The St. Joseph’s Prep varsity eight rowers went to Sarasota, Fla., absolutely convinced they had the collective talent to make a nationwide impact at Sunday’s USRowing Youth National Regatta, and the feeling grew stronger before they even got in the water.

“The race was extremely emotional, even before we launched off to go to the starting line,” team co-captain Patrick O’Connell said Tuesday. “Everybody in that boat was completely engaged and ready to take on that [2,000-meter] distance. So when we broke out ahead of the pack in the first 500 meters, that’s when I didn’t have a doubt we would win that race.”

O’Connell’s instinct was spot on. The Hawks maintained their advantage the entire way and won their first national championship in the varsity eight, becoming the first high school team to win the event in 11 years.

The Prep’s winning time was 5 minutes, 51.730 seconds, defeating runner-up Row New Jersey (5:53.404) by almost a full boat length. Row New Jersey and the other four boats in the final were club teams.

“We have so many doubters,” said co-captain and stroke Chris Weiss. “Everyone says that the high schools just can’t do it. They don’t have enough water time, they don’t have enough resources. But the crew that we have this year is really special, and it’s not just the crew that won that race, it’s our whole team.

“We have guys behind the scenes that work so hard to push the guys in the varsity eight to achieve that goal. It’s really a great feeling knowing that high schools can do it if they just do the work right and don’t use the school excuse.”

Sunday’s performance continued a season of excellence for the Prep crew. The Hawks won their 41st Catholic League title. They produced 10 first-place finishes at the City Championships and six at the Stotesbury Cup Regatta, where they were the first team in 52 years to win the senior eight and the senior four races in the same season.

“I would argue so far this is the best season in Prep’s history,” head coach John Fife said. “I don’t say that lightly at all. I’m an alumnus of the school and I rowed for the Prep. The Prep’s got a very storied history with rowing and for me to say that this is the best year ever means a lot. But I believe it is.”

The Prep boat consisted of seven seniors – six rowers and a coxswain – who were determined to make up for their lost 2020 pandemic-plagued season.

“I don’t think anybody could have handled one more day of being stuck inside,” O’Connell said. “When we got back on the water, it was like a family reunion of sorts. Everybody rowed every stroke like it could be their last because we knew that it very well could be, so it gave us such a great appreciation. It was just a celebration. We understand how valuable all of our time together and in the boats really is.”

With such a veteran crew, leadership also was a vital part of the success.

“We lead by example,” Weiss said. “We don’t need to scream and yell at guys and get in their face. We always talk about the boathouse -- if we do the little things right, the big things are bound to go right -- things like cleaning up after yourself, picking up the oars, putting the oars down the right way, just carrying yourself like a professional athlete and doing the little things.”

The Prep fielded strong performances in other races at the youth nationals. Its U17 eight, a boat manned by freshman and sophomore rowers, won the silver medal. The varsity pair finished fifth. Three other boats placed in the top 10 in their respective divisions.

One more event awaits the St. Joseph’s Prep crew – the famed Henley Regatta in England, where the dates have been moved back to Aug. 11-15 because of the pandemic. Fife said the team plans to go to Henley, “and hopefully the travel restrictions between the U.S. and the U.K. will make travel easier for us without having to quarantine.”

The Henley will mark good-bye for the Prep’s senior rowers as they head out to college, with O’Connell heading to Princeton and Weiss to Washington. As the Hawks’ crew takes a break before training for their trip, they’ll always savor the memories of their win at the youth nationals.

“When I was receiving my medals and taking pictures of my teammates, I didn’t even fully comprehend that we had won,” O’Connell said. “It was such an emotional race. It didn’t even register with me that we had won the race which is the most competitive in the United States. It’s finally setting in now and it’s something that I’m just really proud of, and really happy that I was able to be a part of.”