Before leaving for a spring training trip to Oak Ridge, Tenn., in early March, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s rowing coach Chris Czarnecki gathered his team for a meeting.
The Eaglets’ expectations were lofty, and three months into preseason training, it didn’t look like they had any chance at a third straight state championship. Taking first in any event at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America (SRAA) National Championship Regatta seemed laughable.
The Orchard Lake St. Mary’s rowers weren't lacking talent. They were lacking desire.
Czarnecki, a firm believer that in sports, “getting to be good is so much easier than staying good,” knew his message was getting stale.
“Our attitude got in the way of our preparation and we did not have a very effective or successful winter training,” Czarnecki said. “That’s the folly of youth — their lack of perspective. These things are not written in stone; no one’s name is written on that trophy.”
To offer that perspective, Czarnecki chose an article he found in the New York Times about how to “thrive in chaos” and “embrace uncertainty.” He figured sharing the article with his rowers would provide more motivation than giving his team a heated pep talk.
At St. Mary’s, the pressure of upholding a decades-long tradition of rowing success can be a burdensome weight to carry. But the value of having a deep well of experience is high, and the truthful assessment of this year’s team was that it was struggling to uphold a legacy of accountability that built a program with 22 state championships and seven Midwest championships since 1985.
Accountability has been a theme in the program for decades, since the late Jack “Laddie” LeBlanc took the program to new heights in its early years.
LeBlanc passed the torch to Kevin Van Houten, who led the team to a second-place finish at the 1998 Henley Royal Regatta, a world-famous international event held annually in England.
Suffice to say that in the case of the 2018 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s rowing team, it was better to look backward than forward.
“Following that meeting, things gradually got more consistent — better attitude, better performance in practice,” Czarnecki said. “While we were (in Tennessee) the guys did a great job of putting in miles, and quality miles at that. As we got back, we really burnt it at both ends.”
As St. Mary’s hit the water for the spring season, new leaders emerged: Thomas Walker led with confidence; Charlie Vitek was an emotional catalyst; Eddie Spengler showed resiliency; and sophomore Matt Czmer, who missed the top novice boat his freshman year and is 6 inches and 75 pounds below the average-sized rower in his division, did a little bit of everything.
The coaching staff was shocked at how the team came together.
“For (Czmer) to sort of throw down and be like, ‘No, I belong here,’” assistant coach Don Wright said, “it lets everybody know that even if you are 6-2 and 190 pounds, you can’t be taking any strokes off because you know that kid isn’t.”
“He’s a skinny little rascal,” Czarnecki added. “You can see his heart beating through his chest.”
When the team of 40 rowers returned from Oak Ridge, they were like those that came before them — and then some. In May, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s earned its third straight Scholastic Rowing Association of Michigan state championship. The Eaglets then took third at the Canadian schoolboys championships, medaling for the first time since 2008. And on the Cooper River in Camden, N.J., the junior varsity 8-man crew took first at the SRAA National Championship Regatta, racing in a boat named “The KVH” for Van Houten, and the former coach was there to see it.
It was the school’s first grand finals finish at the SRAA nationals since 2009. But for Czarnecki, the greatest accomplishment was honoring the St. Mary’s rowing legacy.
“Just seeing the boat that we named after Kevin last year go out there and really shine,” Czarnecki said, “for me, that was almost as special as winning the race itself.”
This type of generational influence and respect is not uncommon in the St. Mary’s rowing program. Coaches tread with admiration on the path set before them; their words carry weight to the young men in the boats, many of whom are giving the sport a shot for the first time.
Czarnecki reads the prayer card from LeBlanc’s funeral as a reminder of the tradition he desires to uphold. Van Houten, 54, still recalls the day he and LeBlanc were lost in Canada and stopped at a small restaurant to ask for directions. LeBlanc soon had everyone in the restaurant engaged and laughing.
“He just totally changed the environment in five minutes,” Van Houten said. “It kind of opened my eyes to how a person, if they reach out a little bit, can affect a lot of people.”
Years later, Czarnecki is having the same effect on his team and staff. The 25-year-old Wright says Czarnecki is like a “dad, an older brother and a best friend all in one.”
Czarnecki said his young staff makes him feel like the “grandfather” of St. Mary’s rowing. He doesn’t understand conversations about “memes or whatever,” and sometimes he pulls Wright aside and asks him to explain a joke.
“That’s part of the game,” Czarnecki laughed.
But who knows, maybe one day they’ll name a boat after him.
Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.