As evidenced by the crowning of the Saint Ignatius Junior 8 as National Champions, the future is bright for the Saint Ignatius rowing program.
The Wildcats will have a new leader in the fall, but the future remains brilliant for the Crew Cats.
With the conclusion of the 2019 season, Pat Connor '94 has decided to step away as head coach, in order to devote more of his time to his thriving business ventures. In his place, Connor Walters '09 will assume the reins of the program.
"The school can't thank Pat enough for the time and energy he put into the program. For a coach outside the building who's running his own business to run the crew program is a very daunting task," Athletic Director Rory Fitzpatrick '88 said of Connor. "It's a major undertaking because it's a big team. You're on the road every weekend with this team. With crew, you have to bring shells, a trailer, feed the kids on the road. It's a huge undertaking. But PC poured his heart and soul into it. When you look at St. Ignatius of Loyola's Prayer for Generosity, it's a great application of how PC ran the program. His work has impacted hundreds of kids during his 8 years, or 16 seasons since they row in fall and spring. He put so much time and effort into it."
Fitzpatrick believes that Walters is the perfect coach and man to take over where Connor left off.
"When we started talking about the change, Connor's thoughtfulness struck me," Fitzpatrick said of Walters. "He put a lot of time and energy into deciding where his calling was. He feels his calling is here at Saint Ignatius, and part of that is coaching. He has a great desire to lead the program and have an impact. Having been a rower in the program and collegiately, as well as an assistant coach, gives him an incredible perspective. I also know that Connor knows our mission inside and out. For our kids, him being able to bring the mission alive every day will be special. It is a blessing for our school to have him be a part of the community. We were very blessed with PC because of how much of his life he devoted to it. And we'll be blessed with Connor because I know he has a desire to do the job, and he'll be a good leader for our young men."
Walters assumes the reins as Connor completes a great run as head coach. Connor assumed the role prior to the start of the 2011-12 academic year after joining the coaching staff in the spring of 2011. Connor entered as no stranger to Saint Ignatius Crew, as he rowed for four years under the program's founding coach, Bob Valerian.
In the last eight years, Connor has dedicated countless hours to building the program. In between managing his company, Enterprise Data Solutions, Inc., and teaching Computer Science at Saint Ignatius, "PC" has spent the last eight years coaching countless rowers. His efforts have paid off handsomely for the rowing program. Connor guided the Varsity 8 to a Midwest Championship in 2015 (the first for the program in 10 years), as well as regular appearances at the national championship. Additionally, Connor increased the number of boats the team takes to the SRAA Nationals annually. At the national level, the Junior 8 earned a bronze medal in 2014, a silver in 2017, a bronze in 2018, and gold in 2019. Connor and his staff also guided the Wildcats to the 2018 Midwest Scholastic Rowing Boys Team Points Championship.
"It has been the greatest honor and privilege to hold this position for the last eight years," Connor told the team at its year-end banquet on Tuesday night. "I love all of you, and I love watching the growth that happens as you go through the program. As a coach that works with everyone on the team, this growth is easy to see.
"But before I step down, I have one comment and one request. This team is in a great position. You have a great culture. You have an eager group of rising seniors, and a great example set by your departing seniors. You know how to fight and seem to love to compete. You have a large group of experienced coaches, and support from your parents and the school. You have a lot of momentum going into next year. But you also have a big task ahead of you. You have the opportunity to take this team to the next level: To be a competitor for the 1V and all of the top boats at Nationals: To get our boats to the Grand Final and the Medals Stand at Nationals. That's a tall order, but you have what it takes to make it happen. And that leads me to my request: Make it happen."
Walters is excited and humbled to lead the program, building off the great foundation left by Connor.
"It's a very big honor," Walters said. "I'm very humbled to be selected for this, and very excited. In some ways, it's a dream come true. I told my parents when I graduated from here that I'd love to come back and teach and coach. Somehow, it's all coming true. I'm still wrapping my head around what this is going to be, but I'm incredibly excited to have this opportunity to work with these guys."
Walters will look to continue a tradition of excellence for the 10-time Midwest Champion Wildcats.
Part of his mission will be to add to the program's goals and aspirations, as Connor alluded to.
"We have to be a program that expects to contend for the Grand Finals in the varsity events at Nationals," Walters said. "We have never had a Varsity 8 qualify for the Grand Finals at Nationals. We've never been able to take both our Varsity 8 and our second Varsity 8 to Nationals. It's competitive and difficult to do, it's not an easy task. But we have a phenomenal coaching staff. We have great support from parents and the school. We have the athletes in place who could make it happen. Whether we will remains to be seen. But I hope that we can become a program that does not peak at Midwests, but Nationals is the peak of our season, and that we're sending Varsity 8s year after year that have a chance to come away with medals. Hopefully, someday, a national title. That's the pinnacle."
Walters is very thankful to PC for all of his great contributions to the program, along with his mentorship and friendship.
"People will never understand or fully appreciate everything he gave to the team," Walters said of PC. "People see the practices and the regattas, but there is so much he's done behind the scenes. Planning, logistics, administrative stuff, and everything he's done to learn himself about sport. He has talked to so many people, he has read so many books, he has attended conferences and seminars. He's always been looking for ways to make himself better and the team better. You can't quantify what he's given to the team, in time resources, energy, and passion. Personally, he has taught me more about coaching than I thought I needed to learn. He has modeled what I should be as a coach. He's been very supportive of me from the get-go. I'm indebted to him for what he's taught me and for the position he left the team in for me. You could not have a more exciting time to take over the team. That's because of what he's put in place."
Besides his role in the rowing program, Walters currently serves as the communications coordinator for mission at Saint Ignatius in a full-time capacity. Walters works to support the Christian Action Team, the Spirituality Program for Adults (SPA), the Arrupe Neighborhood Program, and the Fr. Thomas Gafney, S.J. ’50 Mission Trip Program.
Since his hire in December 2014, Walters has served as an assistant rowing coach. The Bay native has been a key coach for the program, helping to lead practices before and after school. Walters has devoted much of his free time to coaching the Wildcats in recent years.
Walters was also a part of the rowing program during his time as a student at Saint Ignatius from 2005-09. Walters then rowed for Marietta College for four years. During his rowing career, Walters earned a Dad Vail Silver medal, competed in the IRA Championships in 2011 in the Lightweight 8, raced at Head of the Charles five times, and served as team captain for the Pioneers during his senior year.
Walters earned a bachelor's degree in journalism at Marietta before continuing his education at Northwestern University, where he earned a master's degree in journalism. His interest in the subject spurred him to create a Writing for Publication elective class for seniors at Saint Ignatius. Outside of the classroom, Walters has also served as a monthly contributing writer for Rowing Magazine since 2013.
Amidst all of his experiences, Walters thinks back to his days as a freshman rower with the Wildcats, waking up before the crack of dawn.
"I want to thank my family, which for some reason has supported my passion with the sport from the get-go, especially my parents," Walters said. "They've always been behind me, and drove me for so many years to early morning practices. They told me that once they found out we had to be up at 4:45 am, they never expected I would continue with it. I'm grateful for all of my coaches over the years – Matt Previts, Russ Eckles, Chris Pucella, Steve Harris. They taught me a lot about this sport and who I'm supposed to be as a man. I'm forever indebted to those guys and my former teammates.
"This sport forms young men in such a unique way," Walters continued. "It has given so much to me in my life since I started in 2005. I'm very excited to be able to continue to use this sport to help these guys grow in their faith, character, and into the men they're going to be when they graduate here."