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Obscure squad making own way

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Posted: Monday, July 9, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 3:24 pm, Tue Jan 22, 2013.

Over the years, Western Albemarle has established itself as one of the top high school athletic programs in Central Virginia. The Warriors captured state championships in golf and boys’ tennis in 2012. Western also reached the state tournament in a number of other sports. However, one of the most successful Warrior programs is a team that many people are not familiar with.

Out in the Beaver Creek Reservoir, head coach Myriam Pitts has quietly built the Western Albemarle rowing program into a state power. The independently funded rowing team, established in 2006, is coming off of back-to-back state championships.

Like many top programs, Western Albemarle rowing was not built overnight.

Pitts and a group of dedicated students and parents built the team literally from the ground up. The program did not start out with a home course, let alone, any boats. The first group of rowers practiced on the Western Albemarle tennis courts and in the cafeteria. Team practices consisted of running throughout the Western campus, and doing aerobics.

“We had nothing to start with,” Pitts said. “We would sit on the cafeteria floor, and I would draw squares for their seats, and they would imagine. I would show them how to scoot back and forth on the floor.”

After more than a year of learning the sport on dry land, the Warriors were finally able to get into the water. Thanks to the generosity of a landowner, the team was able to practice four times a week for two hours on Beaver Creek.

Getting to and from practice every day proved to be a challenge. The student athletes had to carpool 2½ miles, and then walk a mile in the woods every day. The boats were stored in the middle of the woods, and the team carried them down a steep and muddy hill to the water.

The Warriors competed in their first-ever regatta in May of 2007, and Western Albemarle rowing was officially on the map. The team raised thousands of dollars and competed in several regattas over the next two years. In May of 2009, the program had raised enough money for its’ very own boathouse and dock. In 2011, the Warriors established “Beaver Creek Sculling”, allowing the team to practice year-round.

“It sure was nice to finally have a home where we could organize everything,” said Pitts. “We really needed a place to store the boats and all of the equipment. Keeping it in team members’ houses and in tarps and car top shells in the woods increased wear and tear.

“The boathouse however, ended up being much more than a storage place. It became the figurative pad from which we launched rowing scholarships and champions. That, more than anything, is the true value of this boathouse.”

The program featured 10 boys and nine girls in the 2011-12 school year. The Warriors mostly compete against teams from Northern Virginia, where rowing is a recognized school sport. Their opponents from Northern Virginia have hundreds of athletes to choose from, and have ample funding.

As if facing established state powers wasn’t daunting enough, getting to and from the races was also a challenge in itself. A regatta is literally a two-day event for the Warriors. The student-athletes load the boats onto the trailer on the eve of the race. The team arrives at the boathouse at around 4 a.m. to ensure that the trailer and everything else is in order. The Warriors then carpool to the race in Northern Virginia.

Once the team arrives at the competition, they must unload the trailer, rig the boats, and get ready for the race. When it comes time for the race to begin, the Warriors will have already been at it for hours. At the conclusion of the near seven races, the team must go through to process of loading and unloading the boats once again.

“The days are so long and exhausting,” rising junior Rachel Martinez said. “At the same time, it is so high-energy that you have to be exhausted in the end, or you feel like you haven’t done anything.”

In addition to their schoolwork and practice four days a week, the Warriors are constantly spending time fundraising. The program is completely self-funded and the team pays for its own equipment and transportation. The team will kick off the 2012-13 school year with its annual flea market sale. The student athletes and parents are often actively pursuing donations to grow the team, and to increase awareness of the program.

“We advertise at school a lot,” 2012 graduate Sam Mangum said. “We do a lot of fundraisers to increase awareness and let people know what we’re doing. We’re also branching out over to Albemarle to try to get some rowers over there so they can try to get their own team.”

A group of dynamic student-athletes require an energetic coaching staff. In addition to Pitts, the program has nine volunteer assistant coaches. Many of the coaches on the staff have no ties to Western at all, but are brought together by their love of the sport.

“We love our coaches,” said Mangum. “They rotate throughout the week and we’re always really excited to have them. We’ve become really good friends with them.”

The team has also made a name for itself in regattas outside of Virginia. The Warriors traveled to Philadelphia to compete in the prestigious Stotesbury Cup this year. Western was also well represented at nationals with five participants, including Mangum, Jenny Alcorn, Danielle Lucas, and Carter and Walker Spradlin. The duo of Mangum and Alcorn finished third at nationals despite not feeling 100 percent the day of race. Recently, Lucas qualified for the Junior National High Performance team, and will be representing the U.S. in the CanAm/Mex games this summer.

The program has also expanded its footprint to the collegiate level. Two former Western Albemarle rowers earned rowing scholarships to NCAA Division I schools: Jennifer Bisgaier to Georgetown, and Carolyn Schneller to Ohio State. Former rower Ansley Luce started the rowing program at James Madison University. In addition, Mangum intends to start a program at Christopher Newport University.

“[Jennifer and Carolyn] were definitely pioneers,” Pitts said. “With [Ansley] Luce and [Sam Mangum] starting a program, you can really see the ripple effect.”