Sign of spring: High school crew teams take to the river

Go to the following sites for updated information about high school crew programs:

Pioneer High School (also includes links to up-to-date news coverage of crew events)

Huron High School

Skyline High School

By Jason Deegan
AAPSNews Service

In his four years of crew, Pioneer senior Jacob Merrell has noticed the sport gaining a stronger foothold in his school and the community.

Merrell, who played football in middle school before switching to crew in high school, admits the sport “still isn’t cool to my football buddies” but even they must acknowledge its benefits. Merrell says he’s fitter and faster than many of his former teammates. He’s also landed a full scholarship to join the prestigious crew program at the University of Washington this fall.

The Pioneer men's varsity four boat at the Canadian Secondary Schools National Championships, in June 2009, held in St. Catharine’s, Ont. The team ranked eighth overall, the highest-ranked American team. Pictured are: coxswain Meaghan Kennedy, Lucas Kennedy, Jae Jung, Scott Burdick and Jacob Merrell.

“It’s definitely becoming more popular,” Merrell says of sport. “Just as I’ve grown up, it is more accepted. We had a guy who normally plays lacrosse who joined the team last fall. He said to me that he has a newfound respect for the sport. He never thought it would be that cool.”

Huron varsity crew coach Tom Kraft has seen a similar trend at his school.

“Five years ago, the team wasn’t well known in the school,” he recalls. “It was just sort of a group of kids that rowed. In last five years, we improved pretty rapidly. The last two years we’ve gone to nationals. The recognition is there that we are a quality sport. We have started to attract athletes (from other sports) who might have done something else.”

Today, the programs at Huron and Pioneer are among the strongest in the entire Midwest. Observers believe it is just a matter of time before the Skyline program that launched last fall will be just as successful. There are more than 170 student-athletes competing in crew among the three high schools this spring. The sport is growing so rapid locally that availability to practice on Argo Pond is becoming scarce.

“Ann Arbor rowing is probably, as an area, is the strongest in the state,” says Kraft.

Crew is more of a lifestyle than just a sport for many athletes and their parents. For many student athletes, the season runs year-round. The fall season is geared toward distance races (much like cross country for runners). Indoor winter training on rowing machines provides the fundamental conditioning to prepare for the more dynamic spring season, where shorter sprint races are more exciting for fans and competitors alike.

Since crew is a no-cut sport, everybody participates at competitions called regattas. Rowers race against others who have similar experience and skills in three separate classes: novice, junior and varsity (much like the freshmen, junior varsity and varsity structure in other sports). Racing boats can hold anywhere from two to eight rowers, although the most recognized sizes at regattas are the four- and eight-person boats.

Both Pioneer and Huron train with one goal in mind: To qualify boats for national competitions. The Midwest Scholastic Rowing Championship on May 8-9 in Cincinnati, Ohio, determines who moves on to national regattas.

The Huron men's varsity crew team last fall during 13-mile distance row from Saginaw to Bay City. The team has done this for two years and has become an important part of their fall training. The boat shown is the boys first varsity 8, and holds the record for the fastest time between the two cities.

Pioneer, which launched its program in 1999, has qualified at least one four-person boat for the USRowing Youth National Championships each of the last four years. Written on one side of the Pioneer boathouse is a long list of rowers who have gone on to compete in college.

This year’s men’s captains are Merrell, Zachary Miller and coxswain Meaghan Kennedy, who will be coxing for Indiana University this fall. The women’s captains are coxswain Sarah Foster, MacKenzie Miller and Claire Barrett.

“We are trying to make highly competitive national competitive teams. That’s our focus in town,” says Pioneer head coach Rich Griffith. “Some of the other teams (in the state) are good but not focused on nationals. We structure our program toward that. It’s not like win-at-all-costs, but we like winning.”

Coming off its most successful season ever last spring, the Pioneers are looking for more. The USRowing nationals are set for June 12-14 in Cincinnati. “I want to do as well, or better, than last year,” Griffith says.

The older of the two programs – Huron started competing in 1992 – the River Rats are working hard to keep up with their cross-town rivals. Only a single point separated the River Rats from tying first-place Pioneer at last fall’s American Heritage RiverFall Classic.

Huron has qualified three boats for the Scholastic Rowing Association of America Championship Regatta in the past two years – a Junior Women’s 8, and a Junior Men’s 4, both of which placed fourth in the final last year, and a Junior Women’s 4 two years ago. The Scholastic championships are set for May 29 in Saratoga, N.Y.

“Our program has gotten faster every year,” Kraft says. “Our philosophies are working. A lot of programs will concentrate on power and physical fitness. We also teach (rowing) efficiency and how to move the boat fast.”

Leading the way for Kraft and co-head coach Mike Cast are seniors Nick Baker, Drew Baxter, Will Deakin, Emma Dolce, Peter Dolce, Ashley Garzaniti, Hans Granner, Carlyn Haffey, Sarah Hillegonds, Sean Hilton, Hannah Jackson, Steven Kirsch, Katie Kraft, Sean Merillat, Chelsea Miller and Spencer Snow.

“We are right where we want to be,” Kraft says. “We are starting to do a lot of speed work. I look forward to a good season. I’m excited how things might pan out.”

Skyline coach Kit Bennett, a former coach at Pioneer, has already seen encouraging signs from his young group that includes just freshmen and sophomores as the school builds up to a full high school complement in the coming two years.

The Skyline crew team at Ford Lake during a scrimmage against Saline High School last October.

In the program’s first and only regatta last fall, Skyline captured bronze medals by the Men’s and Women’s Novice 8s and the Men’s Novice 4s.

Bennett considers it a “learning process” competing against more experienced programs like Huron and Pioneer. He’s leaning on a bevy of coaches to help the nearly 40 rowers in his program improve in time for the Midwest regatta in May. His staff features boys head coach Julia Nelson and assistants Robin Weber, Colin Shields, Emily Smalligan and Emma Jackson.

“It’s tough, but we are trucking along and enjoying the process,” he says.
Parents and students interested in learning more about the programs can visit the school programs’ websites at, and

Jason Deegan is an Ann Arbor-area freelance writer.

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