Berkeley High crew qualifies five boats for nationals

The longest-running high school rowing program in Northern California heads to the Scholastic Rowing Association of America national championships.

The girls varsity 8 competed at the regional championships at Lake Merced on April 24, 2022. Coxswain Melinda Pullin (from left) guides Selena Cortez, Magdalena Johnson, Barbara Borcherds, Isabelle Bessette, Lucy Candler, Alex Morgan, Eliza Maier and Naomi Rosen during the competition. Credit: Berkeley High School

Last month, the Berkeley High rowing teams qualified five boats to the national championships, including the boys and girls varsity 8 squads, during a roller-coaster qualifying round of dominant performances and nail-biting finishes. 

The Jackets will compete at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America national championships Friday and Saturday in Camden, New Jersey.

Head Coach Marie Jones says it may be the Jackets’ most successful scholastic regionals performance ever.

“Berkeley High has qualified for nationals before,” said Jones, who rowed for the Jackets from 1993-97, coached the novice team from 2001 to 2004, and became the head coach in 2019. “But never this many boats. They were just very determined this year.” 

The road to nationals was challenging, disrupted by the pandemic and marked by grief: In April, a Berkeley High student and a member of the boys’ crew team died in Downtown Berkeley.

The Jackets walked away from the regional meet at Lake Merced with the boys varsity 8, the girls varsity 8, girls lightweight quad, the boys lightweight 8 and the boys second varsity 8 earning spots at nationals. 

‘Unkind to all their opponents’

A photo of the girls’ Berkeley High crew team from 1976. Photo: Berkeley High Yearbook.

Berkeley High school students rowed on and off since the early 1900s and consistently fielded a team since 1967, making it the oldest continuously operating youth rowing program in Northern California, according to the team’s website.

A page from the Berkeley High yearbook in 1969 documenting the crew team accolades. Credit: Berkeley High yearbook.

The girls crew team was formed a few years later in 1976 and was popular right away — 45 girls joined in its first year.

Berkeley High crew quickly gained a reputation as a high-caliber team, racking up accolades in the Berkeley Gazette, which described the team as “perennially strong.” The team regularly faced — and often defeated — freshmen collegiate opponents throughout the 70s and 80s, according to the Gazette. Multiple articles claimed the Jackets didn’t lose against a single high school team until 1974

The rowing team was “very unkind to all their opponents,” according to the 1969 Berkeley High yearbook. 

Since then, the team has competed on the national stage several times.

In the team’s Oakland boathouse near Jack London Square, a 2004 photo marks a fifth-place finish for the boys varsity 8 boat at Youth Nationals. More often, the team has fielded smaller boats of two or four athletes at nationals. The last time the girls qualified for nationals in 2019, the double finished second.

In a sport dominated by private schools and club teams, the Jackets are one of only a handful of public school crew teams on the West Coast, and at nationals, they will be one of few public school programs to compete.

It’s a distinction the team is proud of. Most rowers’ introduction to the sport is freshman year, and the team often produces collegiate athletes. Next year, boys varsity captain Sam Packman will row for MIT and Emmeline Robinson at Ithaca College. Zoe Mitchell and Barbara Borcherds plan to walk onto the crew teams at UC Berkeley and Lewis and Clark College, respectively. 

But compared with some of the programs the Jackets face in competition, “we always feel like the underdog,” said Noami Rosen, the junior captain of the girls varsity team.

When the team qualified for nationals, junior Wesley Smith wasn’t sure the team would have enough funds to fly over 40 athletes and haul five boats to New Jersey. He organized a GoFundMe, writing that the money would go toward the national competition and “keep the team afloat.”

Since then, the team has raised over $23,000 to compete at nationals, including a $5,000 grant from the Berkeley High Athletic Fund, a boosters club that supports the high school’s sports teams, $2,500 from Smith’s GoFundMe, and $16,303 from the Berkeley High rowing community and alumni.

Now, the team is laser-focused on taking on the best teams in the country in what may be the Jackets’ most successful season ever.

A ‘roller coaster’ regional competition

Just before 8 a.m. on the day of the regional meet, the boys’ lightweight crew team heaved their boat onto their shoulders and began carrying it down to Lake Merced in San Francisco. 

A week earlier, the athletes lost their teammate. Many were conflicted about whether to race at all, spending days leading up to competition grieving. Practices were cut short for the first time all year. Ultimately, they decided to compete, wearing orange nail polish and orange ribbons pinned to their uniforms, a color they said distinctly represented their teammate.

“It’s obviously a type of hardship that none of us could ever be prepared for,” said Leon Maurer, coach of the boys’ varsity team who had been a rower at Berkeley High. “To be struck by tragedy so shortly before the pinnacle of the season.” 

Now, a crowd of high school athletes lined the path on either side of the boat, holding their oars in the air in a show of support for the Berkeley High crew team. 

The lightweight boat completed the race with their teammate’s seat at the back of the boat empty, a crew tradition when a teammate dies. The boat, which faced no competition, qualified for the national championship.

The rest of the day passed in what Maurer described as an “extreme emotional roller coaster,” with junior varsity competitions in the morning and a series of close races for the boys and dominant races for the girls in the afternoon. 

The girls varsity quad — a boat carrying four rowers and a coxswain — crushed their competition by 20 seconds to win and qualify for nationals. 

After a hair-splittingly race, the boys varsity B team finished a third of a second behind St. Ignatius for second place. 

The boys varsity 8 was up next. To qualify for nationals, they would need to beat two teams that they had lost to earlier in the season on a 1,500-meter sprint course. About 800 meters in, they were sitting squarely in third place behind St. Ignatius and Cathedral Catholic High School. 

They hastened their tempo, passing Cathedral Catholic High School. With 300 meters left trailing in second place, coxswain Skyler Rockmael gave the command to begin the sprint. It was earlier than usual, but she knew they had no choice if they wanted to punch their ticket to the national championships. 

Moving at a blazing pace of 44 strokes per minute with about 20 strokes left, they pulled ahead of St. Ignatius to advance to the nationals by three seconds, finishing an entire boat length in front.

“It was an incredible victory,” said Maurer. “Emotions were running really, really high. I’m pretty sure I was crying for most of it.”

The boys B team qualified automatically after the boys A team won their race. 

In the girls varsity 8 race, St. Ignatius jumped out to the lead for about the first 500 meters, but the favored Jackets overtook them midway through to win by a sizzling 9 seconds. 

“They wiped the floor with them a little bit,” Maurer said wryly of the girls team.

What Rosen remembers most from that race was the team’s coxswain calling out each of her teammates’ names, encouraging the rowers to race for one another. “Knowing that we’re pushing for each other really motivates us,” she said.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.