Mount St. Joe rowers (from left) Kate Cordero, Rachel Sandquist, and Julia Comerford and the rest of the lightweight eight crew have their bow ball at the finish line marker (buoy at left), defeating rival Holy Spirit (bow number four at right). (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Mount St. Joe rowers (from left) Kate Cordero, Rachel Sandquist, and Julia Comerford and the rest of the lightweight eight crew have their bow ball at the finish line marker (buoy at left), defeating rival Holy Spirit (bow number four at right). (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Back in 2005, a five-year old girls rowing program came of age as it earned the most prestigious prize at the time-honored Stotesbury Cup Regatta, the Robert Engman Trophy that is presented annually to the gold medalist in the senior (or varsity) eight category.

Last Saturday afternoon, Mount St. Joseph Academy celebrated the 10th anniversary of that achievement in the most fitting fashion, by winning the 2015 senior eight final. The Magic, the defending champions, prevailed by two-and-a-half seconds (quite a comfortable victory at this level) over Manhasset High School of Long Island (5:16.17 to 5:18.74), which had been the fastest boat in the class during Friday’s opening-round time trials.

Launched in 1927, the Stotesbury is the oldest and largest (over 5600 athletes this year) high school regatta in the world, routinely attracting crews from Florida to Canada to Texas.

Rounding out the senior eight girls final were third place Niskayuna, from upstate New York (5:19.85), Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) from Maryland (5:22.17), the Mount’s Catholic Academies colleague Merion Mercy (5:25.47), and T.C. Williams (5:28.45), the “Remember the Titans” school from northern Virginia.

The ongoing bad news for Mount rivals is that two thirds of the crew will be back; only four seat Alaina Hunt (Penn), stroke Steph Eble (Harvard) and coxswain Sabrina Ghantous (Syracuse) are seniors.

Hunt and Eble were members of the Mount’s victorious eight in 2014, as were three current juniors, three seat Maddie Carlton, seven seat Christina Knox, five seat Maddie Lauinger. The newcomers this year are three other 11th-graders, the bow pair of Alex Uzzo and Dana Mischler, and six seat Olivia Tice-Carroll.

Asked about the significance of the anniversary of the Magic’s first senior eight triumph, MSJ varsity coach Mike McKenna said “It’s nice to be able to win on that occasion and I’m sure some of the girls knew about it, but we didn’t talk about it at all in preparing for this weekend. With this group I’ve tried to keep the focus internal; just take care of what we can control and what we need to do, and the other things will work out.”

Eble, a three-year veteran of the Mount’s flagship, hadn’t been aware of the 10th anniversary, but she knew the Magic were going for their third Engman trophy in four years. When they won in 2012, she had been an observer, a member of the Magic’s sixth-place freshman eight.

“It was great to see that happen, and it’s definitely something you want to experience for yourself,” she said. “I’m so happy I’ve been able to do that now two years in a row.”

Asked about the Mount’s status as the defending champion coming into the 2015 regatta, the senior explained, “I think every crew is different and sort of stands on its own, so we really didn’t put any additional pressure on ourselves to repeat. We knew we could get the result we wanted just by executing our race plan. Obviously we need to be aware of other boats and our position on the course, but mostly we concentrated on our own boat, rather than dwelling on beating this one or that one.”

It was the sixth time the Mounties had captured the Engman trophy. After defending their first title by winning again in 2006, the Magic also triumphed in 2010, 2012, and last year. There was another MSJ boat that celebrated its sixth Stotesbury gold medal last weekend, the lightweight eight. Taking the Steven Weir trophy back in 2004, the MSJ lights had been the very first Mount crew to strike “Stotes” gold. They established a mini dynasty by winning each of the next three seasons, as well, but after that only one title (2010) was claimed by the easy-on-the-scale squad until this year. Holy Spirit High School of Absecon, N.J., had ended the Mount’s early reign in 2008, and was the four-time defending champion going into the 2015 regatta.

This year’s Mount boat is coxed by Lindsay Maiale, who commands (stroke to bow) Erin McGreevey, Vicki Matsinger, Shannon Hughes, Zoe Ramos, Molly Whalen, Julia Comerford, Rachel Sandquist, and Katelin Cordero. All are juniors except for Whalen, a sophomore.

They had defeated Holy Spirit at the City Championships at the beginning of the month, but the Spartans gave them a battle last Saturday.

The Mounties sealed their victory with a powerful sprint, winning in 5:22.28 to Spirit’s 5:23.81. Considerably farther back were the rest of the finalists, which were led by bronze medalist T.C. Williams in 5:28.74.

The third medal the Mount garnered last weekend was a silver secured by the junior eight (Emily Woodrow – cox, Brooke McMahon – stroke, Demi Simms, Cait Hagan, Alex Natale, Julianna Hunt, Mia Fitzpatrick, Michelle Lipovsky, Grace Comerford). Montclair (N.J.) High School, which always seems to do much better here than in the senior event, turned in a convincing victory in 5:17.09, but there was a larger gap between the Magic (5:21.93) and bronze medalist Branksome Hall (5:27.43), an all-girls private school in Toronto.

The Mount’s junior eight actually includes sophomores Comerford, Lipovsky, and Natale – the others are 11th graders.

Mount St. Joe had a fourth finalist at Stotesbury, the second varsity eight featuring Annarose Clark (cox), Sam Altomare (stroke), Alana Cianciulli, Brynn McGillin, Jenny DiPietro, Danielle Kosman, Nina Lawlor, Emma Tenzinger, and Maddie Finnegan. The only non-seniors here are 10th-graders Altomare and Finnegan.

Winners at City’s two weeks earlier, the two-vee had a tougher row last Saturday in the finals, missing a medal by one spot due to a fourth-place finish (5:44.09). There was an unusual amount of separation between the top four here, and Maryland’s B-CC (5:31.05) cruised to the gold with six seconds to spare over runner-up Holy Spirit.

Mount St. Joseph entered a total of eight boats at last weekend’s regatta, and produced seven semifinalists and four finalists. In most categories, the fastest 12 or 18 boats (depending on the total number of entries) advanced past the initial time trials to the semifinal stage, which consisted of either two or three six-boat races. One exception was the lightweight eight division; with only 13 contestants to begin with, the semifinal round was skipped and the fastest six qualifiers went straight into the finals.

The Mount lights advanced out of the trials, but not without a hiccough.

In this initial outing, McKenna explained, “They caught a crab, but they recovered quickly so they were okay. The thing was then for them to completely forget about what happened there, and focus on what they needed to do in the next race.”

The Magic were still a respectable third place in the trials, behind T.C. Williams and Holy Spirit, and the lights would go on to beat both out-of-state boats in the finals.

Both Cait Hagan’s hair and the Mount St. Joseph junior eight were flying last weekend on the Schuylkill. The junior six seat and her crewmates captured a silver medal in the Stotesbury Cup Regatta. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Both Cait Hagan’s hair and the Mount St. Joseph junior eight were flying last weekend on the Schuylkill. The junior six seat and her crewmates captured a silver medal in the Stotesbury Cup Regatta. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Three MSJ vessels that moved beyond the first phase of the regatta to end their run in the semifinals were the freshman eight, the junior four, and the lightweight four.

In a total starting field of 43 boats, the freshman eight (Nina Taglianetti – cox, Cathryn Antonacio – stroke, Maddie Sandquist, Maddie Curran, Faith Hughes, Gabi Natale, Sam Cordero, Kerry Faust, Grace Sowa) became the 15th of the 18 crews that got to the semifinals. They placed sixth in the third of three semi’s, though, and only two from each group made it to the final race.

The junior four (Shannon LoStracco – cox, Allie DiPietro – stroke, Celine Mina, Paige Comtois, Emma Veon) was roughly in the middle of the 18 qualifiers, timed 10th out of the crowd of 66 schools that had signed up in this always-popular category. As with the freshman, the Magic were in semifinal number three, in a situation where crews had to place first or second to move on. The Mounties had to bid adieu with a fourth-place finish, coming in just four seconds behind the runner-up in their race.

A similar scenario played out for the lightweight four, where 31 schools started out. Qualifying 10th, the Magic (Olivia Kylander – cox, Liz DeGroat – stroke, Emma French, Brooke Gimaro, Grace Little) only lagged numbers eight and nine by around a second-and-a-half. They would miss the finals by one spot, coming in third in semifinal number three.

At the varsity eight level, the Mount’s McKenna is usually aware of top performers from other parts of the country, but he hadn’t heard a lot about Manhasset, which came in and posted the fastest qualifying time on Friday. The Long Island ladies were timed in 5:25.04, Merion Mercy was next at 5:26.74, and the Magic rated third at 5:27.24, slightly ahead of B-CC.

Those kind of time discrepancies in the trials don’t mean a lot when crews then meet in side-by-side racing, and the Magic were confident after they turned in an unremarkable effort in the semifinals but still posted the fastest overall time out of the 18 crews.

One of the Mount’s area rivals, Merion Mercy, earned a spot in the medal race, too, but familiar foe Holy Spirit struggled last weekend, coming in seventh in the trials and then leaving the regatta after finishing third in the first semifinal, a little over a second behind T.C. Williams.

Even though Mount St. Joe won the third semifinal by two seconds over B-CC (and was 0.27 seconds quicker than semifinal one winner Manhasset), the MSJ’s Eble reported, “We had a good start, but then we didn’t settle into our base rate [the target is 35 strokes-per-minute] very well. We were super-focused on that for the finals.”

The three-year senior eight veteran, who is interested in biology and is leaning toward a pre-med curriculum at Harvard, doesn’t go in for pre-race rituals.

“I know some of the girls have little individual things they do, but I’m not very superstitious,” she explained. “As a group, we just sit down together, talk about execution, and try to keep things simple. We pray together before every race.”

This time, after another strong start, the Mounties quickly homed in on their desired rhythm for the main body of the race.

“About halfway down the course is where take our special move; we sort of know by instinct just where we want to do it,” Eble related. “I think that’s where we became confident that we were going to pull it off. Then when you get near the end you just try to stay calm and not catch a crab or do anything crazy. It meant a lot to have all of our families, friends, and Mount alumni cheering so loud in the stands.”

There were even more MSJ alums than usual this year, on hand to celebrate the anniversary of a senior eight victory that helped launch a tradition of excellence.