For the third year in a row, the Albemarle High School rowing team has produced an NCAA Division I recruit.
Rising senior Ryleigh Katstra recently joined the Patriots’ list of major college commits when she verbally committed to Duke, joining former doubles partner Bri Knight (Ohio State) and Emmy Wuensch (Louisville).
Not bad for someone that took up the sport less than two years ago.
“I’m very excited to have the opportunity to go to Duke and compete at the next level,” Katstra said. “A year and a half ago, I never would have thought that I would be having this opportunity, but I’m very grateful for everything that has happened in the past 18 months that has allowed me to grow and now test my skills at the next level.”
Athletics have always been a big part of Katstra’s childhood. Basketball was her sport of choice growing up as she spent countless hours on the hardwood, including playing varsity hoops at Albemarle her first two seasons.
“I played basketball pretty much my whole life, including my first two years at Albemarle,” Katstra said. “I was on varsity for those two years, which was a great opportunity and one that definitely helped my rowing career in the end.
In high school, Katstra realized it was time for a change.
“Going into high school, I knew that I did not want to play basketball at the collegiate level, so from there, I had to figure out how far I wanted to go with it in high school,” she said. “I think the fact that I knew it wasn’t something I was seriously wanting to pursue for the rest of my career led me to look for other things that I would like to continue through college. That led me to rowing.”
Katstra admits that rowing wasn’t a completely new sport for her. She had spent some time training with the Rivanna Rowing Club’s junior program during the summer and also took some lessons from Jack Cann, a member of the Albemarle rowing team’s coaching staff, before deciding to join the Patriots’ program as a junior.
“Once the opportunity came to try out for the rowing team, I knew that it was something that I was really interested in trying,” Katstra said. “I made the team and ended up racing in a Junior Girls Quad, which was composed of two freshmen and two sophomores.”
The first season was tremendous. Katstra’s boat captured top honors at states and finished third at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America national meet.
“I grew up so much in that first year and I was really excited to come back over the summer and get to have a chance to learn how to row smaller boats with my teammates. I was so attracted to this sport because of my coach, my team and the mentality it takes to row. [Albemarle] Coach [Cathy] Coffman is an amazing coach who really is the reason I started rowing because she had asked me for so many years to give it a try. She pushes all of us to do our best and I think my team really rises to the expectation, which is just another reason I love this sport.”
Coffman said Katstra was a natural in the boat.
“Ryleigh picked up the sport very quickly in the spring of 2018,” Coffman said. “Her biggest attribute, aside from her genetics and strength, is her mental toughness. Rowing is such a mental sport with the technique and focus needed to row well and fast. She is also extremely coachable and understands the mechanics of the sport.”
That doesn’t mean there weren’t some growing pains along the way. Coffman said Katstra and Knight “had a slow start” to the 2019 season.
“The raw speed was not there, but both worked extremely hard to get stronger and trusted the coaches to help them get more efficient in their stroke,” Coffman said. “By the beginning of May, the speed was there and the boat just got faster and faster.”
That culminated in a gold medal performance for the duo during the SRAA National Regatta this past May in Ohio. The Albemarle rowing team sent five boats to nationals with each of them bringing home a medal.
“The mentality of a rower is something that really is fascinating to me,” Katstra said. “Rowing is so hard mentally and physically, even emotionally and it is not for everyone. Sitting on the rowing machine and knowing you’re about to do a 2K, which I believe is the toughest test that we do right now, takes guts. Then on top of that, going out and applying everything you’ve learned to racing is physically the most demanding thing, but you get to see the result of all the hours you’ve put in and everything you’ve done to get to this race and this moment.”
College coaches took note and were constantly in communication with Katstra. She said the recruiting process started last September and carried over into this summer.
“The list was as big as 25 schools and I would send them erg test updates and just talk with them and learn more about the schools,” Katstra said. “Throughout my season, coaches would stop by to watch a practice or they would be in contact with my coach or myself. By the end of my junior year, I had narrowed it down to about five schools.”
The list included offers from schools in the Pac-12, Big Ten and the ACC. Last month, she made the trip to Durham, North Carolina and was quickly sold on the Duke program.
“Everything about Duke made me so sure that Duke was the right decision for me,” Katstra said. “Coach Megan [Cooke Carcagno] is absolutely incredible and their program is one that I’m really looking forward to being a part of. As soon as I stepped on campus, I knew that I could go to Duke and be incredibly happy. I met with the coaching staff and after spending the day with them and seeing everything they had to offer, including academically, I was so excited about the possibility and at the time what I hopes would be reality of me going there.”
Coffman couldn’t be prouder.
“Ryleigh’s offer from Duke is the earliest commitment we have had as a team,” Coffman said. “Duke is an up and coming program and Ryleigh will make an immediate impact.”
Katstra is excited about the opportunity.
“I know that I will be coming in as a freshman who previously sculled, with a little sweeping experience, so my first goal is to work toward is being proficient in sweeping,” she said. “From there, I’m going to work as hard as I can to get into an NCAA qualifying boat and really come into my role on the team.”
In the classroom, Katstra hopes to pursue a degree in the engineering field.
“I’m not exactly sure what type of engineering yet, but I’ll take an Engineering 101 class my freshman year so I can explore the different majors and figure out what I’m really excited about,” she said. “I’ve taken engineering through Albemarle’s MESA program, which I’ve absolutely loved and that is really what has gotten me into engineering and the possibilities it brings.”
Katstra admits heading into the process that she wasn’t expecting to commit early, but is happy with the way things worked out. With the decision behind her, she can relax and enjoy her final year of high school.
“It’s going to be really great to be able to go into senior year focused on only rowing and academics,” she said.
Katstra is scheduled to compete in the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta in October. Next spring, she will compete in the varsity girls doubles and hope to bring home additional hardware.
“Our main goal is to do exactly what we did this season, but improve the times,” she said. “We worked so incredibly hard this past year and were able to achieve an undefeated season, including winning states, Stotesbury [Cup] and Nationals. The goal would be to increase the distance between us and the other boats.”
Coffman is excited to see what the future holds for Katstra.
“In my humble opinion, the sky is the limit for Ryleigh,” she said. “She will continue to get stronger and faster. It takes years to develop a technique efficient stroke. In only 18 months, Ryleigh has already figured out how to truly move a boat through the water.”