After the finals at last weekend’s Stotesbury Cup Regatta, Mount St. Joseph Academy varsity coach Mike McKenna stands with the members of his victorious varsity eight as they pose with their gold medals, commemorative necklaces, and the Robert Engman Trophy. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

After the finals at last weekend’s Stotesbury Cup Regatta, Mount St. Joseph Academy varsity coach Mike McKenna stands with the members of his victorious varsity eight as they pose with their gold medals, commemorative necklaces, and the Robert Engman Trophy. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

For the Mount St. Joseph Academy crew last weekend, everything was riding on the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, which took place on a rain-swollen Schuylkill last Friday and Saturday. Downpours earlier in the month had caused the Philadelphia City Championships to be postponed from May 4 to last Sunday, the day after the expansive Stotesbury event.

It was a highly unpopular move that would force young rowers to engage in three straight days of intense completion, but the City Championships serve as a qualifying event for the Scholastic Rowing Association of America National Regatta, and schools would be forced to participate if they wanted to earn a spot at the SRAA’s.

The Mount, which had won the sweep rowing points championship for its overall performance in the Manny Flick/Horvat Series (i.e. regular season) races on the Kelly Drive course, successfully petitioned the SRAA to be admitted to Nationals without qualifying at “Cities.” The Magic, therefore, opted to race only at Stotesbury last weekend, and although it is by far the more important regatta for serious crew programs, the decision meant would mean there would be no second chance for glory in the subsequent races on Sunday.

The qualifying time trials at Stotesbury on Friday and drastic changes made to the rest of the schedule due to the steady, heavy rain pared the number of MSJ finalists down to just three by Saturday afternoon, but in the biggest race of all, the senior (or varsity) eight, the Mounties won the gold medal and the accompanying Robert Engman trophy in convincing fashion.

Churning out more than a boat-length’s lead midway through the race and then holding it, Mount St. Joe won in four minutes, 25.30 seconds, while Washington’s National Cathedral Prep, the fastest boat in the time trials, was the silver medalist in 4:30.54 and Florida’s Winter Park High School came in third in 4:31.21.

The amount of varsity experience among the members of the Mount crew varies widely. Seniors Maddie Lawn (six seat) and Lauren Matchett (two) had already rowed a few races in the varsity eight as sophomores, while classmate Leah Ramos (bow) earned a spot in the MSJ flagship last year, as did the current junior stroke, Steph Eble.

Senior coxswain Megan Mirabella and junior four-seat Alaina Hunt both came in this spring from last year’s JV eight. Sophomores Maddie Carlton (three), Christina Knox (seven), and Maddie Lauinger (five) were all members of the Magic’s 2013 freshman eight, the Stotesbury silver medalist.

Lawn will row for Columbia University, Matchett for Notre Dame, and Ramos for George Washington.

Coxswain Mirabella, who will follow her older sister Kate (MSJ ’13) to Princeton University, explained “We’re a crew that’s had a pretty steady trajectory.

We didn’t start out winning races by boat-lengths; we had the raw ability, but we had to work to bring it together. We learned how to expect more of ourselves, and we’ve become good at analyzing a race afterwards and then applying the changes we want to make the next time.”

Mount varsity coach Mike McKenna agreed that training the boat was “a very conscious process, and that was because of the youth of the crew. We tried to put them in situations where they could build confidence throughout the season. They handled our decision about the City Championships very maturely. They immediately got it when we said we were going to pass on Cities because it could hurt our chances for this regatta as well as the SRAA’s.”

Mount St. Joe started out with eight boats entered at Stotesbury, and as rain pelted the course last Friday, all but the lightweight four (whose steering cable broke) and the senior four advanced out of the time trials into the semifinal round. In this first stage, most of these crews had to produce times that were among the top 12 or top 18 (depending on the total number of entries) in order to advance.

As things turned out, weather conditions caused the field of competitors to be thinned out arbitrarily after that, without any additional racing even taking place. The semifinals were halted late on Friday afternoon, and rain-bloated tributaries continued to gush water (and accompanying debris) into the Schuylkill throughout the night. Conditions on the river were so bad early on Saturday morning that the start of competition was pushed back a full six hours to 2:00 PM.

In order that the regatta be completed in some form, it was decided that the semifinal round would be scuttled, and that the six fastest boats from the time trials in each category would be moved directly into a final race. The Mount senior eight survived this winnowing-down process, having placed fourth in the time trials, and the junior eight, timed fifth out of 50 entries, went through, as well.

There had not been any semifinal round for the lightweight eights to begin with. Only 10 crews had entered, so even the original race format called for the top six from trials to progress directly into the finals. The third-seeded MSJ lights were among that group.

However, three other Magic crews who had expected their run in the regatta to continue were disappointed. Left stranded on the dock by Saturday’s decision were the second eight (eighth in time trials), the freshman eight (ninth), and the junior four (15th in a whopping field of 61 at the outset).

The lightweight eight featured a line-up of (stroke to bow) seniors Michela Karrash (Boston College), Liz McKernan (Boston College), and Abby Shreero (Lehigh), sophomores Alex Uzzo and Erin McGreevey, senior Bridget Fitzpatrick (University of Miami), sophomores Katelin Cordero and Rachel Sandquist, and senior coxswain Madi Kist (Stanford).

In this category, Holy Spirit High School of Absecon, N.J. has been preeminent on the Schuylkill for the last few years, and after fending off a challenge from Merion Mercy down the stretch last Saturday, Spirit won the light eight title for the fourth year in a row, matching the Mount’s run from 2004-2007.

The winning time was 4:31.26 to Merion’s 4:33.10, while Winter Park claimed the bronze medal in 4:38.05 and Mount St. Joe came in fourth in 4:41.14. Much farther back, fighting for the last two spots, were Bishop O’Connell of Arlington, Va., (4:54.58) and Nutley (N.J.) High School (4:55.57).

The Magic’s junior eight also came in fourth in the finals, where the Mount was the only Pennsylvania crew in the field. All the oars were wielded by sophomores (Dana Mischler, Julianna Hunt, Demi Simms, Olivia Tice-Carroll, Mia Fitzpatrick, Cait Hagan, Brooke McMahon and Zoe Ramos), while junior cox Sabrina Ghantous orchestrated the activity.

With a time of 4:25.45, Toronto’s Branksome Hall captured the gold medal, with New York’s Niskayuna seizing the silver in 4:27.53, and Montclair (N.J.) High picking up the remaining medal. The closest finish in this race, though, was the battle for fourth place between the Magic and Holy Spirit. Closest to the grandstand, in lane one, Mount St. Joe nipped the Garden State group over in lane four, 4:34.37 to 4:34.64. Another 10 seconds back was Winter Park’s entry, sixth in 4:44.91.

This Florida school’s varsity eight boat was the only opposing finalist that the Mount contingent knew little about. The MSJ coaches are acquainted with their counterparts at Winter Park and are familiar with their rowing program, but McKenna pointed out that from year-to-year, “They’re a little bit of a dark horse because there are usually no common opponents between them and crews in this area.”

National Cathedral Prep, which had the best time in last Friday’s trials with a figure of 4:28.74, had raced against – and lost to – Mount St. Joe at one of the April invitationals hosted by St. Andrew’s School in Delaware. Second in trials was the Mount’s own league rival, Merion (4:31.53), and a close third was Winter Park (4:32.44). The times of the next three were very close; the Mount was timed in 4:38.25, followed by Virginia’s T.C. Williams in 4:38.42, and St. Andrew’s in sixth at 4:38.66.

As long as they made the final cut (as they learned later), the Mounties’ time didn’t concern them.

“We hit an underwater log,” Mirabella related. “It turned us a little bit, but we got right back in our lane. After the race, we hit another log and that one took our [stabilizing] fin off.

“We were confident going into the final,” she went on, “and part of that was that we’d raced most of those boats already and we felt we were well prepared. We row better anyway when we focus on ourselves, so it was very internal and we were relatively calm for such a big race. Not having the semifinals was actually good, because it helped us focus just on the final race today, and from a physiological standpoint, we were well-rested.”

Until early in the afternoon, a section of tree trunk several dozen feet long had been snared in the string of buoys above the starting line. It finally was freed and towed downstream by an official’s motor launch, but conditions still made it impossible to employ stake boats to position the competitors before each race began.

“Our JV and our lightweights had told us that things were a little chaotic up there, so we didn’t let that affect us,” Mirabella said. “We usually want to go as hard as we can in the beginning, because we know that our real strength lies in the later part of a race, and if we can start well, we’re putting ourselves in a good position.”

A little more than halfway down the course, the Mounties saw open water between their stern and the bow balls of the closest pursuers. On the riverbank, fans sensed that something special was happening as the Magic barreled past Peter’s Island with no sign of faltering in the final meters before the finish line.

“We were rowing a little higher rating [strokes per minute] than normal, but it was still controlled,” Mirabella noted. “We felt confident going in, but when we were actually racing and we realized how well we were doing, we were thrilled. The 20 strokes at the end were just pure adrenalin.”

McKenna said, “I think they always felt confident in one another and in the boat as a whole, but a few of the girls have occasionally lacked that last little bit of confidence in themselves, in their own performance. Having that personal confidence was the final element they needed to go out and put it all on the line, and you saw that today.”

Before the finals began, the Magic’s mentor of 15 years received the Joseph F. Brennan Trophy, an award presented annually by the Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association for dedication to the development of youth rowers. The current crop of Mounties know how much McKenna’s guidance has meant to them, but before the race they also took note of something he didn’t mean to do.

“He accidentally spilled Diet Coke on the stern of our boat,” recounted Mirabella. “It seemed to work, so we’re definitely going to do that again.”