When the Our Lady of Mercy Academy girls crew team needed a coach, Sean O'Brikis, a crew parent, stepped up to take the job.
O'Brikis has coached youth baseball, basketball and football, but his only experience at crew was two years ago when he helped to coach the OLMA freshmen.
"It feels rewarding being the coach and seeing the team come together," said O'Brikis, 42, of Weymouth Township. "It's a great responsibility, and there's a lot of behind-the-scenes work. You have to make sure equipment is OK. We've done a lot of repair work."
Our Lady of Mercy Academy is an all-girls school in Newfield in Gloucester County, but it draws students from several surrounding counties.
The crew team trains at the Vineland High School boathouse at Harris Industrial Park in Millville.
O'Brikis, a business owner, said he's not looking for a long coaching career, in fact, he hopes the school hires his replacement for next season. He took the job as a volunteer this year, turning down a stipend offered by the school.
But that doesn't mean he doesn't take the OLMA job very seriously.
"A lot of people in the rowing community have helped me out," said O'Brikis, 42, of Weymouth Township. "I've gotten videos on coaching crew, and done research and self-training to make sure I know what I'm doing."
The new coach also started an OLMA crew parents association, with leaders in charge of uniforms, fundraising, equipment and food for the team. But he has no assistant coaches.
Lou Renzulli stepped down as OLMA's coach after completing his fourth year at the helm last spring. The team had no coach until O'Brikis told principal Sister Grace Marie in October that he would take over the job.
The OLMA parents association did a really good job fundraising, and the team was able to purchase a new four-boat. Damaged boats and oars were repaired and new safety equipment was purchased.
"I inherited a headache," O'Brikis said. "Three of the four boats were damaged and all of our oars were damaged. But the parents have really become one. Their commitment is amazing."
The boats were lettered and the senior quad boat was named the Sister Grace Marie.
The Villagers have 18 girls, and only two are seniors. They have nearly always rowed four-boats and quads, and will continue that this year.
OLMA got second-place finishes from its girls varsity quad and girls junior four B crew in races last Saturday at the Lake Lenape Sprints II in Mays Landing.
"The girls have definitely improved on everything, (ergometer) training and on-water training," O'Brikis said. "They're embracing the sport like I don't think they have in the past."
Danielle Dougherty and Giuliana Campo, the two seniors, combined with junior Ashley O'Brikis, Sean's daughter, and sophomore Francesca Campo (Giuliana's sister) to get second in the three-boat girls quad race at Lake Lenape.
Oakcrest won the 1,500-meter race in 6 minutes, 28.60 seconds, and the Villagers finished in 6:40.57.
"The season is going very well," said Dougherty, an 18-year-old Gloucester Township resident. "The girls are really improving. We're working hard and we really want the program to succeed. We all wanted to row this year. It was a big effort on coach Sean's part, and we really appreciate it."
The Villagers have four juniors in Ashley O'Brikis, Rebecca Hesser, Marilyn Porcaro and Nikki LaBelle. The junior four B crew of Hesser, Porcaro, LaBelle, Francesca Campo and sophomore coxswain Kelly Bachich finished second in its three-boat heat at Lake Lenape.
"My dad has coached me in T-ball, soccer, pretty much everything," said Ashley O'Brikis, 16. "Everyone is placing in their races. Last year didn't turn out too well. Equipment was breaking, and it was discouraging. This year is different. We have a lot of returning rowers and a lot more confidence."
Other coaches have helped the team. Sean O'Brikis gave special credit to Ray D'Amico, the coach of St. Augustine Prep, Bob Suter, a Lake Lenape crew official and retired coach, and Dave Bird, an Absegami assistant coach. Sean O'Brikis said the coaches have helped him with advise on crew techniques and training.
"Sean is a really nice guy and he's come a long way," said Bird, a Galloway Township resident. "He really helps his program by bringing a lot of energy to the table. They (the team) seem to be a reflection of him because they've been rowing with more energy. The girls are a great bunch of kids and that's a reflection of Sean. It's amazing what he has done with no crew background."
Like many area teams, OLMA will compete twice this weekend. The Villagers will be at the Lake Lenape Sprints III at 10 a.m. Saturday, and will row at the fourth Manny Flick/Horvat Series regatta on Sunday on the Schuykill River in Philadelphia.
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