MONDAY, JULY 07, 2014
Top 10 JUDolphins Moments of 2013-14: #4
Top 10 JUDolphins Moments of 2013-14: #4

The women’s rowing team was a bit of an unknown entity when they traveled to New Jersey for the MAAC Championships. Everyone knew them after they left with the MAAC title and a berth into the NCAA Regatta.

There is no blueprint for how to win a championship. Talent plays a part to be sure, but the team that wins out tends to be the team that worked the hardest, the smartest and stayed together through adversity. Senior leadership is typically one of the attributes that leads to success; it’s another way of saying a team has the athletes that have suffered through countless workouts, endured losses and come out the other side stronger because of them. But sometimes youth is a gift. Freed from heavy expectations, a team can reach goals that no one saw coming.

The Jacksonville women’s rowing team finished sixth at the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Championships in 2013. In the first season that the MAAC champion received an automatic bid to the NCAA Regatta, Marist won the title with 45 points while the Dolphins finished with 20. Entering the 2013-14 season, Head Coach Jim Mitchell had a team in which 21 of the 29 members were either freshmen or sophomores. That didn’t change what he wanted to see out of his program.

“We started talking about the MAAC Championships from Day 1,” he said. “This was our goal. We knew it was a little bit of a longshot since we were sixth the year before and we had a lot of changes and a lot of youth in our program. These other programs are improving along with us because of the automatic qualifier to the NCAAs.”

One oddity about rowing in the MAAC is that only half of the eight teams are fully-fledged members. Canisius, Fairfield, Iona and Marist compete across the board for MAAC titles, but Jacksonville joins Drake, Robert Morris and Stetson as affiliates. With that being the case, there’s little familiarity amongst the eight teams when they get together. JU had raced against only Drake and Stetson earlier in the season. Despite that, Mitchell was named the MAAC Coach of the Year at the conference banquet the night before the race, and both eight boats were named All-MAAC.

The MAAC Championships are a one-day event on Lake Mercer in New Jersey comprised of three races that count towards your team’s final placement. In the morning, qualifying heats send teams to either the petite or the grand final. In the afternoon, the finals take place. Using a weighted system, the teams accumulate points in the varsity four, second varsity eight and first varsity eight. The maximum a team can score is 48 points – eight points for winning the varsity four race, 16 for a win in the second varsity eight and 24 for the first varsity eight. If a team is consigned to the petite final in the morning, they’ll be racing for a lower point total even if they would manage a faster time than other schools later on. Advancing is crucial, but so is racing smart and keeping something in the tank for later in the day.

Advancing turned out to be a non-issue. Both eight boats won their qualifying heats, and the fours were comfortably within the top six finish they needed to make the grand final. That in and of itself was an improvement over 2013, and it set the stage for big things to happen in the afternoon.

Back on the water for the grand final, the fours boat of April Beck, Jennifer Pavlik, Rylie Ayles, Rebecca Clark and coxswain Renee Pharis placed fourth to earn five points for the JU cause. Two of the other favorites – Fairfield and Marist – topped the race to take a slight early lead.

Next to launch was the second varsity eight. Jacksonville had cruised to the best time in qualifying, and it was expected to be the usual suspects who would challenge them in the final. Instead, the race took a twist.

“We thought it would be Marist and Fairfield with us for that race, but surprisingly it was Drake,” said Mitchell. “They were probably in the lead until the last 10 or 20 strokes. When we beat them across the line, it was huge for us.”

The final times ended up being 7:09.80 for Jacksonville and 7:10.63 for Drake. Marist finished nearly seven seconds behind the Dolphins in third place and Fairfield slipped to sixth in the race. The 16 points that the second varsity eight earned put JU on top of the standings with 21 points, while Marist stayed close behind with 19 points. Fairfield fell from the overall lead down into fifth with 14 points. With one race left to decide the champion, the day was Jacksonville’s to lose thanks to the efforts of Anna Palmer, Laura Stevenson, Jenna Holt, Victoria Tkacz, Allie Rector, Ashley Hirt, Jodi Coia, Sydney Warpness and coxswain Lauren Whetzel.

More than any other boat, the first varsity eight provided a cross-section of the Jacksonville team. The nine members consisted of three freshmen, three sophomores and three seniors – including coxswain Maycee Dioneda. It was a combination that many large schools would never attempt, but one that worked out well for the Dolphins.

“The energy that the freshman brought in really kept the older girls on their toes, but they still had the leadership to help contain that energy,” Mitchell said. “It was just a good mix.”

At the start line, the moments before a race can be a bundle of energy and nerves. Trying to rein that in for a focused effort over the next 2,000 meters was Dioneda.

“I do my best to put up a front of not being nervous, because however you feel as the coxswain is how your boat is going to feel,” she said.

Waiting for Dioneda’s commands were Danielle and Stefanie Keeler, Jules Welch, Cat Plesko, Victoria Hernandez, Jessica Mathews, Veronika Stasaityte and Jordyn Clary. Typically a fast-starting boat, Jacksonville failed to grab the early lead and instead found itself behind by a boat length at the midway point of the race to Marist and Fairfield. That ended up as the turning point of the race, as Jacksonville was forced to make a push.

“We were down a length to Fairfield, but Maycee kept pushing us and pushing us and she didn’t lose hope,” said Danielle Keeler. “Because she didn’t lose hope, we followed her lead and the other teams eventually lost momentum while we gained momentum.”

“We were in third for more than half the race, but then we made our middle move and once we did, we were unstoppable after that,” Dioneda added.

Blowing past both the Stags and the Red Foxes and into the lead, there was no doubt coming to the finish line that Jacksonville was winning both this race and the team title.

“Having open water on the field in a final is just awesome, because there’s just no doubt coming down the stretch and you know you’ve got it,” said Mitchell. “We changed our schedule this year a little bit to make sure that we were fresh for that race and it worked out as well as it could have.”

Ahead by more than a boat length, JU crossed the line in 6:43.30, earning 24 points and claiming the MAAC title with a total of 45. Fairfield ended with a time of 6:48.70 and Marist was third in 6:50.70, ending in second place with 37 points. With the MAAC hosting the earliest conference championship of the season, Jacksonville became the first school to clinch its place in the NCAA Regatta.

After a career filled with peaks and valleys, the win brought everything into focus for Dioneda, while youngsters such as Danielle Keeler could take pride in what was accomplished in just a single season.

“With this being my last year rowing, I literally wanted to cry,” said the senior coxswain. “It was so rewarding to have this goal in mind and reach it.”

“It’s almost indescribable to finish a race in first place because the best part of rowing is being able to see the other boats behind you,” said the freshman. “Looking out across the water and seeing all the boats behind us at the end was amazing.”

With more than a decade’s tenure in charge of Jacksonville rowing, Coach Mitchell was able to offer even higher praise for this particular group.

“We’ve had a lot of good teams over the years, but I think this was the first time when the whole team really bought into what we were doing. They didn’t really question it; they just went out and did what we asked of them.”

After a season that ended at the NCAA Regatta and loads of returners coming back for next season, the future of the women’s program is very bright, but reaching their full potential won’t be easy. Six teams that went to the NCAA Regatta in 2013 didn’t make a repeat trip this past season. To avoid that fate, the road ahead will be tough for the Dolphins.

“We can’t afford to just keep on doing what we’re doing,” said Mitchell. “We have to take it to the next level now. I think that it’s dangerous to just assume that if we keep training and keep our mentality that we’re going to go out and win the MAAC again next year. We have to go out and get way faster and keep our foot on the gas.”

There is no blueprint for how to win a championship. There is, however, hard work, sacrifice and a self-belief that what you do behind the scenes will manifest itself when the spotlight is on you. The triumphs of this past year aren’t a guarantee of anything in the future, but the ground work has been laid for Jacksonville to continue its growth as this young team strives to top the results that have come before.

“I just see this team getting faster and faster,” said Danielle Keeler. “With the new recruits coming in, I expect to grow and for everyone to give their all every year, and to use this year as a foundation and not just settle. Simply going to NCAAs is not what we want. We want to do well at NCAAs and to make a name for this program. To do that, we have to work even harder than we did last year.”
Check in every Monday and Thursday for the next two weeks as we continue to countdown Jacksonville’s Top 10 moments of 2013-14!

#10: Men’s Basketball Dominates Dunk City
#9: Men’s Freshman/Novice 8+ Claim Dad Vail Crown
#8: Women’s Basketball Shocks Mercer on Senior Day at Swisher
#7: Women’s Golf Catches Fire to Win the Cincinnati Spring Invitational
#6: Women’s Lacrosse Makes it Three Conference Tournament Titles in a Row
#5: Baseball Downs Florida in Gainesville
#4: Women’s Rowing Wins First-Ever MAAC Title
#3: Coming July 10th
#2: Coming July 14th
#1: Coming July 17th