Head of the Ohio: Oar you ready?
The Taylor Allerdice novice teams paddles along a channel of the Allegheny River during a Septemner practice in anticipation of the Head to the Ohio Festival.
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It is the equivalent of the Daytona 500 in NASCAR or the Miami-Florida State game in college football.
The Head of the Ohio Regatta is the staple of the Western Pennsylvania fall rowing season and just like NASCAR's signature event and the Hurricanes-Seminoles rivalry, it is at the beginning of the season.
Tomorrow more than 2,000 rowers will converge along the banks of the Allegheny River in what is the seventh-largest rowing regatta in the country. The 2,000 rowers represent teams ranging from high schools to colleges and corporate rowing teams.
More than 10 local high schools with full teams are scheduled to compete in the all-day event while several other high schools are represented by students rowing with other rowing clubs and organizations.
Racing will stretch for 2.8 miles of the Allegheny River from Washington's Landing to the North Shore Riverfront Park, and the day's schedule will last just about as long, from a 6:30 a.m. coaches' meeting to a 4 p.m. conclusion.
The rowers come from 11 states and 41 cities but it is the Pittsburgh rowers who get the true "home-water advantage." Local rowers will get to compete in front of family and friends, a rare occurrence for some who are used to traveling state to state to compete.
They also will get to row on the river most grew up practicing on.
Now the head coach at Allderdice, Jess Berman remembers what it was like to compete in her hometown. She was a three-year participant in The Head of the Ohio in the late 1990s while she was a student at Winchester Thurston.
"I think that it is really special to be able to compete on your home turf and get to row under all the bridges," Berman said. "It has turned into a real special event for Pittsburgh crews.
"When I rowed in high school, it was really a great experience. Coming back 10 years later as a coach, it has been really special for me to see how far the race itself has come and kind of see the race from a different angle."
Berman and her Allderdice team enter tomorrow's event with nine entries. Fox Chapel, one of the more established high school rowing programs in the area, has 12 boats competing.
Last season, Fox Chapel had a men's four qualify for nationals. Four of the five (including a coxswain) team members from that boat are back: Toby Foglia, Andrew Todd, John Power and Mike Sparta.
Not every local school has as many entries. North Catholic, one of the longest tenured and most successful programs in the area, is also one of the smallest. Longtime coach Frank Sands has been at North Catholic for 19 years and has been bringing his teams to this event for 18 consecutive years.
This year, North Catholic will only have three entries. Yet in the spring, when teams are competing for titles, North Catholic is one of the top contenders.
Sands, like most coaches, downplays the significance of the fall season in general. The spring season, which features shorter courses and head-to-head racing as opposed to the time trial format used in the fall, is what determines the championships.
"I don't put much credence into these head races," Sands said.
"Not too many people care who won the head races when you win the national championships. We are a small team but we are pretty competitive. The last five or six years we have been top 10 in the country in our respective divisions.
"These races are a good way to see how their conditioning is going, and sure it is our home course and like any other thing you want to represent your city and your school. There are a lot of teams coming."
The number of high schools with rowing teams is minimal, but rowers from area high schools still have the opportunity to compete thanks to local associations such as the Steel City Rowing Club and Three Rivers Rowing Association.
Rick Brown, one of the coaches for Three Rivers Rowing Association, has overseen rowers from different schools and communities come together and form teams at the boathouse.
"It is actually a really neat opportunity," Brown said.
"We have a lot of kids who have friends outside of their schools and it is pretty neat that the kids can meet others from around the city and have this one thing in common. Rowing is an easy sport to talk about -- it kind of lends itself to that."
Two of the top high school rowers at Three Rivers are from Quaker Valley. Sarah Trovato, captain of the junior girls' team at Three Rivers, is a senior at Quaker Valley. She accepted a scholarship to the University of Michigan to row. Alex Green, also a senior at Quaker Valley, is the captain of the boys' team.
Activities at the all-day event on the North Shore are not limited to the water. Corporate teams, collegiate teams and high school teams all set up tents along the North Shore Riverfront Park during the race day.
There are numerous vantage points to watch the rowing and there will be competition for spectators on rowing machines set up on the North Shore pier to raise money for WTAE-TV's Project Bundle-Up as well as other events that have become annual traditions.
First Published October 2, 2009 12:00 am