by Tom Utescher
In various configurations, rowers in Springside quads had been chasing the four-woman sculls from Episcopal Academy for several years. The EA Churchwomen were dominant in the senior quad category in 2009 and 2010, handily winning the Philadelphia City Championships, the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, and the Scholastic National Championships.
While still a talented crew, Episcopal did not project the same aura of invincibility this year. After finishing a close second to EA at the City Champs earlier this month, the Springside Lions began to believe that with one more big push, they could get over the hump and finally conquer the Churchwomen.
The Lions’ dreams of gold came true last weekend at the 2011 Stotesbury Cup extravaganza, the largest high school regatta in the world. Slumping backwards or melting on their oarhandles in exhaustion at the finish line, the Lions won the senior quad race in four minutes, 57.57 seconds. The silver medal went to Ridley College of St. Catherine’s, Ontario in 5:01.16, and Episcopal was timed in 5:01.46 for the bronze.
The victorious Springside crew consisted of seniors Verity Walsh and Taylor Apostolico in the stroke and three seats, respectively, with juniors Jen Sager and Anna Valciukas in the two seat and the bow. They rowed together in the spring of 2010, placing second behind Episcopal in the senior quad category at Stotesbury, and coming in third at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America (SRAA) national regatta.
They were coached this season by Bruce LaLonde, the veteran instructor at the University Barge Club, the home base of Springside and Chestnut Hill Academy crew. Over the years he has filled many different coaching roles for both schools, and this season he was back as the varsity skipper for the Lions.
Speaking of the gold medalists in the quad, LaLonde noted, “I coached all of them as novices, so they know what I expect from them technically.”
A sound technical foundation was a must for this group, which is physically smaller than almost every rival quartet they face.
“Bruce always believed in us,” Walsh said. “It really helps to have a coach who is so supportive.”
Walsh has also benefitted from knowledge passed on to her from her father, Lawrence, a two-time national scholastic champion when he rowed a double at La Salle High School. Sager also has a familial connection in the sport, an uncle who rowed collegiately at Syracuse.
Apostolico, a mainstay of the Lions’ swim team in the winter season, was a member of the Springside junior quad that won the SRAA Nationals in her sophomore year.
Going into the big race last Saturday, she emphasized to her crewmates, “Just try to stay calm. Don’t worry about any other boats because we know it’s a strong group and they’re all going to be good.”
In the 2010 Stotesbury finals, a whopping 36 seconds separated the first and sixth place quads. This year a much closer medal race was just about guaranteed, with accomplished Philadelphia area scullers from Springside, EA, Conestoga, and Haddon Township (NJ) High School, and strong out-of-town challengers in Ridley and Episcopal High School of Dallas, TX.
Sager stated, “Obviously, a school like Ridley wouldn’t come all the way down here unless they were very good and thought they could win. We knew the finals were going to be a battle, and not just between a couple of boats like last year. In the head races the top five boats were all within three seconds of each other.”
Springside was fourth in those head race qualifiers, and then second in the first of the two semifinal bouts, coming in just under two seconds behind their local rival, Episcopal.
Roughly that same interval had divided the two crews when EA won at Cities on May 8. A week before that, Springside had been right with Episcopal early in the final 500 meters of the Girls Inter-Ac Championship when the Lions caught a crab and dropped behind.
“We had some little glitches during the season,” admitted Sager, “In our practices before Stotesbury we didn’t do much power work; we went over technique and tried to get everything going as smoothly as possible.”
“They’re all bright girls,” said LaLonde (the seniors are both going to Ivy League colleges), “but they tended to do a little too much thinking out there instead of just letting it all out and going for it.
“I can’t tell you that there was some special game plan,” he went on. “It was really just a process of preparing and preparing. We broke the course down into 250-meter pieces and then broke it down even farther, with the goal being simply to have consistency all the way through. Make the first 500 fast, and the second 500 just as fast, and finish it the same way.”
The Lions felt that he was right – they were thinking about things too much during races – but the alternative was a little unsettling.
“We just sort of went for it all, all or nothing, which was a little unusual for us,” Walsh revealed. “That can be a risky thing, but it paid off in the end.”
Of course, this new approach didn’t stop the senior from engaging in some of her pre-race rituals, which include climbing the boathouse stairs a certain number of times, and sitting alone in a corner for a spell.
“Nobody else does anything like that,” she said with a little laugh, “but they’re used to me doing it.”
Walsh will attend Columbia University, and is excited at the prospect of living and learning in New York City. She was also attracted by Columbia’s excellence in classical languages and literature, areas of interest for her at Springside. She’s not sure if she’ll row there, and the Cornell-bound Apostolico is taking the same approach.
“I didn’t talk to the coach or really try to get recruited,” she said. “I’m interested in biology, and Cornell has an amazing science program. They have a lot of research opportunities and I’m looking forward to that.”
The other two members of the Springside quad will be back for another go, and Valciukas pointed out, “We had a lot of strong novices this season who will be moving up next year.”
Apostolico said that at the outset of her final race on the Schuylkill, “We started out a lot faster than we usually do; it was a much higher stroke rating than we normally stay at. By the Strawberry Mansion Bridge we were starting to pull ahead. We were ahead of Episcopal at St. Joe’s [Boathouse, a third of the way through the 1500-meter course], and then it looked like we were about even with Ridley until about 750, when we pulled ahead of them.
“I think Ridley’s sprint was actually a little faster than ours,” she continued, “but we were too far ahead for them to catch. It was almost surreal because we weren’t expecting to be ahead of anyone. At the end it was just trying not to crab; I think that was the only goal for all of us.
“Even when we finished and they began announcing the results afterwards I think we were expecting them to say something else, than that we won,” the senior remembered. “It probably wasn’t until we actually got the plate and the medals that it started to sink in.”
Climbing up onto the awards dock podium, the Lions received the Brides Plate trophy, presented to the women’s senior quad gold medalist in memory of national champion sculler Paul “Gus” Ignas and his wife, Rita. It was personally handed to Valciukas by her childhood friend Alaina Ignas, granddaughter of the legendary rower.
Although she and Sager have another year of high school rowing ahead of them, Valciukas said, “There was a feeling in our boat that this was our time, and was it great for Taylor and Verity win their last race here.”
A runner-up no longer, Springside’s “Little Engine That Could” had captured the Stotesbury gold.
Even LaLonde could not describe exactly what had happened.
Praising the skill and discipline of rivals Episcopal, Ridley, and Conestoga, the Lions’ veteran coach reflected, “Sometimes, not everything can be explained. There can be magic out there, races when it all just comes together. These girls rowed about as perfect a race as I’ve ever seen.”