Paul Savell rowed on the back bays of Ventnor as a member of the Holy Spirit High School crew team in the 1990s. Now the director of rowing for Drexel University, Savell has several athletes on his team who spent their high school careers on Lake Lenape.
The stage is bigger now as they take to the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia on Friday and Saturday for the 77th Dad Vail Regatta, where Drexel has taken the team championship each of the past two years. But dozens of South Jersey residents still will line the shore, and Savell and Drexel's bevy of former Cape-Atlantic League rowers hope to give them something to celebrate yet again.
"Our team is definitely built on South Jersey," Savell, a Pleasantville native, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "You just see the support we're getting from South Jersey, and it's awesome."
Twelve members of the Drexel men's crew team and six members of the women's team come from Cape-Atlantic League high schools. The men's varsity eight features three CAL rowers (St. Augustine Prep's Daniel Palombo and Casimir Czworkowski and Holy Spirit's Daniel Dollin), and the women's varsity has two (Absegami's Bridget Pfeifer and Amanda Kleuser).
Savell said Pfeifer and Kleuser, in particular, have been integral to Drexel's success this season as senior leaders. That senior class also includes Holy Spirit graduate Sierra Baca, who has medaled each of the past three years at the Dad Vail and now rows in the women's second eight.
"The reason we're so good is that the senior class, especially on the women's side, has been great leaders through the year," Savell said.
Drexel has high expectations after the past two years. The Dragons finished second on the men's side last year - one point behind champion Michigan - and third on the women's side, running away with the team title with 42 points, seven more than second-place Bucknell and Massachusetts. In 2013, Drexel won both the overall team title and the men's championship.
This year, the Dragons enter the Dad Vail coming off last week's victories in the women's Kelly Cup and the men's Bergen Cup, both on the Schuylkill.
"The rowers who have come through in recent years really have set the bar for what the younger rowers now expect," Savell said. "They really expect a high level of competitiveness. They go into this Dad Vail race expecting the opportunity to win. I think it's built so much confidence in our team."
That swagger has carried over to young rowers such as freshman Paige Propp, an Ocean City summer resident. Propp, a Bishop Eustace graduate, volunteered at the Dad Vail the past few years and rooted for Drexel last year, knowing she was headed there.
"I've always seen how exciting being in the grandstands is," Propp, who rows in the women's varsity eight, said in a phone interview. "Everybody's screaming. The fact that this year it's going to be for our team and our boat is so much fun. I just can't wait to be coming down the course and hearing the enthusiasm from the grandstand that we've just been waiting for the whole year."
Propp, whose father Brian starred for the Philadelphia Flyers, said she plans to stay in shape this summer by rowing in the bay around Ocean City.
This weekend, though, the Schuylkill is home for Propp and all the South Jersey residents rowing and cheering for Drexel.
"We say this is our river," Propp said. "This is our course. We know everything about this, and now just having so many people there to support this, it's going to be exciting."