After qualifying a Varsity 8+ boat and a Varsity 4+ boat at the Midwest Championships earlier this month, Saint Ignatius Crew Program is hungry for another SRAA National Championship. The Wildcats were gold medal winners in 2019, which was the last year the National Championship was held with the cancelation in 2020. Head Crew Coach Connor Walters ’09 is a first-year head coach but not a stranger to the National race.
The Varsity 8+ boat that qualified at Midwest in May includes the coxswain Andrew Robison, stroke Matthew Skubas, seven-seat Ben Sommer, six-seat Matthew Sullivan, five-seat Matthew Pischulla, four-seat Mark Kikta, three-seat Jack Ditzel, two-seat Peter Turk and bow Nate Taylor.
However, the Varsity 4+ boat raced well at the Midwest Championship but did not qualify for Nationals at the time. However, the Wildcats petitioned for the boat to qualify and it was accepted. Now the Varsity 4+ will compete at the SRAA National Championships this weekend. The boat includes coxswain Wil Antonius, stroke Pat Miklus, three-seat Emmett Chambers, two-seat Levente Karetka and bow Jacob Zorc.
The race to qualify the Varsity 8+ boat was a close race. “Pittsburgh Central Catholic beat us by a couple of seconds, but we were able to edge New Trier,” explains Walters. “When we came across the finish line, we didn’t know where we were going to rank. It was really exciting to watch them qualify.”
With the second-place finish, it was one of the top finishes ever by a Saint Ignatius Varsity 8+ boat with a time of 4:53.3 edging New Trier by 0.9 seconds to qualify.
Since qualifying for the SRAA National Championship, the Wildcat rowers have been hard at work at practice, getting into peak performance before heading to Philadelphia. “Our kids have been working close to varsity coach Mike Hess ’07,” says Walters. “I do not doubt that they have gotten significantly faster since the Midwest Championship and they have been reaching their peak speed.”
SRAA National Championships were moved from Camden, New Jersey to the Schuylkill River near downtown Philadelphia. “The Schuylkill River is historic,” explains Walters. “We are excited for two reasons; we are going to have a National Championship and two, we believe that our men can perform well, we potentially can have the highest finish we have ever had as a program at Nationals.”
Coach Walters was thrilled to learn he would have a second boat compete at Nationals with the Varsity 4+ boat. “These are our top four guys in the four and they have worked so hard this year,” says Walters. “They have given us some amazing practices and we’re excited to see what they can do.”
Coach Walters was a part of the coaching crew that won the 2019 SRAA National Championship and knows what it takes to compete at a high level at Nationals, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t butterflies. “There will always be butterflies,” Walters says. “There are three guys that were a part of the National Championship Crew in 2019 racing this weekend and that helps the other men in the Varsity 8+ boat to understand how to prepare for a national race.”
Pittsburgh Central Catholic has been an admirable opponent this season for the Wildcats. They have competed twice against each other, once at the Rustbelt Championship and the other at Midwest. Coach Walters noted the excitement level to bridge the gap between Central and Saint Ignatius. “They have beaten us in the Rustbelt Championship and in the Midwest Championship, but I believe we have closed the gap since to win or medal, we have to beat Central,” explains Walters. “They are not in our heat, so that we won’t see them in the first round on Friday, but we can see them a couple of times this weekend and I know our guys are ready to compete.”
As the Wildcats get ready to compete this weekend, coach Walters is close to wrapping up year one as the leader of the Crew Cats. “I have learned in this role as head coach, the job never stops,” says Walters. “I am looking forward to how we end this season and there is a blend of excitement and sense of accomplishment of what our kids and coaches did this season.”
The SRAA National Championships will begin Friday morning in Philadelphia with the first heats for the Varsity 8+ and Varsity 4+. Saturday will be the semifinal and final for the National Championship. Six boats will compete in the final for the National Championship, but the Wildcats are looking at the task at hand, “We’re taking it one race at a time; the focus is on Friday morning,” Walters emphasizes. “The pieces are all there now. We need to make the improvements necessary to get better.”