What started as a so-so season for the Father Judge crew team ended with them conquering 54 teams from the United States and Canada.
A few weeks ago, it looked like a season to forget. Instead, it’s one they’ll always remember.
Midway through the spring season, Father Judge High School crew coach Phil Roche wasn’t pleased with his team’s performance in the water. The effort was there, but the results were lacking, so he made some changes.
He got down to basics.
“Things weren’t going right, we just weren’t getting better,” said Roche, who has coached the team for 36 years. “We decided to just get down to fundamentals. Do the little things, the things you do before you do the big things.”
Big things definitely came.
The Crusaders’ boat, which consists of Joe Comas, Anthony Coelho, Jack Solecki, Nate Tennesen and coxswain Jack Gosse, won the King’s Cup on May 20. The trophy goes to the top finisher in the varsity heavyweight fours at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta in Philadelphia. To bring the award home, they had to do better than 54 teams from Canada and the United States.
The team followed up that historic victory by winning the Scholastic Rowing Association of America national championship May 27 in Camden.
Overall, it was a perfect ending to a season that could have gone either way.
“Going in, we weren’t under that much pressure, but we really wanted to win because it’s always the goal,” said Tennesen, a junior from Torresdale. “It’s really hard to put into words what it feels like because it’s just the greatest feeling. We went from people thinking we couldn’t do it to winning the biggest race of the year. It’s everything we wanted.”
And everything they worked for.
Every day during the spring, the team meets at Judge at 6 a.m., and they work out together for about an hour. After practice, they take a shower and then head to class. When the school day is over, they meet up and take a ride to the Delaware River, where they work out in their boat.
“We finished second in our category the past two years, so I had two silver medals, and that was nice,” said Comas, a senior from Somerton who plans on rowing at the University of Delaware next year. “But finally we won, and it’s so good to go out on top.
“Getting up early and being at school isn’t easy, but I think it gave me more energy. It woke me up for the school day. You need to get in the water to practice, but the morning workouts are just as important. If you want to be good, you have to put in the time.”
The more time they put in, the less time they needed to finish the race.
In the Crusaders’ preliminary race at the Stotesbury, the Crusaders won their heat by more than five seconds.
That triumph gave them a lot of confidence before rowing in the championship.
“We’ve been rowing a lot better the last few months,” said Solecki, a Bustleton resident who plans on rowing at Drexel next year. “When we reached the finish line, it all kind of came together. We knew we could do it, but it’s a great feeling to actually do it. We were the underdog, but I don’t think we looked at it that way. We looked at it like we were going to win the whole time.”
According to the rowers, hard work and great coaching were the keys to bringing the trophy back to Judge. But they weren’t the only reasons.
The Crusaders spent much of the season building the perfect lineup. They also learned from their mistakes as the year went on.
And then there was the hat, which could have been the missing ingredient.
“Right before the race, we were practicing and I didn’t have a hat,” said Coelho, a senior from Bustleton who will row at Penn State next year. “Coach Roche told me to go to his locker and get a hat. It was a Stotesbury hat. Ever since I started wearing it, we were rowing a lot better.
“I’m going to keep it, I think he’ll let me keep it. It helped a lot because it kept the sweat out of my eyes and the sun. I felt better rowing with it. It helped us win.”
A hat is a small price to pay for a championship meet.
Roche has guided Judge to this achievement three times during his career, and this may have been the sweetest.
“It’s not a (varsity 8) boat, that’s big but we don’t have the depth to compete in that,” Roche said. “This is our biggest race, and it’s not easy to win it. It shows how hard they work.“
While the seniors are moving on, Tennesen and Gosse will return next year and bring the valuable experience they gained this year.
“It’s hard because we are losing three great rowers,” Tennesen said. “I think we will still compete because this year, we got better as the season went on, and we do have some good rowers. We’ll miss the seniors, but it is exciting to know we have a chance to do it again.”