Shell Game

Crew is on the rise at Jersey high schools. Here’s why kids and parents love the sport—and the food.

Members of the Ocean City High School girls varsity rowing team compete during the Scholastic Rowing Association of America Nationals at Mercer Lake in West Windsor.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

At the Ocean City High School rowing team tent, the aroma of sausages, burgers, and hot dogs on the grill are enough to make even a vegan swoon. Yet that is just the warm-up. Nearby hotplates full of chicken cordon bleu and pasta Alfredo beckon students and parents alike.

“I have to say the food is pretty good, especially after the adrenaline rush of a race,” said Devon Vanderslice, a junior on the Ocean City club at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America Nationals at Mercer Lake in West Windsor this past spring.

There was a time when rowing—in New Jersey and elsewhere—was the province of a handful of private schools from the wealthiest communities. Today, it has grown to include hundreds of boys and girls in public schools in places as far-flung as Ocean City, Collingswood, and Kearny.

“High school rowing has certainly burgeoned. I can’t think of a sport that has grown in New Jersey any faster,” said Jamie Stack, who doubles as the coach of the Rutgers-Camden crew team and manager of the Camden County Boathouse. The county built the mock-Victorian boathouse on the Pennsauken side of the Cooper River four years ago in response to the upsurge of activity there.

The Cooper has been a major rowing venue for four decades or so, ever since John Kelly Jr., brother of the late Princess Grace and an Olympic rower, spearheaded the formation of a racing venue there. The river is one of several bodies of water where New Jersey’s four dozen or so high school crew teams train and compete. Other venues include the Passaic River and the Atlantic City Inlet (both mostly for training), and Mercer Lake (home to the U.S. Olympic team). Also, many of the Jersey teams compete on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

It’s no wonder that food is a big deal for the crew teams. Some travel several hours for the weekend meets that take place throughout the spring. Many teams make the trip in multi-car caravans, some pulling trailers loaded with food and cooking grills.

High school crew regattas tend to be large events. The Stotesbury Cup, which is run each May on the Schuylkill, is the oldest and the largest in the country, with 181 schools and about 5,000 rowers last year. Most other races have at least half that. High school rowers typically race in sleek, plastic boats called shells, which are made for eight or four rowers and a coxswain—the person, usually small, who steers the boat and yells out the commands to keep the rowers in sync. The better eights finish the 1,500-meter races in less than six minutes; the better fours, in less than seven.

Eugene Petrella, who called himself the “trailer guy” for Ocean City High School while he was one of the parents entrusted with getting the shells to the races on their long trailers, said being a crew parent can make for a long day.

“If the race is in Philly or on the Cooper, I was leaving more than two hours before the first race,” he said. “The entire regatta could be eight, ten hours. Then, it’s load up the trailer and go home. And your kid may only be in one race.”

Coaches tout crew as “the ultimate team sport,” since it requires timing and synchronization rather than brute strength. To see the Olympic teams practice on Mercer Lake is like watching a ballet on water; despite the extreme exertion of each rower, the flow is smooth and seemingly effortless.

For those who love the competition, rowing becomes a way of life. At Bishop Eustace High School in Pennsauken, whose campus borders the Cooper, as many as 80 students clear out the tables and chairs from the school cafeteria six days a week during the winter months to work on their conditioning for the spring season. The tables and chairs are replaced with rowing machines known as ergometers, or “ergs.”

Danielle Ponzio has been dragging ergs into the Bishop Eustace cafeteria off and on for a decade now, first as a Bishop Eustace student and now as coach of the women’s team. In between, she rowed as a lightweight at Princeton and for the last three years has been a medical student at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. She takes time out almost every day to coach the four dozen girls on the Bishop Eustace crew team.

“The rowing is only part of it, as any rower will tell you,” said Ponzio, 24, one 15-degree Saturday morning in January. “When you get into a boat with your eight best friends and all just do this thing together, there is no greater feeling of teamwork. I know it sounds almost silly when you hear rowers say that, but those who love it, I think, love it for that reason.”

Yet it’s safe to say that many kids know little or nothing about the sport before they join in. Crew teams began multiplying rapidly around the state in the 1990s to meet the demands of young athletes—especially girls—who were seeking new competitive activities beyond the usual varsity teams.

At least some of the kids who join crew teams see collegiate scholarships—or at least aid in admission—as the carrot of at the end of the stick of the arduous hours of practice. It is a substantial boon for girls, since Title IX requires colleges to give equal opportunity in athletics to each gender under federal law. Girls in boats go a long way toward balancing out a school’s football players. The University of Alabama, for example, started a women’s rowing team three years ago, even though there’s not a single high school in Alabama with a women’s varsity rowing program.

Sabrina Malak and Morgan Weller were part of the Bishop Eustace varsity eight that won the prestigious girls’ senior championship last year at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta on the Schuylkill.

Malak and Weller got into rowing almost by accident. “When I came here, someone said, ‘Hey, you are a tall kid. Why don’t you row?’” said the 6-foot-tall Weller.

Malak, a four-sport star in middle school, had broken her leg badly playing softball just before coming to Bishop Eustace. She wanted to use the ergs in the winter just to get into shape.

“Once I got onto the water in the spring, there was a rush I couldn’t believe,” she said. “I was going fast and it was beautiful and all these girls were suddenly my best buddies. Rowers have a hard time explaining that to other kids in other sports, but I had played everything, and there was nothing like this for teamwork.”
Added Weller, “It’s a hard sport, and I have learned a lot about myself and setting goals and doing something as part of a real team.”

Bishop Eustace is a small, relatively homogeneous Catholic prep school. Across the state and a 90-minute drive from the Cooper, the sport of crew also has found a home at the more diverse, working-class Kearny High School. But the feeling twin brothers Chris and Danny McShane have about their sport is no different from the rowers at Bishop Eustace. In their high school days, both were cut from the basketball team and did not even attempt to make the powerhouse Kearny soccer team.

“We wanted to play sports and we wanted to do something together,” said Chris McShane. “Rowing really turned out to be it.” Now 25, Chris is the freshman coach and Danny is his assistant for the Kearny crew team.

While crew has made inroads at public schools like Kearny, in many communities it is still the province of the well-to-do. That’s because most crew teams are private clubs and require significant funding before they can even get in the water.

“It is an expensive sport,” said Sean McCourt, who coaches the Mercer Junior Rowing Club. “A good new boat can be north of $30,000, and we have about fourteen of them in use, so that can be daunting.” Unless they have varsity status, typical public high school clubs require dues of $1,000 to $1,500 a year. The clubs are run by parents on boards; they hire the coaches and buy the equipment.

Amid this competitive atmosphere, diversity remains an important goal for some. At the Scholastic Nationals at Mercer Lake, Kearny High head coach Dave Paszkiewicz, a Kearny graduate who now teaches history there, proudly watched his kids cheer on their teammates from the water’s edge.

“Brown, black, white, it doesn’t matter here,” said Paszkiewicz. “Yes, rowing is generally a white, upper-class sport, but we hope we break the mold and that more people will try it. I can see it happening…It would be great if we could get inner city kids out there, too.”

That is a goal, as well, for McCourt, whose Mercer Rowing Club trains out of the Caspersen Rowing Center, the official U.S. Olympic training site on Mercer Lake, a man-made body of water inside the vast expanse of Mercer County Park. The Mercer club is made up of kids from about twenty high schools in the area, mostly wealthy communities like Princeton and West Windsor, but also a few who come from Trenton-area public schools like Steinert and Trenton Central.

“Here at Mercer, we can hope to recruit city kids,” McCourt said. “It gives them exposure to something new and, we hope, enhances the sport as well.”

While high school basketball in New Jersey has its championships in the rollicking field house at Rutgers, and the wrestling finals are held in the old Miss America venue, Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, there is nothing like the pageantry of a regatta.

Though it moves around the country, last year’s Nationals were held on Mercer Lake. All along the banks of the river, tents like Ocean City’s rose up for a few days, pole to pole, grill to grill, with parents in school colors, flags flying, megaphones blaring, and cowbells a-ringing.

For most Ocean City sports, nearby Catholic prep school Holy Spirit is a hated rival. But in crew, the competition is more civilized, said Michele Morrissey, the club’s parent president, whose daughter Ashley Nardiello, rows for Ocean City. “We set up our tent next to theirs and root for them when we aren’t in the race. Sometimes even steal their food,” she said. “When the weather is warm and sunny, there is no better place to be and no better sport for it. Eating a good burger, getting fresh air, and watching your kid do something so healthy—I couldn’t be a soccer mom ever again.”

Robert Strauss is a frequent contributor. His daughter, Ella, was a coxswain for the Haddonfield High School Crew Club from 2006-09.

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