June 24, 2010

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Mount lights win bronze, varsity fifth at US Rowing Nationals

The rowers of Mount St. Joseph Academy’s lightweight eight display their bronze medals on the awards podium at the 2010 U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships in Bethel, Ohio.

After winning matching gold medals at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta and at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America national championships last month, Mount St. Joseph Academy’s varsity eight and lightweight eight headed out to Cincinnati, Ohio two weekends ago to race against the biggest of the big dogs.

There, at the annual U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships, the field of competitors usually includes powerful scholastic teams that may not have attended the SRAA’s, along with formidable club crews that draw rowers from a number of different high schools.

Mount St. Joe was the only high school program to have two eights appear in the grand finals, which feature the top six boats in each class. The Magic lightweight eight, the lone single-school entry in the final race, took the bronze medal, while the Mount saw its varsity (or open-weight) eight advance to the finals for the first time ever, where it finished fifth. Racing a 2000-meter course instead of the 1500 meters customary in scholastic regattas, both crews turned in their best 2K times of the year during their stay in Cinci.

“At the start of the season we set our sights on Cincinnati and that’s what we worked towards since day one,” said the lightweights’ Alanna McCloy, an Erdenheim native who’ll attend Villanova University next year. “It’s an amazing experience, because every boat you’re racing against is at the top of their game and was the best in their region.”

McCloy, the five-seat rower, was new to the boat this year. Senior seven-seat Sam Brecht (University of Pittsburgh) first entered the light eight as a sophomore, and a third senior, stroke Ariana Harkins (Philadelphia University) earned her seat in 2009. Juniors Meg Bresnahan (two), Katie Casebeer (four), Colette McNeela (bow), and Maggie Rush (cox) and tenth-graders Rose Ehrlich (six) and Julie McGlynn (three) completed the crew.

Casebeer, a Chestnut Hill resident, was in the light eight last year, and noted, “This year’s boat is totally different. We were solid last year [the SRAA champions], but this year the mentality of the seniors affected the whole boat dynamic – there was just so much dedication and focus.”

The Magic’s veteran varsity eight included six upperclassmen; stroke Vicky Babson (UCLA), three-seat Mary Duff (George Washington), six-seat Katy Gregor (Duke), coxswain Sarah Jordan (Virginia), four-seat Laura Pospisil (Stanford), and seven-seat Chierika Ukogu (Stanford). The line-up also featured junior Meredith Bracken (bow) and sophomores Darian DiCianno (five) and Dana Lerro (two). Both Bracken and Rush, the lightweights’ coxswain, are 2007 graduates of Norwood Fontbonne Academy.

In the event of illness or injury, five alternates were chosen to make the trip to Ohio; sophomore coxswain Erin McElroy, sophomore open-weight rowers Emily Carbone and Katie O’Connell, and two lightweights, junior Katie McCormick and sophomore Molly Tenzinger.

In order to compete at the Youth Nationals, crews had excel in regional qualifying regattas around the country. In both the open-weight and the lightweight eight categories, a field of 20 boats was divided into three heats for the opening round of racing on Friday, June 11. The top four in each heat would advance to two six-boat semifinals on Saturday, and from there the three fastest boats in each section would race in the grand final, while the others ended their weekend in the “petite” final.

The Magic easily won the second heat for lightweights on Friday with a time of 7:01.870, while in the first heat the Oakland Strokes finished first in 7:06.400. The third heat was an eye-opener, with Boston-based Community Rowing Inc. (CRI) streaking to victory in 6:42.545 over three-time defending champ Los Gatos (Calif.) Rowing Club (6:47.016).

Casebeer recalled, “Coach [Mike] McKenna said we couldn’t compare times between the heats because the wind changed, but it was still like ‘Wow, these boats are really fast! We need to take it up a couple notches.’ ”

Earlier in the season, CRI had journeyed to California and had defeated the native crews, but not long after that the Mount beat Community Rowing at the Saratoga Invitational in New York. However, one regular member of the Bay State ensemble was out with an injury that weekend, and subsequently CRI shuffled some of its line-ups (including its open eight) to produce an exceptionally fast lightweight eight as well as an open-weight four that won a silver medal at Youth Nationals.

CRI also put up the fastest overall time in the semifinals (6:56.600) while the Magic were second in the same race (7:02.270), well ahead of third-place Cincinnati Junior Rowing Club (7:10.860). Los Gatos had won the first semifinal in 7:02.300. Now, the wind rose and storm clouds advanced across the lake; the CRI/Mount semifinal would be the last race down the course before competition was postponed until the afternoon.

Even when the thunder rumbled into the distance and the rain stopped cascading down, it was not exactly accurate to say that the venue dried out. With the dew-point reading approaching the mid-70’s, you could stand stock still and feel the sweat streaming down – you could hardly have been wetter if you’d been submerged in the lake itself.

In these conditions, the Mount’s varsity eight held the lead in its semifinal race going into the final 500 meters, but was overhauled at the end by the Oakland Strokes and by Illinois’ New Trier High School. Two weeks earlier at the scholastic national championships (SRAA’s), the Magic won the gold medal while New Trier finished fourth, but the Trevians came on strong at Cincinnati and would capture the bronze medal.

On Friday, the Magic had finished third in their heat with a time of 6:49.643. The Connecticut Boat Club (CBC), dominant all year long, cranked out a 6:36.443 to win that race, and the other heat winners were New Trier (6:46.148) and Sammamish Rowing Association (6:53.331).

“Getting third in the heats and the semifinals was encouraging.” observed Ukogu, “We remembered how two years ago we got crushed in the heats and the reps [repechage]. We knew this time we were a lot more competitive.”

Although the Mount could not hold its late lead in the semifinals the following day, the effort put forth by the Magic allowed them to take third place by nine seconds over number four Albany Rowing Center, and thus become the first Mount St. Joe varsity eight ever to reach the finals at the Youth Nationals. Timed at 6:42.304, the Mounties had set a new personal record on a 2000-meter course, eclipsing the 6:48 they logged at the US Rowing Mid-Atlantic Championships in May. In that same race on New Jersey’s Lake Mercer, the MSJ lightweights had established a new standard of 6:55, but that mark would also fall at Cincinnati.

Sunday was another hot day, but somewhat lower humidity and a stronger breeze made conditions more comfortable than Saturday. The lightweights tearfully launched from the dock for their last race together, but they’d regained their composure by the time they reached the starting line.

Despite the daunting opposition, Casebeer related “Maggie [the coxswain] stressed that there should be no doubt in our minds that we were going to win the race. If we thought at any time that we would be okay with second or third, then we wouldn’t have reached our full potential.”

McCloy agreed: “Once you start thinking you’ll settle for third, then you could end up settling for fourth, or for just being in the final.”

Casebeer recalled, “It was basically a sprint in the first 1000 meters because everybody was just so excited. CRI and Los Gatos and us separated from the other three boats right away, then around 1000 meters CRI and Los Gatos started to pull away. Everyone in our boat gave everything they had to try and stay with them, so you couldn’t ask for more than that.”

CRI’s winning figure of 6:38.576 was faster than the times of all but two boats in the open-weight grand final. Los Gatos struck silver in 6:41.78, and the Magic were third in a time of 6:48.735, their best ever on a 2K course by seven seconds. Finally freed from the tyranny of the scales, the MSJ lightweights downed Dove® ice cream bars back at their team tent. The open-weight eight final was scheduled to start just after noon.

“We went into it thinking anything could happen, which is what we usually do,” said Ukogu, whose boat had finished second to CBC at Saratoga two months before. “We really respected Connecticut, because they have so much depth and they’ve had an amazing year.”

Beforehand, the Mounties had to decide how to approach the race; conserve energy and then sprint hard for a medal at the end, or try to hang with the leaders the whole way and risk running out of gas before the finish.

“They chose the ‘go for it’ strategy, and it may have cost them a place or two,” Coach McKenna observed. “For 1300 meters we were right there with Oakland for second, then they moved away from us, and later on New Trier passed us and Los Gatos got us at the line.”

The CBC coxswain’s arms shot into the air as she passed the finish line buoys, signaling a convincing victory for Connecticut; 6:30.990 to Oakland’s 6:36.356. New Trier took the bronze in 6:39.045, and Los Gatos edged the Mount for fourth place, 6:42.653 to 6:42.949. Sixth place went to Sammamish (6:44.103), a crew from Washington state that had been undefeated this spring prior to arriving in Cincinnati.

“Everyone pulled as hard as they could,” said the Mount’s Ukogu, “so there were no regrets.”



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