St. Joseph’s Prep came into the Stotesbury Cup Regatta with a target on its back.
The two-time reigning champions and varsity eight favorites were dethroned by Woodrow Wilson (4:18.22) in a near-photo finish Saturday evening. A mere four-tenths of a second, despite a futile last-second push, thwarted Hawks’ try for a third straight Edward T. Stotesbury trophy as they finished in 4:18.66.
The varsity eight finals elicited a raucous environment and filled every inch of the grandstands. Friends and families filed in, hunching over the front railing and rising from their benches in unison to get a clear view of the weekend’s most anticipated race — a race worth the price of admission.
“We have a really good culture here,” coach John Fife said. “The guys really support each other from the bottom up; it’s not top down. I’d say there’s a culture here of supporting each other and guys working really hard. There are no shortcuts to what we’re doing here.”
Under the tutelage of Fife, the Hawks have built sustained success with a résumé including 12 varsity eight gold medals dating back to 1987. This year’s silver medal-winning boat included only two returners from last year.
St. Joe’s Prep did, however, take home gold in the freshman eight, junior eight, and senior four along with a bronze medal in the second eight.
The week before Stotesbury, the Hawks won the men’s point team trophy at the USRowing Mid-Atlantic Youth Championship. Their varsity eight boat placed first with a time of 5:48.409, earning a trip to Youth Nationals in June.
Fife began as Penn’s freshman lightweight coach (2002-05) then took a similar role at Jesuit College Prep in Dallas. He worked his way up to head coach before returning to Philadelphia. When he took the head coaching job at his alma mater in August 2017, he had become a more mature coach. He reflects on how times have changed from his rowing days.
“Back when I was a really young coach, I was always like in your face yelling and screaming just being super hyped all the time,” Fife said. “Now I realize I save those moments for when I really want it. I’ve become a much more cerebral coach.”
He likely saved those moments of dialing up his emotions for the final seconds of the varsity eight final.
Couple Fife’s coaching prowess with the established culture of the crew program, and one can see why it’s been so successful.
The Hawks have a strong community of family, friends, and alumni. They also share their boathouse with St. Joseph’s University, splitting the building down the middle.
The high school-level Hawks are the only Stotesbury participants who spent the scorching-hot final day inside an air-conditioned boathouse, as opposed to a shady tent.
Beyond the consistent training that comes with having a boathouse on the Schuylkill, St. Joe’s Prep spent its spring break training in Florida. And last summer marked the 14th time the Hawks competed in the Henley Royal Regatta on the River Thames in England, which it won in 2000.
Saturday’s varsity eight time, according to Fife, will determine if he feels the team is ready to return Henley this summer.
“Having the facilities, having the support of our alums, having the financial means to travel and go do different things makes a huge difference,” Fife said. “We wouldn’t be successful if we didn’t have that.”