by Tom Utescher

Members of Mount St. Joseph Academy’s varsity eight at Melton Lake in Tennessee.

The 2010 remake of the film “True Grit” was released on DVD on Tuesday, June 7, and the following weekend, the Mount St. Joseph Academy varsity eight came out with its own version.

After winning the Philadelphia City Championships on May 8, the Mount V-8 had to settle for a silver medal at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, and at the end of last month the Magic came away with no medals at all in a disappointing fourth-place showing at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America championships.

Going up against a much tougher field than in any of the May regattas, it would’ve been easy for the Mounties to produce a desultory effort at the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships, held June 10-12 in Oak Ridge, TN. With four former lightweight rowers in the boat putting them at a distinct disadvantage in terms of size and pure power, the Magic could’ve phoned it in at the big race, and had a legitimate excuse.

Instead the Magic battled through to the finals and came away with a fifth-place finish, matching the best result ever for a Mount St. Joe varsity boat at the regatta. The lightweight eight, also fourth at the SRAA’s, stepped up to take fourth place at the much more challenging Youth Nationals.

Excellent technique made the 2011 varsity eight fast for their size.

“They were very consistent technically,” confirmed Mount varsity coach Mike McKenna. “Their biggest issue this year was having confidence in what they could do.”

The Magic graduated five rowers and the coxswain from their 2010 V-8, which won gold medals at the Stotesbury Cup and the SRAA’s. The 2011 ensemble fell short of those goals in both events, and it was much the same for the lightweights, who had dominated the high school competition in 2010 and won a bronze medal at USR’s.

After this year’s scholastic nationals, McKenna recounted, “The major challenge was to get them refocused and believing in themselves again. It wasn’t hard with the lightweights, because they always knew they had much better in them than they showed at SRAA’s.”

A touch of internal discord which had troubled the lights was largely resolved when one rower left the crew after the high school championships. The vacancy was filled by Chestnut Hill native Maureen Flynn, a junior who suddenly found herself seated in the bow of one of the Magic’s top boats for the most competitive regatta of the year.

“It was definitely a little intimidating, but I had practiced with them some during the year,” she said. “The actual rowing part is easy to adjust to when you’re with such technically-sound athletes.”

Arranged in order behind Flynn were junior Molly Tenzinger, seniors Katie McCormick and Meg Bresnahan, junior Leah McGlynn, sophomores Kate Mirabella and Kait Loftus, senior Paige Flynn (Maureen’s cousin and a graduate of Chestnut Hill’s Norwood Fontbonne Academy), and junior coxswain Erin McElroy.

In the two weeks of practice leading up to the Youth Nationals, McKenna related, “They could see tangibly, by every possible metric, they were getting better.”

Maureen Flynn agreed, “Each time we went out on the water we got a little faster, so that made everyone feel good.”

Although most of their regular-season races were on 1500-meter courses, the Magic had the opportunity to compete at 2000 meters on several occasions, and McKenna thought that this year’s varsity, in particular, might be better suited to the 2K.

“I felt that their efficiency would pay more benefits over the longer distance than in the shorter races,” he said.

Varsity bow seat rower Katie Casebeer, a senior and a Chestnut Hill resident, revealed, “We went into it (USR’s) feeling we had nothing to lose. The Mount wasn’t the defending champion they way we’d been at Stotesbury and the SRAA’s. Having some of that pressure taken off probably helped us settle down and prepare mentally.”

Nevertheless, senior coxswain Maggie Rush pointed out “You’re doing that extra distance, so it’s important that everyone stays physically and mentally invested. I think not doing as well as we could’ve done at SRAA’s helped us with that.”

Rush is a Norwood Fontbonne alum, as is senior seven-seat Meredith Bracken. The rest of the line-up consisted of juniors: Dana Lerro (stroke), Katie O’Connell (six), Darian DiCianno (five), Julie McGlynn (four), Rose Ehrlich (three), and Emily Carbone (two).

That line-up reflected a seating and boat-rigging change made by McKenna after the SRAA’s. Ehrlich swapped positions with McGLynn, who was now right in front of another starboard-side rower, DiCianno. To complete the new alignment Casebeer, who had been in the two seat, switched spots with Carbone, the former bow rower.

This is known as bucket rigging (or “German” rigging from its origins in Ratzeburg in the 1950’s), and it’s supposed to distribute the force of the strokes more evenly from side-to-side, since in single-oar “sweep” rowing, each thrust of an oar not only propels a boat forward, but sideways.

McKenna, a structural engineer by profession, noted, “It tends to allow the boat to go straighter, all else being equal, and we’d been having a little problem with that.”

Starting from the stern of the boat, the new arrangement of port (P) and starboard (S) rowers was P-S-P-S-S-P-S-P instead of the more common unbroken alternating pattern.

“It was easy to adjust to,” Rush said. “I think it made us faster and also gave us a little mental edge, just making a change and working on something new. We sort of felt like we had a secret weapon.”

In addition to the two eights, a third Mount boat made the trip to Tennessee. The Magic’s lightweight four (Annie Tenzinger (cox), Geneva Russell (stroke), Rachel Heller, Hannah Keller, Bobbie Sutton) finished fourth in their initial heat race, then were filtered into the repechage, a feed-in round that gave them a second chance to reach the semifinals.

Missing a spot in the semi’s by one place with a third-place effort in the “reps,” the Mount four was assigned to the “C” Final (places 13-18), and were the runner-up in that race.

Their svelte sisters in the MSJ lightweight eight advanced directly into the semifinal round by winning their opening heat on Friday.

“We felt good about our row,” said Flynn, “and about going straight into the semifinals without having to be in the reps on Saturday morning.”

The Mounties went on to claim a place in the finals, coming in third in their semi-final on Saturday afternoon and posting the fourth-fastest time overall. A Boston-based club, Community Rowing, Inc. (CRI) had been the fastest boat at every stage of the regatta and they won the finals on Sunday in a time of seven minutes, 1.84 seconds. The Oakland (Calif.) Stroke were second in 7:07.41, and in the battle for the bronze medal the Magic (7:11.94) led going into the final 500 meters but fell victim to a late sprint by New Trier High School (7:10.06) from suburban Chicago. California’s Long Beach Junior Rowing and Connecticut’s Saugatuck Rowing Club placed fifth and sixth.

Capturing a medal would’ve been nice, but at least the Magic had been in a pitched battle for one, among a group of outstanding lightweight crews.

“Everyone was happy to end the year on that note,” Flynn said.

The varsity eight appeared to face long odds in attempting to match the Mount’s trip to the finals in 2010, and McKenna observed, “I would suggest that there was a much stronger field this year, too.”

Third in their heat on Friday, the Magic went into the repechage stage; the boats that had come in ahead of them were formidable crews from Connecticut Boat Club (CBC) and Marin (Calif.) Rowing Association. Needing to finish in the top three in their “rep” race to reach the semifinals, Mount St. Joe placed second behind James Madison High School (Vienna, Va.), which put up the second best time overall in this round of the regatta.

To reach the finals on Sunday, the Magic would have to place at least third in a killer semifinal. The competition included not only club studs CBC and Marin, but also New Trier and Saratoga, which won the gold and bronze medals, respectively, at SRAA’s, where the Mount was fourth.

“When they posted the seedings for our semifinal we saw right away how difficult it was,” Casebeer recalled. “But we knew we could be faster than we were at SRAA’s, and we went into it with a really good attitude.”

Rush related, “Early in the race Saratoga had a couple seats on us, and New Trier was pretty much side-by-side with us. With about 750 or maybe 600 meters to go we took a move and I kept seeing the others fall back.”

Up front, Connecticut won comfortably and Marin was second, but Mount St. Joe locked up the third spot for the finals, clocking in at 7:17.43 while New Trier was fourth in 7:22.36 and Saratoga was fifth in 7:26.55.

“The kids were almost in tears when they saw the semifinal results posted,” McKenna said. “I had to settle them down a bit and get them refocused for the finals.”

Rush, the coxswain, had lost her voice in the Friday heat racing (the same thing would happen to McKenna and MSJ head coach Megan Kennedy). The senior went hoarse again in the repechage, but her uncustomary speechlessness was cured by taking an elixir containing honey and a well known Tennessee beverage.

“It was hot down there, but it could get pretty hot in Cincinnati, too,” pointed out McKenna, referring to the former site of the Youth Nationals. “Everything about the venue was terrific. The only thing was, you could ride your bike along so close to the course that you could yell at the crews, so Meg and I both lost our voices.”

Crews usually prefer to race in an interior lane, which provides a good view of the other five competitors, but McKenna wasn’t bothered by the fact that the Magic were slotted in lane one, on the outside, for the final. “I knew that James Madison was going to be in the medals, and we were next to them,” he said. “They were a really good crew and they were coming on strong, so we had a fast boat right there to battle with.”

Most pundits favored CBC in the finals, along with the New England scholastic champions, Phillips Exeter Academy. James Madison actually fell off the back of the pack at the start, but soon roared back. Meanwhile Marin, in lane two fairly close to the shore, took an early lead and never gave it up, winning in 6:48.17 while hard-charging James Madison snapped up the silver medal in 6:50.85.

CBC collected the bronze in 6:51.05 and Exeter was fourth in 6:56.15, while the Mount (6:57.78) came in fifth, ahead of CRI (6:59.91).

“What you saw with Marin was something that actually happens a lot at the top level,” McKenna remarked. “There’s a crew out there that thinks they’re going all-out until they get to the championship race, and they find out that they’ve got a lot more. They really were that good.”

Summing up the spring campaign for his own rowers, McKenna said, “It was a season when the kids exceeded expectations, both mine and, more importantly, their own. That opens up a lot of possibilities for the strong group we have coming back next year.”

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