Merion Mercy Academy’s lightweight 4+ traveled to Henley-on-Thames, England, to compete this weekend for the Groton School Challenge Cup in the esteemed Henley Women’s Regatta.

To get to Henley, everything had to be earned. Merion Mercy’s rowing program, which is 15 years old, owns only six boats. Like its small program, the school has just 400 students. Despite unfavorable odds, the lightweight 4+ dominated its competition this year en route to becoming the best junior lightweight 4+ in the United States and reaching the quarterfinals at Henley.

In May, Merion won the Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association city championship, the Stotesbury Cup, and the Scholastic Rowing Association Regatta in Ohio. Early in June, the crew also claimed gold medals at the US Rowing Youth National Championships in Sarasota, Fla.

The boat consists of coxswain Cece Wendel, Phoebe DeVlieger, Isabella Begley, Taylor Gregitis, Erin Welch, and alternate Sophia Lamb. Each graduated team member has accepted a Division I scholarship to row in college: Wendel for Washington, Welch at Boston University, Begley at Syracuse, Gregitis at North Carolina, and Lamb at Drexel.

DeVlieger, a rising senior, is the only member who will return to Merion in the fall. She might also be the one responsible for starting the group’s roll to Henley.

“I think they knew [they could qualify for Henley] last summer, when one young lady ordered her passport,” coach Mike Brown joked. “[Phoebe] pretty much told everybody that that’s what her goal was.”

Merion Mercy had made the trip three times before: in 2011, 2014 and 2017. DeVlieger’s motivation helped, but the team already had an idea about the level of sacrifice that it takes to get there.

Wendel, the coxswain, competed at the regatta in 2017, when Merion Mercy reached the semifinals. Her teammates and coach were quick to commend the future Washington Husky for her leadership throughout the team’s journey to Henley.

“The last few years, she’s been an absolute assistant coach on the water and in the boat," Brown said. “She’s the best coxswain on the water.”

Added DeVlieger: “It’s definitely amazing to have someone who knows the course and has a lot of experience. ... [She’s] someone who we trust wholeheartedly because she’s done it before successfully.”

Despite Wendel’s having made the trip twice, the chance to row at Henley comes once in a lifetime for most, and the team isn’t taking it for granted.

“Racing at Henley is an amazing, life-changing opportunity,” Wendel said. “I know we’re all grateful for the chance to come here and show the world who we are.”

Saturday, the lightweight 4+ competed in the time trial before advancing to heats, where they raced against the Shrewsbury School from Shrewsbury, England. Merion Mercy stuck to its winning ways, advancing to the quarterfinals by more than five boat lengths on the 1,500-meter course. Sunday’s quarterfinal didn’t treat the team as well, though, and it lost to Kingston Rowing Club.

“In certain boats, some lineups feel special and you have a certain connection that you don’t get by pulling hard. You get it by pulling together, almost like a certain camaraderie that you don’t get just by trying your hardest,” Welch said. “It’s a connection, it’s inherent, you either have it or you don’t, and after rowing together so long to win for each other and our team, our boat really found that connection.”