Milford, Mi - The Wildcat Navy had been working toward this past weekend since the moment they took the water this past fall and for the upperclassmen, especially the seniors, this has been a multi-year pursuit.
The Midwest Championship is similar to State Championships for those unfamiliar with the sport, and they treat it as such. The preparation during the weeks prior has one goal in mind, speed.
The Saint Ignatius Crew team quietly has one of the most grueling practice schedules in the school. While in season, there are daily practices Monday through Saturday for roughly three hours, with morning lifts taking place each Tuesday and Thursday morning. The grind does not stop when the waters of Northeast Ohio freeze over as the team then takes to the rowing ergs in the Carfanga Family Magis Athletic Center during the winter months.
"It's not easy training all year round," says senior captain Ben Sommer. "The whole team is always motivated to come in because we know it's what we have to do to compete with these other teams. We're never the biggest crew on the water, but with the amount of work we do, we're always confident we're the most prepared, and I think this weekend was evidence of that."
The road to the Midwest Championship is extensive and the work necessary to get there is even more so.
The Wildcat Navy boarded the buses at noon on Friday with all that in mind. The team members had dedicated one, two, three, or four years of their high school careers to the program. With the primary goal so near, it was a high point for nerves and excitement. There was not a single Wildcat rower or coxswain on those buses that were not eager to get out on the racecourse in the days ahead.
On Friday evening, upon arriving in Milford, the Cats rigged up their shells and took to the waters of Lake Kent for some valuable practice time. The weather was beautiful and everyone was anxious to check out the new regatta venue.
"I think Kent Lake turned out to be an excellent venue for the Midwest Championship. The course was fair, the buoy lines were straight, and it was easy to see a lot of racing," says Head Rowing Coach Connor Walters '09. "Having eight lanes, as opposed to the usual six, made for even more exciting races. Every time you move to a new venue, there's always a healthy degree of skepticism on how it will work out, but this site was excellent."
After logging some time on the water, the team headed to the hotel for dinner, an evening meeting, and relaxation with two days of rowing ahead.
The real fun began with a 5:45 a.m. departure the following day for Lake Kent. It was a quiet bus ride to the water as rowers started to lock in for the day to come.
It was a perfect day for racing once the sun began its steady climb into the morning Michigan sky. The regatta started with the slightly dull yet necessary time trials. These would determine the heats for the semifinal races later that day.
Several boats from Saint Ignatius hit the water during the time trials on Saturday. The two Novice Eight boats, Jr. 2x, Jr. Eight, Novice Four, and Jr. Four, all raced ahead of the semifinals. The Jr. Eight and the Novice Four each had the fastest time in their time trial race ahead of New Trier and Forest Hills Central, respectively.
After the morning trials and a midday lunch at the "Carbo tent," it was time for the greatly anticipated semifinal races. The semifinals often pitted eight boats against each other as they lined up in buoyed off lanes across the lake.
The parents must have cooked up something special for lunch because the Cats surged into the afternoon with back-to-back first-place finishes in the Men's Varsity Four and the Men's second Varsity Four. The Freshman Eight boat also had an intense semifinal race with a second place finish to rival Central Catholic Pittsburgh.
Following the Freshman Eight race, several hours before the next Saint Ignatius boat would be competing on the water. Unfortunately, a thunderstorm rolled in during this time, resulting in a weather delay in the mid-afternoon.
The delay dragged on until roughly 5:00 p.m., when it was realized that it was unlikely the Varsity Eights races would not happen due to the remaining daylight because there were still several events that had to occur prior. This was an obvious disappointment for the Wildcat rowers in the 3rd, 2nd and 1st Varsity Eights because many of them had to row in three races on Sunday.
"They [Varsity rowers] have trained for the volume of work they put in on Sunday, but they also have dealt with issues like that and more," explains Walters. "So I would say they responded as expected: ready to roll with the changes and unfazed by the more aggressive Sunday racing schedule.
After another team dinner and meeting, it was time for another early departure. When the buses pulled into the parking lot up the hill from Kent Lake, the entire landscape was enveloped in a thick fog. As the sun rose over the forest surrounding the lake, the mist quickly retreated, revealing the glass-like waters and cloudless skies.
Sunday at the Midwest Championship was a wire-to-wire action, non-stop from about 8:00 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., and the Men of the Cuyahoga River had quite the day of racing.
The Varsity Eights got things started in the first hour of the day. In their semifinal races, both 3rd Varsity Eights and the 1st Varsity Eight finished second to New Trier. While the 2nd Varsity Eight finished first in its semifinal.
The long-awaited finals began around 9:30 after a half-hour break following the Eights. The Wildcats had two strong showings in their first two finals. The Novice Eight and Varsity Four each finished second. The Novice Eight was 5.5 seconds behind Upper Arlington, with the Varsity Four finishing 2.6 seconds behind Orchard Lake St. Mary's.
The Varsity Four race result had been four years in the making. At the Midwest Championship in 2019, Saint Ignatius and Orchard Lake St. Mary finished first and second, respectively, in the Novice Four event. The same crews operated the boats that raced in 2022.
The first gold medal finish came in the Men's 2nd Varsity Four event, with the Wildcats finishing 6.9 seconds ahead of Forest Hills Central.
A new tradition began this year for each Midwest Champion boat. Following a first-place finish in the finals, the winning shell rowed over to a "Champion's Dock" located in front of the main spectator area.
In prior years, a large ceremony was held after the final race, where each team was recognized. However, with the new method, each team now got their shining moment in front of the entire crowd filled with coaches, friends, parents, and teammates.
The Cats were far from satisfied as they then entered a stretch of three first-place finishes in their next five races. Those first places came in the Mens Jr. Eight, Men's Novice Four, and the Men's 3rd Varsity Eight. The Jr. Eight and Novice Four cruised to victories by 5.7 and 9.7 seconds. The 3V, however, was a much tighter race and, from a spectator's perspective, one of the most exciting races of the weekend. New Trier attempted a late sprint to try and overtake the Saint Ignatius 3V, but the men in the boat managed to find an extra gear in the final 100 meters that allowed them to finish about half a boat length ahead of New Trier.
The Saint Ignatius 3rd Varsity B also raced in the Men's 3rd Varsity Eight final and finished in fourth, missing out on a medal.
The main rival over the weekend was New Trier, the Midwest powerhouse from Winnetka, Illinois.
That was no different in the final two races on Sunday. The Cats' 2nd Varsity Eight and 1st Varsity Eight finished second in their finals. Both shells crossed the line trailing the front running New Trier. The 2V by 7.9 seconds and the 1V by just 2.1 seconds. These two boats gave every ounce of strength and endurance into their races, but ultimately, they fell short to a powerful New Trier team.
When the waters of Lake Kent finally stood still on Sunday evening, the Wildcat Navy were crowned Midwest Champions, winning the Men's Sweep Points Trophy for the first time since 2018 with a total of 214 points. New Trier and Forest Hills Central followed the Cats in second and third place.
"It feels incredible, having the "real" Midwest regatta taken from us after two years of COVID felt good when we could seize the title and trophy this year," Miklus says. "Knowing that you provided a part of one of the Hall of Fame hallway banners is something I have wanted since freshman year."
While the team did bask in the glory of their success on Sunday, they are still not satisfied. The Wildcats will be sending several crews to the SRAA National Championship, which will take place in Camden, New Jersey, from May 26-May 28.
Even with a Midwest Championship trophy on Walters' desk on the second floor of the Main Building, it will be business as usual on the crooked waters of the Cuyahoga as the team will focus on and try to gain as much speed as possible in such a limited amount of time.
"These days before nationals are some of the most focused practices of the year. We've gotten as conditioned as we're going to get, so these practices' main agenda is to polish the more technical sides of rowing," says Sommer.
The journey for this year's seniors is not yet over, but Walters acknowledges that they have been nothing short of remarkable.
"As we've gone on this spring, I have made it clear that this is a special senior class. Their first year was the last time things were 'normal,' and they continued to work for the past few years as though they would get their chance--and they did," Walters says. "To have all of your seniors in your top boats, and all of those boats coming top two at Midwest and moving on to nationals, you hope for. I admire these guys so much and appreciate all they have given to this program, in leadership, camaraderie, encouragement, determination, friendship, ambition, success, and joy."