WEST WINDSOR, N.J. -- It seemed almost improbable that four Unionville High School students were on the water at the SRAA National Championship Regatta May 24 when less than four months before, they were fighting to have a rowing club at their school.
Not to mention the nasty, long winter weather wreaked havoc on the start of the season, leaving them unable to practice on the water for nearly a month.
And was it also mentioned the four boys - Collin Wardius, Garren and Justin Best and John Sagrati - also had to petition their way into the national championships?
With the odds stacked against them all season long, the Unionville Rowing Club, comprised of 35 students, shocked the sport, and maybe even some people in the district, by putting on an inaugural season to remember.
“It was a rocky start just because of the weather,” said Susan Smith, vice president of the board for the club. “We were ready to go, but the kids couldn’t get on the water because the Christina (River) was frozen. When it finally unfroze, the weather was just horrible. You don’t want to put kids on water when it’s cold. Literally, in the first month of practice in a two-and-a-half to three-month sport, we didn’t get into the water very much.
“Because they’ve done so well, it’s really based on the kids and the fact that they’re committed, coachable and our coaches are phenomenal.”
In order to even take part in the national championship, the club had to petition to get the four-man crew in.
“Because we’re so young, we couldn’t become a member of the Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association (PSRA),” Smith said. “In order to come to (the championship), you had to qualify in a scholastic qualifier, but because the kids did so well on other regattas, we just petitioned in. They have spots for that for reasons like that.”
Competing in the largest event at the championships, the men’s varsity 4+, Unionville was up against 35 others crews and certainly were coming in viewed as the underdog by many, including themselves.
“I couldn’t even describe the nerves,” said Justin Best, a junior in the crew. “At the starting line looking around, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to go against these guys?’ We definitely had the underdog feeling.”
They rowed against schools from across the country, some even making their way down south from Canada, but Unionville was proving onlookers wrong once again.
They finished fourth in their first heat May 23 and advanced to the repechage, where they placed first to qualify for the semifinals the following day, also posting the fastest time out of both repechage races.
“All of these crews, I can guarantee, have had more than two years as crews and this is our first season,” Best said. “For us to do this, I couldn’t be happier.”
In the semifinal race, however, Unionville fell shy of the finals, coming in sixth in their race, but still finishing in the top half of their field - an astounding accomplishment when looking back on their short existence.
“It would have been nice to finish (in the finals), but what we did is what we did - you can’t change that,” Best said. “We look as that as improvement because we’ve been improving every single time we touch the water. Maybe next year we’ll get them.”
The club has every right to hold their heads high, even the members who weren’t able to compete in the national championships.
In a sport where every person matters in the success of the boat, the Unionville students were bringing in high finishes and first places in their three-month season.
“They call it the ultimate team sport and it really is,” Smith said. “Although you have standouts in a crew, everybody in that boat, whether it’s a four or eight, is essential in order to get the boat across the finish line. You’re really in that boat rowing for your team.
“We actually get kids that have never considered themselves an athlete before because the whole notion of going out and competing by themselves is kind of a scary thing, but for this, they are competing with their team. They become friends for life.”
With the attention the club has garnered this year, they are expecting next season’s turnout to be even higher as they look forward to becoming members of the PSRA.
“We have some novice men and women crews coming up that are just going to be phenomenal,” Smith said. “It’s only going to get better. I suspect this coming fall, we’ll probably be looking at 50 to 55 (members).”
For the outgoing seniors, some will continue on to row in college, but this was a year for them to remember for a long time to come.
“We definitely had a surprising season,” Best said. We had four guys just coming out, one of them a novice, two seniors and a junior. We’re competing against guys that are all seniors and have beards and they’re all crazy huge. We were competitive (against them).”