semifinals. The third-place boats in each “Rep,” along with the two crews with the next-fastest times, would be slotted into the six-boat C Final.

The MSJ light four won its repechage contest, coming in three-and-a-half seconds ahead of second-place North Suburban Rowing Club, from Lake Forest, Ill. The Magic’s winning time of 8:11.860 was the fastest out of the four repechage winners.

Mount St. Joe’s lightweight eight (Kait Loftus, Michela Karrash, Maureen Flynn, Kate Mirabella, Leah Ramos, Leah McGlynn, Meg O’Brien, Lexi Meister, cox – Mary Raggazino) also found itself in the Reps after coming in fifth in its heat Friday heat race. Unlike the four, the light eight did not advance out of the repechage, coming in fourth in its section with a time that did not place the Magic among the two time qualifiers. For them, the racing was over.

McKenna, the MSJ coach, said that the weather at Melton Lake was hot, but not particularly humid. There was flat water on the course, with very little wind throughout the event.

For the semifinal round, the Magic’s lightweight four and varsity eight were scheduled about half-an-hour apart late on Saturday afternoon.

The light four held its own over the first half of the course, sitting in third place (the last qualifying position for the A Final) at the 1000-meter mark. However, Seattle’s Lakeside School made a decisive move at that point and overtook the Mount to finish third behind Manhasset (from Long Island), and Upper Natoma Rowing Club (Sacramento, Cailf.). Coming in fourth, the Magic would be participating in the B final for their last race of the regatta.

The start of the Mount’s varsity eight semifinal (the first of two) was delayed when one of the launches carrying race officials broke down on the course. When the contest finally got underway, Cincinnati Junior Rowing Club got off the line quickly and led the rest of the way. The Magic, in the middle of the course in lane three, also started well and held second place as the leaders passed the 500 meter line and then the halfway point.

At 1000 meters, through, Saratoga was moving up in lane five, on the other side of Cincinnati from Mount St. Joe. At 1500 meters the New Yorkers had taken over second place and the Magic were trying to hang on to claim the third and final berth in the A Final. It was not to be, as the two crews in the outside lanes surged in the final 500.

Boston-based Community Rowing Inc. (CRI) came up in lane six (closest to the spectators) to nab the last A Final spot, coming in third behind impressive Cincinnati and the Saratoga eight. New Hampshire’s St. Paul’s School, over in lane one, wound up in fourth ahead of fifth-place MSJ, while James Madison High School (Vienna, Va.) finished sixth.

There was less than a two-second gap between first place, at 6:51.724, and fourth, at 6:53.616, while the Mount clocked in a 6:57.908 and the number for sixth-place James Madison was 7:02.483.

Commenting on the race, MSJ’s McKenna remarked, “The simple answer is it was a bad row at the wrong time. The technical answer is we rowed too high [in terms of the strokes-per-minute rate]. We were a little out of control and consequently we were a little gassed at the end of the race.”

Like the lightweight four, the Magic V-8 would end its weekend in the B Final. Here, too, the Mount eight encountered difficulties, some having to do with the strength of the field. Connecticut Boat Club (CBC), the 2010 national champion and the bronze medalist a year ago, did not make the cut for the A Final this year, but won the “B” race in 6:55.574 ahead of James Madison (6:58.403) and St. Paul’s (7:01.235). Mount St. Joe, fourth in 7:03.012, posted a better time than the figure recorded for the last-place boat of the A Final, but in that race the field was more spread out, and Oakland (6:46.098) dominated to win by more than seven seconds over Marin.

Trailing the Magic in the B Final were Pocock Rowing Center, from Seattle (7:05.896) and Sarasota (Fla.) Crew (7:07.696).

Comparing the Magic’s B Final outing to their semifinal race, McKenna said, “It was slightly better, but basically, a similar theme. They rowed a bit higher than they should have. They led the race for, I would say, 1000 meters, then CBC crept through them, and after that St. Paul’s and James Madison got through them, too. As in the semifinal, they used up too much gas in the first half of the race, and didn’t have enough left to finish the deal.”

The members of the lightweight four were able to finish out the weekend with a win, taking their B Final in 7:59.835, completing the course more quickly than the fifth and sixth “A” finalists. Runner-up to the Magic was North Suburban (8:02.665), and third place went to Miami Beach Rowing Club (8:03.732). In the A Final, Manhasset crushed the field, winning by over eight seconds in 7:36.879.

The Magic didn’t have much time to brood over the outcome of their various races at Youth Nationals. Hurrying home, the members of the varsity eight and a group of rowers picked to staff a second open-weight eight were scheduled to board a plane for England on Monday evening. They were headed for Henley where, in all likelihood, they will not face as strong a group of competitors as they did in Tennessee.

In the last 10 years at Henley, there have been seven winners from the U.S. and one from Canada in the “Schools/Junior Eights” category. In that period the only English crew to claim the Peabody Cup (the trophy in this category) was Headington School. Headington won in 2009, knocking out Mount St. Joe along the way, and repeated as champion in 2010. There will be no return engagement for defending champ Groton School (Mass.), which combined two successful fours several weeks before Henley to form its victorious eight in 2011.

Besides the Mount, two other crews who were at the Youth Nationals last weekend will be at Henley. One is St. Paul’s, which finished one spot ahead of the Magic in both the semifinals and the B Final, and which won the Henley Women’s Regatta back in 2001. The other is Northwest Regional Champion Green Lake, which lost to Mount St. Joe in the heat racing, but came back to make the A Final and finish fifth.

If the Magic can return to the disciplined approach that brought them much success earlier in the 2012 season, there’s no reason they shouldn’t do well in their races on the historic River Thames.

“The girls may have been a little too fired-up last weekend,” McKenna observed. “Hopefully, they’ll be a little more relaxed after they’ve had a few days to chill out.”