Taking a break from racing at the Henley Women’s Regatta are the members of Mount St. Joseph Academy’s varsity eight. Standing, from left: Katie O’Connell, Emily Carbone, Dana Zielinski, Rose Ehrlich. Sitting: Julie McGlynn, Mary Raggazino, Darian DiCianno, Dana Lerro, Kiera McCloy.

by Tom Utescher

It couldn’t have gotten any closer. By a margin that was officially recorded as “two feet,” the varsity eight from New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter Academy nipped Mount St. Joseph at the finish line in the June 17 final of the Henley Women’s Regatta.

After arriving in England on Tuesday, June 12, the MSJ Magic won their opening race on Saturday afternoon, a quarterfinal against a British crew based just a few minutes away from historic Henley on Thames. On Sunday morning, the Mount knocked off U.S. Northwest regional champion Green Lake (Seattle, Wash.) to advance to the championship against Phillips Exeter that afternoon.

On the narrow Thames course, the racing is done in a rare one-on-one format, and Mount St. Joe varsity coach Mike McKenna described the final contest as “epic.” He noted that the official announcer, calling the race from a motor launch, said there had seldom been anything like it.

“They were never separated by more than a couple seats all the way down the course,” McKenna related. “It was very unusual, because normally someone blinks when you’re having a match race and they’re really going at it. It was a tough one to lose, but the kids knew it was something special and they were excited to have been involved in a race like that.”

Out of all the eights events, including several collegiate categories, the winning time in the Exeter/Mount showdown made it the second-fastest final of the 2012 regatta.

The varsity eight’s line-up of rowers was the same as it’s been for most of the spring season: (stroke to bow) Dana Lerro, Julie McGlynn, Katie O’Connell, Darian DiCianno, Dana Zielinski, Emily Carbone, Rose Ehrlich, and Kiera McCloy. There was a change in the coxswain’s seat, though. McKenna explained that a family emergency prevented senior veteran Erin McElroy from making the trip, and Mary Raggazino filled in. A junior, Raggazino had coxed the Mount lightweight eight in the major stateside regattas this spring.

“I was fully confident in Mary; she was a very positive contributor,” Coach McKenna said. “We were fortunate to have her ready to step in.”

Henley was positively the last high school regatta for everyone but McCloy and Raggazino. They’re rising seniors, while their boatmates are all newly-minted 2012 graduates. The Mount, which raced at Henley in 2006 and 2009 but never reached the finals, brought along a second eight on this year’s trip, as well as a four.

The Magic’s “B” eight blended oarswomen who had spent their spring in the JV eight or the lightweight eight. The JV provided juniors Jacqueline James (five seat), Emily Ruddy (three), and Annie Tenzinger (coxswain), and sophomores Maddie Lawn (stroke) and Lauren Matchett (six). The light eight contributed juniors Kait Loftus (seven) and Kate Mirabella (two), and sophomores Michela Karrash (four) and Leah Ramos (bow).

The above video was shot by Exeter. The Exeter team is on the left. Mount St. Joseph is on the right.

The four entered by Mount St. Joe featured Megan Mirabella at coxswain, and rowers (stroke to bow) Caroline Carbone, Gwyn Kieffer, Natalie Simms, and Jocelyn Ziemniak. All are rising juniors except Kieffer, who will be starting her senior year in September.

The same day they arrived in England, the Mounties began to familiarize themselves with their borrowed boats and equipment. The varsity would be racing a new demo eight from an Ontario manufacturer, Hudson Boat Works. One of the other shells was borrowed from a 600-year-old boys’ school, Winchester College, where former Mount rower Amanda Chain (’07) now coaches. The Magic soon had their vessels rigged out to their liking, and the varsity’s practices were highlighted by some sparring with an Irish crew from University College Dublin.

With Mount St. Joe entering two eights, the total number of boats in that class rose to nine. The MSJ “A” team came into the overseas event as the 2012 Philadelphia City Championships winner, the Stotesbury Cup Regatta gold medalist, and the bronze medalist at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America Championships.

The other two American entries were Phillips Exeter and Green Lake Crew, a club crew from Seattle, Wash. Exeter had finished second at the New England Interscholastic Rowing Association Regatta, coming in four-and-a-half seconds behind another southern New Hampshire school, St. Paul’s, in the finals. At the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships on June 8-10, Mount St. Joe finished one place behind St. Paul’s, both in their semifinal race together and in the “B” final.

The Magic had also encountered Green Lake at Youth Nationals, beating the Northwest women in a heat race on the first day of the championships. However, the Green Lake eight had gone on to work its way back into the “A” final, coming in fifth overall while St. Paul’s wound up ninth and the Mount, 10th.

All five of the Henley junior eights from the U.K. were single-school crews (as opposed to clubs), and four of them are located within a half-hour’s drive from the regatta site. Sir William Borlase Grammar School and Pangbourne College are located just downstream and just upstream from Henley, respectively. Headington School is on the eastern fringe of Oxford City, while Lady Eleanor Holles School sits southwest of London.

Kings School Chester is the exception, hard by the Welsh border and a little to the south of Liverpool on the west coast.

All but Sir William Borlase had been finalists at the UK’s 2012 National Schools Regatta, held up in Nottingham on the first weekend of June. In a standard 2000-meter, six-lane final race, Headington finished first, followed by Lady Eleanor Holles and third-place Pangbourne, while Kings School placed sixth.

Sir William had its best rowers racing in smaller vessels throughout the spring, but combined them into an eight for the Women’s Henley. The hybrid crew had only a brief stay, falling to the Mount “A” boat by two lengths in one of the quarterfinal races on Saturday afternoon.

In the regatta results, the final margin between the two competitors in each race is listed in full or partial lengths, up to five lengths or so. If the gap is wider than that, the scorers simply inscribe the adverb “easily,” and that was the official description of Headington’s victory over the Mount “B” boat in the first eights race on Saturday morning. Just a few minutes later, the four entered by the Mount was knocked out in similar fashion by Kingston Grammar School, yet another Thames-side institution, but closer to London. The defending fours champion, Merion Mercy, is a member of the Catholic Academies League along with Mount St. Joseph. The Main Line outfit was the runner-up at Henley this year.

The initial eights race between MSJ “B” and Headington had been a one-off qualifier to determine the eighth quarterfinalist.

Headington went on to defeat Kings School by four-and-a-half lengths as the quarterfinal round got underway, and after the Mount’s race with Sir William, the quarters concluded with Green Lake winning “easily” over Lady Eleanor. The fourth quarterfinal contest never took place. Phillips Exeter was ready to go, but Pangbourne College was unwilling, bowing out due to weather conditions that were memorably awful.

“The conditions on Saturday were a freak show,” McKenna exclaimed.

“This was my fourth time at Henley, and I’ve never seen the current anywhere near like it was for the Saturday races. There had been flooding rains for a few weeks, and on that day there were wind gusts up to something like 40 miles per hour. It made it very treacherous to turn and dock, and all that stuff.”

The MSJ coach explained that at the very beginning of Mount A’s opening race, the winds were largely blocked by small, wooded Temple Island.

“As soon as we got past the island, where there had been some shelter, both crews got moved about 10 feet sideways by the wind. We literally hit the boom [one of the floating wooden poles marking the course], and Dana [Lerro] our stroke, lost her oar for a couple strokes. We were about half-a-length down then, but we were able to recover pretty quickly.”

It was on to the semifinals, slotted into Sunday’s timetable an hour before noon, with the championship to follow at 3:00 PM. Three of the four surviving crews were American, and the last English ensemble, Headington, succumbed by two lengths to Phillips Exeter. Next, the Magic seized the other berth in the finals, arriving at the finishing post just over three lengths ahead of Green Lake.

“The conditions were reasonable, and that was a pretty straightforward race,” McKenna recounted. “We took control and then lengthened the lead as we went down the course.”

There was nothing clear-cut about the final race that afternoon. All accounts of the duel emphasized the ferocity of the competition – no quarter given, or expected. Well-versed rowing historian Tom Weil, a former Yale rower and Henley competitor who observed the eights final from the officials’ launch, was stirred by intensity and skill exhibited by both crews and pronounced the race one of the best he has seen in 45 years.

At its conclusion, no one could celebrate immediately; an official ruling was needed to determine the winner. It was Exeter.

“If you look at the pictures from the finish line,” said McKenna, “you’ll see that we were coming into the catch, which is the slowest part of the stroke, and they’re finishing, which is where the boat accelerates. If you reverse that cycle, we probably win by a similar margin, that’s how close it was. It was a classic, and I left the girls with the thought that it took a great effort by both crews to produce a race like that.”

Even though the Magic did not capture the Peabody Cup (the Schools/Junior Eights trophy), their season concluded in a much more satisfying manner than it would have if they’d not made the trip to England. For this group, almost exclusively seniors, the school year began with a hugely successful fall campaign that included a bronze-medal showing at Boston’s Head of the Charles Regatta, where the Mount was the top finisher out of all single-school varsity boats.

After a display of dominance at one of the Philly area’s major indoor ergometer competitions in February, the Mounties got back on the water and continued to conquer just about every opponent they encountered, right up to their gold-medal race at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta. However, just after crossing the finish line at Stotes, the victors let their attention – and their boat – wander, and their bow struck the Columbia Railroad Bridge a glancing blow.

This incident helped usher in a brief period of malaise for this ordinarily confident cabal. Winning a bronze medal at Scholastic Nationals on Memorial Day Weekend would have constituted a milestone for most schools, but the Mounties had been expecting more of themselves. Two weeks later, they hoped to improve upon the fifth-place finishes fashioned by their 2010 and 2011 MSJ forerunners at the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships, but overeager starts led to sub-par finishes in their last two races of the regatta, and they emerged from this powerful field ranked 10th overall.

The pilgrimage to Henley would be a palliative experience. The Magic left for England just a day after Youth Nationals concluded, and out on the Thames they rediscovered their mojo and turned in a vastly superior performance.

“I was really pleased with it,” McKenna said. “The girls were quite disappointed after Youth Nationals, but they bounced back very quickly. What you saw at Henley was much more characteristic of what our crew was capable of.”

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