by Dianna White
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - While the rowing team has been around for 37 years, 2011 has been a season of extreme progress. There were only five rowers in the fall, two of which were injured. Coach John Wojtkiewicz, entered this year in his first season with Santa Clara with a goal to grow the team. There were quite a few athletes that left after last year, yet in January, four of these athletes returned, to the delight of Wojtkiewicz.
"This was outstanding, considering we started with five, to finish with 19," Wojtkiewicz said. "It was great knowing that I was graduating just three seniors, so I'm actually going to have a team coming back next year."
In a typical D1 program the competition is focused around rowing the eights, but with a smaller team Wojtkiewicz focused on a smaller regatta of rowing mainly pairs and fours. Wojtkiewicz wanted to put the seniors in a place where they could succeed, putting them in the small boats, which led to the pair (Deanna Clark, Jill Walker) winning gold at the 2011 Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association (WIRA) Championships. The lightweight four (consisting of Blair Mitchell, Laurel Schuster, Vanessa Delgado, Adrienne Lohe and coxswain Caitlin Cutting), which had two seniors, won silver.
Seniors Walker and Schuster led the team as co-captains. Walker was one of the few returning rowers in the fall. "Walker was the backbone of the program," Wojtkiewicz said, "Not only was she top performer technically and physiologically, she was one of the strongest athletes on the team. She understood how critical it was with all the novices to get the freshmen involved." Schuster was also a returning rower but she started the season with a torn meniscus. Despite her injury, she was able to excel after surgery and started practicing with the team in late January.
The freshmen looked up to the successful seniors as examples of what they could be if they continued to work hard and stuck with the program. "It's important that they see it's not how good they are right now, it's how good they are going to be when they are seniors," Wojtkiewicz emphasized. "Jill and Laurel were just like them as freshmen, and to be able to see what they can become is awesome."
As a self-proclaimed 'control-freak,' Wojtkiewicz has each day meticulously scheduled, "They knew in September that on March 13th they would do 4x2000 meters." Bringing this greater level of organization to the training allows for a more consistent plan of periodization, which alternates training in order to peak at the right time during the season, at the Championships in Late April. Wojtkiewicz also brought a sense of consistency to the workouts by doing the same practice sets over and over. With this type of training, the athletes know how they are progressing.
"John made a great improvement to the program this year. He's made some changes with our training, we definitely do a lot more cardio which pays off in the end," Schuster said. "He's definitely stepped up the program. He's really dedicated to us, he's really committed, and he is available whenever you want to go talk to him. He really knows a lot about the sport."
Wojtkiewicz tried to make his practices a combination of working hard and having fun. His hopes are that achievement and enjoyment become so intermixed that after a while you don't realize that you're working hard because you're having a good time. "I have a goal every practice, to make sure I get a smile out of every single athlete," said Wojtkiewicz. "Even if they are in the middle of their hardest workout, and they're just dying and want practice to end, if I can get a little joke in there and just get a little laugh, we're doing okay."
Wojtkiewicz, who coached and rowed at Boston University, hopes to continue to improve next year. His new training methods allow the athletes to track improvements and continue to build on the consistency of the program. The University of San Diego and Gonzaga remained the West Coast Conferences toughest competition, but this past year the Bronco team was able put up a strong fight and placed sixth at the WCC Women's Rowing Championships. Considering how the season started, the end results were a step in the right direction, and Wojtkiewicz hopes to place higher in future seasons.
It is possible for a WCC Championship in the future, maybe not next year, but as the 40th year anniversary of the program approaches, the team continues to build momentum towards future success.