BY MICHAEL KELLY
A pair of state titles and a first-ever win for a girls’ boat at the Stotesbury Cup.
Not too shabby of a week-plus stretch for Niskayuna Rowing.
Now, the program heads into the May 27-28 Scholastic Rowing Association of America Regatta, the sport’s national championships for scholastic rowers, with momentum. The SRAA Regatta takes place in Nashport, Ohio.
In Ohio, the top boats of note for Niskayuna are the girls’ Junior 8+ boat and the boys’ senior quad.
Entering the May 14-15 state championships in Saratoga Springs, Niskayuna’s girls’ Junior 8+ boat had won zero races this spring. There was a good reason for that. The group of six sophomores and three juniors — Jie Jie Bennett, Lizzy Hoole, Maddie Rogers, Kat Molina, Arielle Behar, Marina Angelopolous, Julia Walters, Emily Meade and Hannah Meade — had raced exclusively in senior-level competitions.
“So all spring, they’d been competing up,” said Stacey Apfelbaum, Niskayuna’s program director and varsity head coach.
At its own age level, the squad dominated at the May 14-15 state championships. The boat’s time of 6:00.500 was a whopping 23 seconds better than the second-place finisher — a margin that was the only shocking part of the win for the girls’ coach.
“I didn’t expect them to win by that much,” Apfelbaum said. “I mean, 23 seconds, that’s unheard of.”
“That was our first win,” Molina said. “It was so exciting. … I think everyone thought we were working toward that, so it was well-deserved.”
The girls backed up the win with another one at the May 20-21 Stotesbury Cup, the first ever victory for a Niskayuna Rowing female boat at the Philadelphia event. The team scored a mark of 5:02.120 in the finals, topping the second-place finisher by more than two seconds.
The team’s athletes said they knew they had potential to record wins at the spring season’s major events.
“But if it doesn’t click, you won’t have that success,” said Bennett, the boat’s coxswain. “We’ve definitely clicked.”
Molina said it was during a practice a few weeks ago that the boat turned a corner in its development.
“Our technique definitely cleaned up and we felt really fast,” she said. “It felt like flying. It was awesome.”
A QUAD OF FIVE
Five rowers for four spots.
That was the conundrum for the boys’ senior quad entering the 2016 season, with seniors Noah Chaskin, Jack Lampman, Liam McGrinder, Gideon Schmidt and Kees VandenBerg all deserving of positions in the boat. Chaskin, Lampman and McGrinder were all members of the 2015 junior quad which won at nationals and the Stotesbury Cup last year, while Schmidt and VandenBerg were members of the 2015 senior quad which won a state title.
“It’s easy because they’re all so good, but it’s also tough to mesh,” Apfelbaum said. “The selection process has been difficult, making sure everyone gets a good opportunity.”
The boat’s lineup always includes Chaskin, Schmidt and VandenBerg, with Lampman and McGrinder alternating in the fourth spot.
“It’s been hard to solidify which lineup is really faster,” Chaskin said. “Both lineups are very fast.”
“It’s not a decision you can make easily,” Schmidt said.
Chaskin, McGrinder, Schmidt and VandenBerg raced together at this year’s state championships, taking a win of 10 seconds with a mark of 5:17.600. The next weekend, Lampman substituted in for McGrinder and helped the team to a third-place finish at the Stotesbury Cup with a mark of 4:33.920, three seconds off of first place.
While figuring out the boat’s lineup has been tough on its own, outside distractions could also have derailed the boat’s season. In the past calendar year, the boys’ varsity team has had a pair of head coaches fired, with Mike Gilbert let go in May 2015 and Jonathan Markowicz released in April 2016. Apfelbaum, who has coached the senior quad this spring along with assistant Chris Grygiel, said much of the successes of the boat can be attributed to the boys’ ability to focus in on their craft.
“For this group of boys, they’ve gained a lot of maturity through the year,” Apfelbaum said. “But they’re always like, ‘We’re here to row, here to race — let’s get to work.’”
That’s the attitude the boys are taking into the SRAA nationals. Whichever lineup is used, the athletes believe they can bring home a national title.
“We’ve got to go out and make it happen,” Schmidt said.