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Published: Tuesday, 6/6/2006

St. Ursula reigns at national regatta

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Coxswain Alex Thornton gets tossed into the water by her St. Ursula crew after she led them to a victory in New York. Coxswain Alex Thornton gets tossed into the water by her St. Ursula crew after she led them to a victory in New York.
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Neil McElroy was too nervous to watch and too scared to listen.

After momentarily shutting off his senses, McElroy allowed himself a quick peek at the Junior Eight flight of the National Scholastic Regatta.

His St. Ursula team was about to cross the finish line before anyone else.

In just their second appearance at nationals, the Arrows won a gold medal last weekend at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., winning by more than two seconds - 5:19-5:21.66 - over national power Mount St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Oakcrest (N.J.) was third in 5:29.35.

"Beating Mount St. Joseph's was like beating Akron St. V's when LeBron [James] was there," McElroy said. "A parent from another Philadelphia school congratulated me and said, 'We like anyone that can beat Mount St. Joe's.'●"

That race highlighted a stalwart weekend for Toledo high schools. Notre Dame finished third in the women's Lightweight Eight and St. John's did the same in the men's Junior Eight. All three city schools earned medals at the national meet for the first time in their respective programs. Each was also making just its second appearance at the meet.

St. Ursula's victory was well ahead of schedule for McElroy, who became coach just two years ago. The team of Anissa Bereksi, Kate Broderick, Lauren Sheehan, Ellen Ricker, Amber Holmes, Kelsey Nowakowski, Kirstan Duckett, Taylor Dana, and coxswain Alex Thornton won the Midwest region in Cincinnati on May 14, earning a chance to compete at the national meet. They had the fastest qualifying time Friday and followed a day later with a showing that simply humbled their coach.

"I seem to remember crying a lot, and my dad coming over and giving me a big hug," McElroy. "It was shock and amazement at that point."

McElroy's father, Rod, was in Saratoga Springs as the coach of St. John's. The Titans, comprising Taylor Montague, Chris Ulrich, Taylor Valentine, David Beyer, Ross Obey, Tyler Towns, Jack Martin, Tom Moriarty, and coxswain Matt Barchick, finished in 4:44.71, behind Ocean City (4:43.02) and St. Anthony's (4:43.18). St. John's won the regional qualifying meet.

"The objective was to get [to nationals] so the lads could have that experience," Rod McElroy said. "We said, 'Hey, we're going to be there, and we're going to bust it and see what happens.' And we busted it, and by golly, it happened."

Rod formerly shared coaching duties at St. John's with Neil, an assistant. But Neil left St. John's in favor of the St. Ursula job in August, 2004, at the urging of some of the Arrows' parents. Reluctant to initially accept the offer, McElroy, who was familiar with several of the Arrows, eventually agreed.

"I started training right then to get the program to this level, that was the ultimate goal for me when I took over this program," he said. "I certainly didn't expect that to be accomplished in two years, but the athletes I ended up having and their dedication and devotion to their boat mates really made that possible."

Similar words were spoken by Notre Dame coach Trevor Jones.

The Eagles' Lightweight squad - made up of Rachael Phrun, Katherine Fell, Katelyn Kurt, Jill Ireland, Chelsea Wymer, Colleen Bremer, Chelsea MacRitchie, Sarah Keller, and coxswain Breanna Davis - had a time of

5:37.18 to earn a bronze medal, falling to Mount St. Joseph and nearby Saratoga. All three teams exited the same qualifying heat.

"We gained nothing but respect from those teams," Jones said. "They were both eyeballing us and wondering where we're from all weekend. Everybody knows who we are and will expect us again."

Nationals marked the 11th time in as many meets that Notre Dame's Lightweight squad earned a medal this season. With six members of the boat returning next year, Jones isn't discounting thoughts of earning another national medal next year.

"Going into the season our goal was to make it [to nationals]," Jones said. "We knew once we got in we could do some damage."

Contact Ryan Autullo at:

rautullo@theblade.com.



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