Northeastern University varsity eight crew team
When freshman Justin Jones first joined the Northeastern University men’s rowing team, his coaches made a promise: in four years, they would send a crew to the Henley Royal Regatta, no matter what it took.
That was in 2010.
At the time, head coach John Pojednic and university athletic director Peter Roby’s pledge seemed a distant dream. The Northeastern men’s varsity eight had not competed in the finals of the prestigious London races since 1978.
But the coaching staff was adamant.
“They basically put a stake in the ground and said, ‘We’re going,’” recalled Jones, now a senior and captain of the men’s team.
The promise became a reality this past July. Jones and his crewmates found themselves in a boat on the River Thames, rowing for first place in the Ladies’ Challenge Cup against Great Britain’s No. 2 national team crew.
Northeastern lost by a stern’s length, but only after leading the race for the first 2,000 meters – the traditional racing distance. Great Britain took over in the last 112 meters, the additional stretch unique to the Henley Regatta.
Jones, with a hint of pride, noted that the older team had to break an 18-year-old record just to eke out a victory over the Huskies.
“Clearly, the result is heartbreaking for the crew,” Pojednic said in an article on the Northeastern University (NU) Athletics website. “They raced very, very hard and very, very well. In the end, they were just beaten by a crew that was a little bit better than them . . . (But) there’s nothing about the race that we would have done any differently. We have no regrets.”
The varsity eight’s stellar performance at the world-renowned regatta is the result of four years of restructured recruiting efforts, a boost in resources – and above all, a “culture shift” in the team’s dedication to their goals, said Jones.
He pointed to Pojednic, associate head coach Ted Benford, and assistant coach Dan Walsh as the architects of the crew’s new ethos.
“We have three incredibly invested coaches who care about us very much,” said Jones.
Benford, who joined the Northeastern coaching staff in 2010, deflected most of the praise to the head coach.
“What distinguishes John among head coaches is the depth of knowledge he has about the sport,” said Benford. He said that Pojednic “reads everything he can get his hands on” about rowing, and adapts what he reads to his training methods.
That careful attention spills over into recruiting methods: Benford said that Pojednic began to look for students whose work ethic in the classroom could be applied on the boat.
Today, almost four years into the shift of recruiting strategy, the rowing team has posted the highest average GPA of any men’s varsity team at Northeastern for two consecutive semesters.
The team’s performance on the water also has improved. Benford noted that in 2011, Northeastern didn’t qualify for the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championship – the March Madness of rowing.
This spring, the men’s varsity eight – typically a team’s best boat, manned by the most veteran rowers – did more than qualify for the IRA. They finished a close fourth, two-tenths of a second behind Brown University.
At this October’s Head of the Charles Regatta, the varsity eight placed sixth overall, as they did last year. But their standing among colleges jumped from fifth to second, as the crew finished the men’s championship ahead of powerhouses like the University of Washington and the University of California Berkeley. Harvard was the only collegiate crew to beat Northeastern on the Charles River; the others in the top five were national teams.
At the Princeton Chase, held at the end of October, the Northeastern crew went on to place second, trailing only the hosts.
Rowing has seen increasing support from the university in recent years. When the football program was dissolved in 2009, its funds were divided among the basketball, hockey and rowing programs. A year earlier, Jack Grinold, NU’s emeritus associate athletic director, and his wife donated $1.2 million for the benefit of the rowing program.
Today, the Henderson Boathouse, home of the Northeastern crews, boasts a renovated second floor, equipped with top-of-the-line facilities.
The team is grateful for the increased support -- but Jones credited the “culture” of the program for the team’s success.
“It’s guys pulling harder and faster,” he said. “We know we want to race the toughest (crews).”
Part of the team’s motivation has come from hardship. After returning from its stint at Henley, the team learned that one of their best rowers, junior Riordan Morrell, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It was a blow to the whole team, said Jones.
For 20-year-old Morrell, a New Zealand native, the diagnosis was especially difficult: as an athlete, he had put great effort into caring for his health and body. Still, his thoughts went straight to rowing.
“My first reaction was, ‘How long am I going to be out of the boat?’” he said.
To support their fallen comrade, the crew turned to the Make-A-Wish Foundation and created a fund in Morrell’s name. By the end of October, they had raised over $10,000.
Morrell, in turn, watched his teammates race whenever he could, cheering them on from the launch boat.
The trials and triumphs of the last four years have made the Northeastern crew hungrier than ever for a medal in the 2014 spring season and the IRA National Championship.
Jones, who was voted the 2013 USRowing Fan’s Choice for Collegiate Athlete of the Year, said he hopes to see a podium finish before he graduates.
“The only way we could be better is to win,” he said. “We’ve come as close as we’ve ever been (to a podium victory).”
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration with The Boston Globe.