Their boat had just come off the Schuylkill, loaded on to a bay inside the St. Joseph’s University boathouse on Kelly Drive at 8:30 Wednesday morning. Routine stuff for the St. Joe’s men’s varsity eight, except for this part — it’s Dad Vail week, and their boat is unmistakably the Dad Vail favorite.
There are four seniors in the top Hawks boat, three rowers and a coxswain. The Dad Vail progression to favored status for this weekend’s spectacle happened steadily, at first outside the view of the outside world — from also-ran, last in a 2015 Dad Vail semifinal heat, to 2016 petite finalist, to 2017 runner-up to Drexel, to undefeated so far this spring.
In rowing terms, this group, trying to win the first varsity-eight Dad Vail gold for the St. Joe’s men since 1970, maybe got away from the block slowly, moved through some good boats as the years progressed, and now find themselves in front with the whole field looking their way.
To look at them, by the way, you wouldn’t know any of that.
“Last year, we were a bit of a bigger crew and we were more powerful,’’ said Garren Best, who sits in the six seat. “This year, we’re a bit more technically sound than we were last year, so we’re able to move a boat a bit better just with the guys that we have.”
There are a hundred tiny details that go into sound technique, but when asked to pluck one out of the air, seventh-year coach Mike Irwin said: “It’s way more holistic than that. It’s just that sense of being aware of how the boat moves, and how we can move the boat well together. It’s never been one specific thing. Just sort of a collective group understanding of being more composed and more consistent in the way that we try to race.”
As for the work put in, they’ve talked about climbing the ladder to get to this point. Each member of the team, they believe, has put it on his back so that “we’re not going to be a one-year spectacle,’’ said Claudio Recchilungo, in the three seat.
“Last year, it was kind of a surprise how well we did,’’ Best said. “This year, going into it, the mentality was, this season is all about proving we weren’t a fluke. … Instead of saying we’re the underdogs — no, no, we’re a top program and we need to attack it that way.”
For the men, the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championship Regatta is the ultimate test. The Hawks got there last year and absolutely seem to have done enough already this spring to be back, this time nearby at Mercer Lake outside Princeton. But the Dad Vail will get more local attention.
“We’re really efficient with what we have,’’ Best said. “We’re not a bunch of 220-pound, 6-foot-8 guys that are just like erg monkeys. We are really efficient in the boat.”
It’s kind of a mantra. Their coach puts it to them like this — Hawks aren’t big, they’re efficient.
When the boat is really moving, said Thomson Rymer, in the four seat, “it feels like you stop working hard. You’re trusting all the other guys in the boat to really give it their all and that makes you give it your all. What that feels like, you’re just flying. There’s no other feeling like it.”
Lately, said Jennifer Reynolds, the coxswain, the focus has been on focus — “When you’re being pressed with other crews in a race, staying composed.”
Being hunted by other top crews does require a different mentality.
“You row by somebody [in practice] and you know all they’re thinking about is they want to beat us on Saturday,’’ Rymer said. “It’s a lot easier to close the gap on somebody than keep that pedal to the metal. You know they’re getting faster, so you have to get faster again.”
This spring, they wouldn’t say they are typically the fastest off the line, Rymer said, “but after everyone throws the first punch, the second punch that we throw is the biggest. We like to take control of the race.”
“We’re definitely better at the third and fourth punch,’’ Reynolds said.
Rymer has been in the top boat since his freshman year. Did he sense this progression coming?
“Absolutely not,’’ Rymer said. “To me, the thing that changed it was just a big shift in culture from when I was a freshman to when I was a sophomore. The mentality of the team as a whole, guys pushing each other more and more every day, which made everybody better. That’s been true of our team, not just fitness-wise, but on the water, getting every inch out of every stroke we can get. “
It’s a long race, far longer than the 2,000 meters from start to finish.
“Even though the shift in culture was more or less instantaneous that year,’’ Rymer said, “it takes time to ripple out.”