Lessons Learned at Nationals

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Yorktown crew packed up its trailer, truck, tents and entourage for the last time of the 2009 season and made the trek back to Lake Mercer, NJ, for the 75th Annual Scholastic Rowing Association of America national championships.

Representing Yorktown were the women’s junior 8, women’s second 8, women’s first 8, men’s freshman 8 and men’s first 8.

SRAA Nationals draws crews from all over the eastern half of the U.S. In addition to the Stotesbury circuit of crews, boats from New Trier HS outside Chicago, Central Catholic from Pittsburg, Balen Jesuit from Miami, and Canisius HS from Buffalo compete as well, making Nationals an even more competitive field than Stotes.

The weather was perfect for racing, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s both days with little wind.

Nose sheared off racing shell during practiceThe team started off the weekend with what appeared to be a tragedy. During its pre-race Thursday evening practice on the course, the men’s 1V hit an unmarked obstruction underwater in lane 7 and sheared off the first 9 inches of the nose of their six-month-old Vespoli racing shell. The crew handled the incident in good order, no one was hurt, and the boys brought the shell safely in to the recovery dock. After the water was poured out of the ruptured boat, Coach Andy Bacas and the team had to go about finding a substitute boat.

Providence then began shining on the Yorktown faithful. As it turned out, our boathouse-mates from TBC, McLean HS, had a demo Resolute hull on their trailer that they were not going to use. Their 1V had opted to race in their traditional Vespoli. A hasty deal was arranged with the McLean coaches, and the Patriot men took possession of the shell and attached eight riggers before nightfall—an enormously lucky turn of events.

As the YHS men’s first 8 row a starboard-stroked boat and the Resolute riggers were set and pitched for a port rig, almost all the riggers ended up out of trim and needed significant adjustment. The YHS rigging team of Ken Shuster and Andy Bacas had few if any metric tools and no Resolute parts or knowledge to adequately re-rig the hastily borrowed boat. Andy put in a call Friday morning to his friend Marc Mandel, the head coach at Gonzaga (a Resolute rowing crew), seeking some basic Resolute parts to begin this process. Not only did Coach Mandel provide parts, but also he graciously offered two hours of his time and expertise and personally adjusted all 8 pins with a variety of special Resolute parts he had in his possession. Keep in mind, Coach Mandel had the weight of being the favorite to win the men’s 1V championship after a heartbreaking second place finish at Stotesbury and other crews of his own to worry about. The fact that he could and did make time for the Yorktown crew was nothing short of amazing. For this sort of effort and sportsmanship, Marc Mandel certainly is DC Rowing’s Man of the Year for a variety of reasons, but more on that shortly.

Four hours after it started, the rigging of the Resolute was finally finished, with the boat now affectionately referred to as “The Mandel” by the Yorktown men. While all this activity was going on at the trailer site, two YHS crews managed to advance to the semifinals out of the morning heats.

First up was the men’s freshman 8, which finished third in their heat, only 3 seconds behind crews from Chaminade and Holy Spirit and well up on Virginia rival McLean. This performance was particularly meaningful, as both Chaminade and Holy Spirit are year-round programs and all of their freshmen began rowing in the fall.

Next up were the painted faces of the Women’s junior 8, who also qualified in third behind crews from Haddonfield and St. Anthony’s and up on a tough crew from Winter Park, FL.

Next on the schedule was the women’s 1V. The Patriot women faced a tough heat and qualified for the repechage (or second chance) round with a fourth place finish behind a really fast crew from Saratoga HS and Plant HS (Florida). National Cathedral was third, three seconds up on the Patriot women.

The men’s 1V, in the borrowed Resolute, had one of their best rows of the year in their heat and qualified to move directly to the semifinals with a second place finish, three seconds behind Gonzaga and four seconds up on LaSalle of Philadelphia.

In the women’s 2V, a very gutsy YHS crew came back after a boat equipment malfunction in the early going and almost rowed themselves back into qualifying, but came up just short in a heat won by New Trier HS, the eventual gold medalist.

In the women’s 1V repechage, YHS was unfairly disadvantaged by being placed in a lane with a sunken stake boat and then moved to Lane 7, where they started 2-3 seats behind the rest of the field. In a very tight race, though finishing 5th behind crews from McLean, Atlantic City, Loyola, and Oakton, the Patriot women were advanced to the semis the next day as an extra qualifier.

All in all, four YHS crews advanced to row on Saturday.

Saturday at Nationals in the semifinals is when the serious crews really come out to play, and the YHS crews learned a great deal about both how far they have to go next year and at the same time how far the program has come.

Leading off the day, the freshman men faced a field of year-round programs and finished sixth behind crews from St. Joes (Philadelphia), Canisius (Buffalo), Absegami (New York), St. Ignatius (Cleveland), and Chaminade (New York).

The junior women’s eight also finished sixth behind crews from Ocean City (NJ), Mount Saint Joseph’s (Philadelphia), Episcopal, Haddonfield (NJ), and Moorestown (NJ).

The women’s 1V was seventh in their semi behind eventual gold medalist New Trier, Ocean City, Burnt Hills, TC Williams, Absegami and Loyola.

In the men’s 1v it was a bit of another story. Lining up in the semi with the Patriot men were crews from St. Joes (2008 Stotesbury champ), Winter Park (2008 Nationals champ), St. Augustine (2009 Philadelphia city champ), LaSalle and Lawrenceville. Only two would qualify for the grand final; 3rd and 4th would go to the petite final, 5th and 6th would be out.

Instead of sitting back and playing for a comfortable spot in the petite, the YHS men committed everything they had. They exploded off the line and took the lead heading into the first 500 meters. At 750 in, St. Joes, St. Augustine and YHS had moved away from the field. St. Joes took the lead at 1,000, with St. Augustine and YHS battling for 2nd. YHS fell back slightly, but with 300 to go sprinted ahead of St. Augustine. With 100 to go with St. Joes half a boat length ahead, the two following crews fighting for the last spot in the grand final were bow ball to bow ball. At the line it was a photo finish. Sadly for the Patriots, the photo told the wrong story: St. Joes 4:46.101, St. Augustine 4:48.599, and YHS 4:48.847. Denied by 0.248 seconds! The last and only time YHS’s men’s 1V made the final six at Nationals was in 2001.

The YHS crew was totally spent but had proved to themselves and everyone else they could run with the big dogs at long last. The all-out battle with St. Augustine cost both crews dearly in the afternoon. Both proved a shadow of their former selves in both the grand and petite finals—St. Augustine finished a distant 5th, 10 seconds back from eventual gold medal winner Gonzaga even though St. Augustine had recorded the fastest qualifying time in the heats on Friday and beaten St. Joes in the City Championships on May 3.

Yorktown fared only slightly better, again racing in a bow ball to bow ball struggle for second place behind a solid crew from Eden Preparatory School, St. Catherine’s, Ontario, Canada. This time the competition was the same two schools the Patriot men have been battling each of the last three weeks, TJ and St. Albans. This time it was TJ that got the best of it, finishing behind Eden’s 5:02.184, in a time of 5:04.172. St Albans was next in 5:04.568 and then Yorktown 5:04.856.

In the Men’s 1V grand final, it was Gonzaga’s day at long last. The Eagles from Washington out-classed a powerful field and brought the SRAA Nationals men’s 1V title back to DC after TJ’s powerful 2007 crew swept Stotes and Nationals two years ago. Finishing behind the Eagles' blistering time of 4:51.934 was St. Joes (4:53.370), Canisius (4:55.268), Holy Spirit (4:56.164), St. Augustine (5:02.284), and Central Catholic (5:05.086).

New Trier of Chicago won the women’s 1V, with Mount St. Joe’s, Holy Spirit and Mainland all tightly packed for second through 4th, a remarkable six seconds back of the Illinois crew.

In the end, it was a weekend of lessons learned, good sportsmanship shared, and new friends made.

Many, many thanks to Coaches Chris Gordon and Bobby Meeks of McLean and the people at Resolute for making that boat available to us, we may have to buy it now!

We end with the best tribute we could make to a great guy, on a great day for him, his crews and his school.

To Marc Mandel, YHS crew’s “Man of the Year,” a winner in every sense of the word:

“Good luck at Henley and bring the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup back to DC for the first time in 40 years, all of DC rowing is rooting for you!”