After a decade of hard work, Central Catholic rowing coach Jay Hammond is finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
About that long ago, he made it the program's goal to take first place in the "A" division at the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships. The team hasn't reached that goal just yet, but qualifying for the A division grand final last weekend was a victory in itself.
"It's been probably 10 years since we focused on wanting to win this particular race, and now we're starting to see that we might be in striking distance of that goal, so this is really exciting," Hammond said. "It's been a long process, but we've been making steady progress every year. This was a huge step forward for us."
The qualifying and semifinal heats at the regatta are used to determine what championship event a team will compete for -- if it makes it that far. After a few years competing for the "B" final, this was the first time Central Catholic made it to the grand final, finishing the 2,000-meter race in 6 minutes, 4.07 seconds, good for fifth place.
"Our goal has always been to improve and we really did that," junior co-captain Lucas Peilert said. "We improved over last year, when we took ninth place.
"We have really young guys in our boat. We're only losing the coxswain and two rowers out of the nine of us, so we feel like it's a great opportunity to get familiar with the competition there and we know what we have to do to come back next year and be even more successful. And that's really what successful is: We improved."
Sarasota Crew out of Florida won the event in 5:52.99, but the Vikings were proud of their race, especially for finishing just one spot behind Marin Rowing Association, the defending national champion from the San Francisco Bay area.
"They were the clear favorites going in," Peilert said. "They beat us in the semis but we were able to push them early in the race so that gave us a lot of confidence going into the final.
"Once we made that final, we really felt like we had everything to gain. The race itself, in rowing we talk a lot about executing our plan, and that's really what we did. We were able to execute our race plan like we wanted and we were pleased with the result."
The U.S. Rowing Youth Championships feature both club and high school teams from across the country. At the Scholastic Rowing Association of America championships, in which Central Catholic competed on May 25 in Pennsauken, N.J., only high school teams are allowed.
Central Catholic won that championship, beating St. Joseph's Prep of Philadelphia in a 1,500-meter race by less than half a second, 4:15.026 to 4:15.387.
The varsity eight boat was composed of seniors Chuck Russell, Nic Jedema and David McFall; juniors Alex Butler, Matt Kreps, Lucas Peilert and Jake Wiedemer; and sophomores Mike Grady and Alex Miklasevich.
With six returning rowers, the Vikings are setting their sights on another shot at youth nationals next year.
"We had never won scholastic nationals before so we knew that this was going to be a year where we can be especially successful," Peilert said.
"We know what it takes now and we feel like we're going to come back next year and do even better. That's the most important thing."
Nick Veronica: email@example.com and Twitter @NickVeroinca