KINGSTON, R.I – June 29, 2016 – If you want to know how to celebrate a 50th anniversary, you should contact the University of Rhode Island’s men’s rowing club.
That’s because the Rhody rowers in the varsity lightweight four boat and those in the novice four boat won national titles at the American Collegiate Rowing Association championships May 27 and 28 in Gainesville, Ga. The event was held at the site of the 1996 Olympic rowing events.
“I believe our rowers were inspired by the celebration of the club’s founding in 1965-66, including interacting with more than 150 alumni and the christening of a new boat named ‘Spirit of ’65’ in honor of the founding members,” said coach Bob Gillette about the event on May 7 at Aqua Blue in Narragansett.
But the team’s success this year was about more than just inspiration. Hard work, resilience and ingenuity all played key roles, Gillette said.
The members of the champion men’s lightweight 4 were: Matt Leal of Lincoln, class of 2018 and a computer engineering major; James Malebranche of Bellmore, N.Y., class of 2017, a psychology major; Joe Martinez of Warwick, class of 2018, secondary education/history; Connor Dunn of Bedford, N.H., class of 2018, supply chain management/economics and Ryan Saros of Plainfield, Conn., class of 2019, nursing. The Rams finished ahead of the University of Michigan, University Delaware and the University of Virginia. Overall, 12 teams competed in the lightweight division.
The members of the novice national champion 4 were: Will Parcella of Norwalk, Conn., class of 2019, psychology; Grady Bolan of Newport, class of 2018, ocean engineering; Stefan Fertmann of Narragansett, class of 2016, industrial/systems engineering; Colin Moulton of Norwood, Mass., class of 2019, biomedical engineering and Max Fullmer of Virginia Beach, Va., class of 2020, ocean engineering/Spanish. The Rhode Island four finished ahead of Georgia Tech, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Irvine.
Overall, 20 teams from across the country participated in the novice competition.
When all racing was complete, Rhody finished in third place overall in the “Small Boats Trophy” category, an award based on points earned in all boat classes smaller than the 8-oar boats. The Rams won the “Men’s Improvement Trophy” based on the greatest point gain from last year to this year.
While the nationals are the pinnacle of college rowing, the sport is a yearlong endeavor and since men’s rowing at URI is a club sport, it does not attract many experienced rowers.
“Each school year starts with a massive recruiting campaign, during which returning rowers look for new students with athletic backgrounds and an interest in trying a new sport,” Gillette said. “The fall semester is spent teaching new rowers the basics of the sport, while the experienced rowers are working at refining their technique and building general strength and aerobic fitness.”
But there are always a few fall races in which URI competes, and the fall of 2015 gave the team and its coach some indication of its potential for the spring.
The Rams won three events at the Head of the Fish, in Saratoga, N.Y., and for the first time in program history, won an event at the annual Head of the Charles, in Boston, Mass. with Joe Martinez and Josh Harper winning the men’s championships lightweight double event.
But as the Rams began the spring semester, they were in a precarious situation. There were about 26 rowers and only two coxswains. College rowing is contested mostly in boats of either eight or four rowers, so at that point fewer than half of the team would have been able to compete and they would also not have enough coxswains.
So team members started an intensive recruiting mission, looking for small men or women who would be interested in becoming coxswains.
“Somehow they found Fullmer and Saros; both former runners, whose body types were a perfect fit. These two new recruits would end up playing pivotal roles in the spring season,” Gillette said.
Early spring season results were less than impressive and Gillette decided to reconfigure the team’s lineups.
“This year’s squad was more than 50 percent novice rowers, and we had those novices scattered in all our different lineups,” Gillette said.
One spring regatta showed Gillette that it was “unrealistic to try to have those novice rowers compete in events against more experienced athletes. So, we reset our lineup to create 100 percent novice crews, which were then eligible to race in the novice category.”
Two-weeks later, the team rowed in the Knecht Cup; a two-day regatta with about 70 schools competing. The new lineups were far more competitive, with URI’s new novice 8 earning a bronze medal.
At that time, team members had to make a decision about attending the national championships because athletes had to raise a good deal of their own money to attend. After the costs were presented to the team, about half decided to go.
Gillette put together three, four-oared lineups for the championships, and proceeded to make plans for them to attend.
But before the nationals, the Rams entered a new regatta, dubbed The Patriot Cup, which involved all of the New England state university club teams; University of Rhode Island, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts Amherst, UMass Lowell, University of Vermont, and University of New Hampshire. URI swept all its events, which provided further evidence that it was on the right track.
In the New England Championships; URI’s novice 8 brought home the gold medal, with a photo-finish win over Tufts by a mere .06 seconds. The Rams also won silver medals in novice 8 and junior varsity 4 events. The victory by the novice 8 was URI’s first win in that event since 1977.
“All in all, it was a spectacular end to our 50th-anniversary season,” Gillette said. “A head of the Charles win, a New England Champion, and two National Champions; we hope to ride this wave of momentum to even greater heights next year!”