St. Augustine Prep rowers, from left, Austin Neri, Zach LaBarth, Dan Stinson, Dan Capone, Shane Dickson, Zack Seither, Alastair Watson, John Ruskey and Brett Barry practice Thursday on Lake Lenape in Mays Landing.

The St. Augustine Prep boys varsity-eight crew has been closing the gap on rival and national power St. Joseph's Prep, of Pennsylvania, the past few weeks in Philadelphia.

Now the difference is just 3.38 seconds.

The St. Joseph's A boat won the fastest of two 1,500-meter boys varsity-eight flights in 4 minutes, 24.11 seconds last Sunday at the Manny Flick-Horvat races. The Hermits were second in 4:27.49 and led South Jersey boats to keep the top ranking in The Press Elite 11.

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The St. Augustine lineup was bow Austin Neri, Zach LaBarth, Dan Stinson, Dan Capone, Shane Dickson, Zack Seither, Alastair Watson, stroke John Ruskey and coxswain Brett Barry.

The Hermits return to Philadelphia today for the fifth and final Flick-Horvat regatta of the season. The first race is at 8:30 a.m., and the St. Augustine varsity eight meets St. Joseph's and area contenders Holy Spirit and Absegami in a six-boat race at 10:25 a.m.

"They're really rowing well. They're a dangerous crew," St. Augustine coach Ray D'Amico said of his varsity eight. "They're a precision crew, experienced and skilled. We still have to get faster. We were 12 seconds behind (St. Joseph's in the first meeting), then six seconds (in the second), and then three. We've been making up a lot of ground."

Beating St. Joseph's Prep isn't impossible, as St. Augustine proved in a Stotesbury Cup semifinal last year in Philadelphia. The Hermits finished second in the race to Gonzaga (D.C.), the eventual Stotesbury winner, but St. Augustine edged St. Joseph's by 0.21 seconds, eliminating the Hawks from the final.

Dickson, Seither, Watson, Capone and Barry were part of that crew. St. Augustine finished sixth in the Stotesbury final.

"Beating St. Joe was probably the best race I've ever been a part of. It was awesome," said Watson, a 17-year-old senior from Northfield.

Watson will row for George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on a partial athletic scholarship next year.

"It's a great program and an excellent school," Watson said of George Washington. "The location is perfect. I'll be rowing on the Potomac, and that should be a great experience."

Making the varsity eight at St. Augustine is no small feat. The Prep has more than 90 rowers on the team, including 21 seniors. The Hermits also have highly competitive junior, second and lightweight eights. The current varsity-eight members are all seniors except for juniors LaBarth, Dickson and Seither.

"They're not real big, but they row with confidence and consistency," D'Amico said. "They're fun to watch."

Barry was the coxswain of the Hermits' lightweight eight as a sophomore and moved up to the big boat last year.

"I think we've definitely gotten a lot faster," said Barry, an 18-year-old Smithville resident. "We have to continue to improve, because they're's a ton of good crews. Being in the boat for two years helps a lot because you know the mistakes you made last year and you know what to expect. You're more confident knowing what the big level is like."

Barry will be part of the Drexel University crew program next year and will receive partial athletic and academic scholarships. Drexel is coached by Paul Savell, a former Holy Spirit rower and assistant coach.

"The academics (at Drexel) are very good and the coaches were very friendly," Barry said. "They said I would be their freshman-eight coxswain next year. The guys on the team treated me like I was already a part of the team."

Holy Spirit double-wins

The Holy Spirit girls second eight and lightweight eights each won at Middletown, Del., on April 13 and last Sunday at the Flick-Horvat event. The lineups were the same except that the Spartans' second eight had coxswain Nicole Kilar on Saturday, and Claire McLenna was the crew's coxswain Sunday.

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