In the same boat: New coaches eager to start

Egg Harbor Township High School coach Phil Strauss speaks to his rowers after Saturday’s competition on Lake Lenape in Mays Landing. Strauss is the new coach of the boys team this spring. ‘I’ve coached other sports, so they took a leap of faith on me,’ he said. ‘I’ll try to help the guys on the team be their best.’

Eight new head coaches have taken over high school boys and girls crew programs from Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties this spring.

Most of the new coaches are former rowers from the tri-county area.

Some, including Mike Simons of Cedar Creek, Lauren Lillie of Vineland, Kevin Wessler of Oakcrest and Asiya Mahmud of Oakcrest, have moved up after previously working as assistant coaches in their programs.

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Egg Harbor Township boys coach Phil Strauss was never a rower but has been a coach in other sports. Mainland Regional girls coach Dave Bird assisted for the Absegami girls team for five years. Alex Petrella of Ocean City rowed for the Red Raiders but is coaching the sport for the first time.

"I'm really proud of the new coaches," said Sue Peterson, the head of the Southern New Jersey Scholastic Rowing Association and the regatta director at Lake Lenape. "They're graduates of local high schools who went away to college, and they came back and are giving back to the programs.

"That's why we do what we do. We give to them, and they come back and give to others. They'll fit right in without skipping a beat."

Simons, a former St. Augustine Prep rower, assisted for the first two years of Cedar Creek's boys and girls programs. He's the only new coach taking over both the boys and girls teams.

"The biggest difference is that I'm now responsible for the program in its entirety, not just the workouts," Simons said. "It's a mixed blessing for me because all of our success or failure is my responsibility. But I have the kids' best interest at heart.

"Everyone's excited, and all our of boats did phenomenally well (Saturday in the Lake Lenape Sprints I)."

Simons was involved in a motorcycle accident early in his first season of assistant coaching in March 2012, and had to have his right leg amputated above the knee. The former Army Ranger was back coaching three weeks later.

Mahmud was a rower for Oakcrest before graduating in 2008, and she then rowed for Drexel University. She takes over the Oakcrest girls team after a year of assisting.

"It's pretty nice, kind of like coming full-circle with rowing," Mahmud said. "It's nice to come back."

Lillie, the new Vineland girls coach, played girls soccer and track at Buena Regional, which doesn't have crew. She had no rowing background but got her degree in health and physical fitness at The College of New Jersey. As a Vineland girls assistant for two years, her workout and nutrition expertise helped the team greatly improve its ergometer (rowing machine) scores.

"It feels a little bit different (being the head coach), and I'm very fortunate," Lillie said. "It may change a few things, and I have additional responsibilities, but it's just a title change, and it all means the same to me. I'm just as passionate about the sport either way."

Petrella rowed in the lightweight, junior and varsity eights for Ocean City, but other than helping out at crew camps, he's new to coaching. He's finishing up his last semester at Rowan University and he's also a member of the New Jersey Air National Guard 177th Fighter Wing.

"I've been out of the sport two years, and I realize now how much I missed it," Petrella said. "I enjoy every second of coaching. I have a lot to do in my day, and this is my favorite part of it."

Strauss, the new EHT boys coach, played soccer and basketball at Hightstown High School in Mercer County, and went on to become a high school coach in those sports. He was an assistant coach of an undefeated EHT junior-varsity girls soccer team this fall. Some of the team members suggested him for the boys crew coach position.

"I've coached other sports, so they took a leap of faith on me," Strauss said. "I'll try to help the guys on the team be their best. My assistants Joe Cottrell and Matt Ciarallo will be a large part of any success."

Bird, the new Mainland girls coach, rowed and played football at Atlantic City before graduating in 1980. He played football at Gettysburg College. This is his first shot at being a head coach.

"Mainland is a good program, and it's exciting," Bird said. "I had some great years coaching with Brad (Young of Absegami). It was a lot of fun. But there comes a time when you want to put your own stamp on it. I'm having a great time so far."

Wessler rowed for Holy Spirit and graduated in 2006. He rowed for Marietta College in Ohio, and moves up to the top spot for the Oakcrest boys team after assisting two years.

Warker, who rowed for Absegami before graduating in 2006, returns to coach the Braves' boys team. He was an assistant for the Oakcrest girls last year.

Contact Guy Gargan:


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