PHILADELPHIA - If Linwood native Kurt Linton hadn't been so bad at lacrosse, he never would have had the chance to become so good at rowing.
During his freshman year at St. Augustine Prep, Linton decided to try out for the Hermits' lacrosse team, but was cut. A few days later, he joined the crew team. Now he is captain of the Drexel University men's team and the stroke for a Dragons varsity-eight boat that took the title and the Richard O'Biren Trophy on Saturday at the 75th Dad Vail Regatta on the Schuylkill River.
The Dragons beat second-place Michigan State by more than two seconds with a time of 5 minutes, 42.605 seconds. The victory was part of a record-breaking day for Drexel.
Six out of nine boats advanced to grand finals and earned medals - four golds, a silver and a bronze. The Dragons won the overall team title for the first time in school history and the men's point trophy.
"I wanted to play a spring sport, so I picked lacrosse, but I was pretty bad," Linton, a senior, said with a laugh Friday. "A couple of friends of mine were on the crew team, so I decided to try it and I'd say it's worked out pretty well."
Some of those friends are also in the same boat at Drexel.
In addition to Linton, the Dragons' varsity eight also includes fellow St. Augustine Prep graduates Casimir Czworkowski (Cape May), Michael Faust (Northfield) and coxswain Marc Smith (Egg Harbor Township).
"It's cool when you have three guys in the boat that have rowed together and know each other before," Smith said. "When you have a background with some of the rowers, it's a lot easier to build a boat than when you have eight guys who have never rowed together before. We see fellow classmates from the Prep out on the water with other schools and we realize we've built something great here."
The St. Augustine graduates are among a bevy of Cape-Atlantic League products rowing for Drexel. There are nine rowers from CAL teams in the Drexel men's program.
Seven more compete for the women's team, including varsity eight members Alex Antonioli (Marmora, Ocean City High School), Julia Jackson (Egg Harbor Township, Holy Spirit) and Bridget Pfeifer (Galloway Township, Absegami). The Dragons' varsity eight placed third in the second final at the Dad Vail.
Drexel's varsity pair of Cameron Staines and Mays Landing's Timothy Drake of Holy Spirit won gold in a time of 7:03.697. The men's lightweight four that includes Ocean City's Adam Cordi and coxswain Ariana Kaufmann (Egg Harbor Township, Our Lady of Mercy Academy) finished third in 6:59.522.
The men's novice eight won gold in 5:54.723 and features Daniel Dollin (Ventnor, Holy Spirit), Nicholas Capaldi (Hammonton, Oakcrest) and Daniel Palombo (Seaville, St. Augustine)
The women's second varsity eight, featuring Sierra Baca (Absecon, Holy Spirit) and Amanda Kleuser (Galloway Township, Absegami) won gold in 6:50.013.
Their presence at Drexel is not a coincidence. Dragon's men's and women's head crew coach Paul Savell rowed and coached for Holy Spirit and still summers in Brigantine while rowing for the Brigantine Rowing Club.
He started building a pipeline from Atlantic and Cape May Counties seven years ago and has kept it going with the help of Jolene Williams, who is Drexel's assistant women's crew coach and the staff's recruiting coordinator. An Avalon native, Williams rowed for Holy Spirit and coached at Ocean City and St. Augustine.
"Since I've been here, we've really tried to reach out to schools in Atlantic and Cape May Counties," Savell said. "We recruit there a lot because there are so many high schools down there with crew programs who have had a lot of success and such great coaching.
"St. Augustine has really been great for us. I think it's a case where the rowers there see some of the older guys come here and have such positive experiences and success that they want to keep it going."
Like Linton, Czworkowski and Faust had no rowing experience prior to arriving at St. Augustine, but eventually developed into top-notch competitors.
Czworkowski, a sophomore at Drexel, has made remarkable progress. He had never gripped an oar until his junior year at St. Augustine. He was on the Hermits sailing team for two years before he decided to try rowing.
"I didn't even know what rowing was until then," said Czworkowski, who occupies the bow for Drexel. "I liked sailing but I wanted to do something to get in shape and rowing was something I thought I might be good at. I really enjoy the team aspect of it. It's about everybody working together to keep going faster."
Faust, a senior who rows in the No. 2 seat, followed his older brother Matt to St. Augustine and joined both the crew and fencing teams as a freshman before focusing exclusively on rowing for the last two years.
Faust spent his freshman year of college at Loyola of Maryland before decided to reunite with his former Hermits teammates.
"Once I decided to row in college, I wanted to go to a better program and a bunch of my friends were already here at Drexel, so I decided to transfer," Faust said. "And it's been great. All of us - not just the St. Augustine guys but the guys from other (CAL) schools - are friends."
The bond also extends to the women's program.
Antonioli, a senior who rows in the No. 7 seat for the varsity eight, was heavily recruited during her senior year at Ocean City. She picked Drexel in part because of Jackson, who hosted her during her official visit to the Philadelphia school.
"Since we're from CAL schools, we always watch for girls from South Jersey to join the Dragon family," Jackson said. "We get kidded by some of the other girls sometimes, but we're all very close."
Jackson, who is the stroke for the women's team, is a fifth-year senior who also took up crew in high school. She initially attended Egg Harbor Township before transferring to Holy Spirit.
Jackson played soccer and basketball and was looking for a spring sport to try when she happened to pass the crew table during EHT's activities night.
"When I told my dad (Harry) I wanted to row, he laughed at me," Jackson said with a smile. "He didn't think there was any way I could handle it. But it turned out I had this natural gravitation to the water."
Pfeifer, a sophomore who's in the No. 3 seat, wasn't planning on rowing at Drexel. She chose the school because of its academic reputation and opted to join her brother Chris, who is a senior there.
She changed her mind after talking to the Drexel coaching staff and meeting some of the other rowers.
"I thought I was done with rowing after high school," she said. "But now I can't imagine not being on the team."
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