Temple's rowers quietly going about winning at Dad Vail

Members of the Temple men's varsity heavyweight eight leave the boathouse to row to the Dad Vail start.
Members of the Temple men's varsity heavyweight eight leave the boathouse to row to the Dad Vail start. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 14, 2011

A mile and a half down river from the starting line at the 73d Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta, the members of the Temple men's varsity heavyweight eight crew are in their sanctuary - the circular front room on the second floor of the stately Vesper Boat Club along the Schuylkill.

They are swapping stories and sharing laughs, trying to work out the nerves before they shove off and row up river about 4,500 meters toward the starting line for the qualifying heat that will begin at 10:25 a.m.

"It's really good to have some time when it's quiet and there's no one you know trying to talk to you," Scott Waters, the Owls senior bowman, said Friday. Waters is quite familiar with the Schuylkill. He rowed for four years at La Salle High School, so this is his eighth year on the river.

"It's just you and your guys and that really goes a long way, especially as the races become more important," he said.

The race is definitely important. After winning 13 consecutive heavyweight eight gold medals at Dad Vail from 1989-2001, Temple hasn't won the regatta's glamour event since 2004. Gavin White, who is in his 33d season as the Owls head coach, believes this crew has the best chance since 2004. Temple is seeded fourth. Top-seeded Michigan, Florida Institute of Technology, and Williams appear to be their main obstacles.

Rather than have his rowers prepare amid the hustle and bustle occurring along the river's banks, White prefers to sequester them at Vesper, where they began gathering at 9 a.m. Otherwise, Temple would have launched from the Canoe Club, which doesn't offer the solace or the opportunity to get in a long row that Vesper does.

"It's to get away from the madness," White explained. "It was confirmed this morning because an official stopped by the Canoe Club and told Temple we wouldn't be allowed to go up the river, that we had to go right to the starting line. So you get to row a half mile and turn around and race. You really don't get to warm up. That's just not acceptable.

"This way we can row three miles up, leave when we want, and be properly prepared. The only problem with being down here is you're a little out of touch with what's going on up there. But we have cell phones now. Also, if the weather gets bad, we have a roof over our heads. We've been coming to Vesper for about 15 years."

White is downstairs near the doorway of the Vesper Club. He leaves the rowers upstairs to themselves until it's near time to shove off and take the leisurely row toward the starting line about 40 minutes away.

"We've been together since September, off and on, so I don't have a whole lot to tell them," White said. "I'll just show them the door and save the Knute Rockne talk for the finals, if we make it."

Senior John Masterson, who's in the No. 3 seat, was the first in the crew to arrive. He missed Thursday's registration so he could attend his graduation commencement ceremony. His morning began by gobbling down a breakfast sandwich from a truck vendor on Temple's campus.

"I left school at 7 so I could register," said Masterson, who rowed at Radnor High. "Right now we're just kind of hanging out and relaxing, trying to get mentally prepared for the race."

Masterson's brother, Tom, rowed for four years at Temple. He graduated last year without a gold medal in the Dad Vail V-8. Tom is in medical school in Miami, and John would love to call him with some good news after the finals are held Saturday afternoon.

"We're feeling pretty good about our chances," Masterson said. "We had several weeks of good practice coming in. We're looking to win our heat."

Masterson said the conditions are just right. "The wind doesn't seem to be a factor right now. It's a little chilly, which is kind of nice."

The chatter stops and all eyes are on White as he enters the circular room. He's a soft-spoken man and he's Temple through and through. He rowed at Temple from 1971-73 and was voted the club's most valuable rower as a senior. He has taken seven boats to the Royal Henley Regatta.

The crew stands and gathers around him. White tells them to concentrate on the start.

"Guys, if you're not feeling any butterflies then there's something wrong," he said. "This is Dad Vail so everyone will be rowing for their lives. This is our first step. I want you to be aggressive. I want you to be the alpha dogs. I want you to be oblivious to everything going on around you except for Don's voice."

White is referring to junior coxswain Don Norris. The coxswain is about half the size of the sweepers, but he is the quarterback, the leader. He's the one who sets the pace and implements the coach's strategy. White said a good coxswain has to have some swagger, a bit of cockiness.

"He's the one screaming in their faces while they're darn near killing themselves," White said. "He's got to be tough."

Following White's brief talk, the rowers form a huddle and yell "Temple".

Then they go to work. They file downstairs to the boat bay and, in perfect unison, lift the shell, carry it out to the dock, and set it in the water, with Norris guiding them. They kick off their sneakers and leave them on the dock and shove off. It's exactly 40 minutes before the start of the race.

"Poise, guys," Norris tells them.

Temple is in a heat with Dayton, Liberty, Marist and George Mason. It's no contest. The Owls take an early lead and coast across the finish line, saving something for Saturday. They finish nearly a boat length ahead of Marist to qualify for the semifinals.

"We've been working on starts the past few weeks and we probably had the best start we've had all season," the intense Norris said. "We got out quick, established dominance, and we didn't have to sprint at the finish."

Michigan, Florida Tech, Williams, Virginia and Drexel also win their heats.

"I feel like this is one of the best races we've had so far this season," Norris added. "We were relaxed and that's why we got the good start. If we do the same thing [Saturday], we'll have a good chance at winning this thing."

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com


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