The Saratoga women’s junior eight and freshman eight crews are feeling right at home at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America’s National Championships.
That’s not just because they are in their natural habitat at Saratoga Lake. They also are competing in their natural age groups after spending much of the regular season rowing against older and stronger girls.
“We put them in a situation where the result is unclear, and it forces them to take another step in how they think about racing, their racing abilities and how they handle the stress of it,” said Eric Catalano, coach of the junior eight.
More often than not this season, these two crews entered regattas racing up in class because they likely would have won their own class by too wide a margin to make it worthwhile. They would have missed the development that came by pulling against stiffer competition.
Now at nationals, the race for which they went through all that development, they are racing against girls their own age.
Both won their heats convincingly Friday, and will return to the water this morning for the semifinals.
The freshman eight, from stern to bow, includes Isabelle Germano (coxswain), Kerri Wegner (stroke), Kate Kolbe, Caroline Murphy, Lexi Georgia, Ali Samach, Caty Hogan, Kelli Wegner and Sophie Coco.
The junior eight, from stern to bow, includes Isabel Price (coxswain), Lizzy Fitzhenry (stroke), Kayley Bradley, Thora Olsen, Chelsea Brown, Erica McBain, Katie O’Connell, Caroline Blackington and Jill Perkins.
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The freshman eight was fastest in its class Friday. They credit their success to their improved timing, which was crucial in their win at the Saratoga Invitational, where they raced not as a junior eight, but still higher, as a varsity second eight.
“It was against CBC [Connecticut Boat Club], and we were head-to-head with them the whole race,” Kerri Wegner said. “We were ahead by one seat, then they were ahead by one seat. It was just a really good race.”
That kind of competition would have been harder to come by if they raced two classes down, in their natural age group.
“When we get to race up, every race is a challenge for us, and it pushes us more and more to do well,” Murphy said. “When we come back down, we’ve been there before and pushed ourselves that hard. It’s good to know we can do it.”
The coach of their boat, Chris Chase, said even more than their timing or their efficient and low-to-the-water technique, he has been impressed with how they start races.
“Rowing them up, I think, forced them to be faster earlier in the race, and not fall behind,” Chase said. “Even rowing up, they were taking it to people in the first 100 meters.”
They won their heat Friday by more than 5.5 seconds and were 4.3 seconds faster than the second-fastest shell.
The junior eight had been rowing in different boats early in the season, but once they came together, they came together fast.
“I’ve really seen a transformation,” Price said. “We really started to row together, get our legs together, swing together. You can tell. It’s paid off.”
Once they gained the confidence that comes with that cohesion, Fitzhenry said rowing against the top eight from other schools was a non-issue.
“Once you’re in the race, you don’t think about how strong the other boats are,” she said. “You just think about getting your boat together, moving together.”
They were third in their class after the heats, about 1.4 seconds behind the fastest time from the Lake Brantley entry.
The two crews join 19 other local shells that advanced to the meet’s second day. Saratoga’s women’s senior double, women’s junior quad and women’s varsity quad each advanced. Shenendehowa’s men’s junior double, men’s lightweight four, men’s junior quad and women’s junior eight advanced. Niskayuna’s women’s senior single, men’s second eight, and women’s varsity quad advanced.
Burnt Hills’ men’s freshman eight and men’s junior four, Ballston Spa’s women’s senior single and men’s senior single, Shaker’s women’s senior double and men’s senior eight, Brzozowski Homeschool’s men’s senior single, Emma Willard’s women’s senior double, and South Glens Falls’ men’s senior single, all advanced.
Both the Saratoga crews are likely to advance to the finals, based on the heat times. Once there, they will be able to draw on a season’s worth of experience in tight competition.
“Being confident in your own race, that comes from surviving close races, and they’ve had a lot of those,” Catalano said. “So I’m confident they will be able to row within their own race plan because of that.”