Just two years ago, Riverside High School didn’t even have a crew team. As of last Saturday, the Lansdowne high school is the home to a proud state champion team.
The Riverside Rams competed in the Virginia Scholastic Rowing Championships at the Occoquan Reservoir in Fairfax Station, nabbing gold medal finishes for the the novice mens’ eight and four person boats, and a silver medal for the novice women’ eight.
“It’s unbelievable, it’s like something you’d only see in a Disney movie,” Head Coach Dan Passarella said.
Passarella didn’t have plans to take over the helm of a varsity team when he took his son Nikolas to the team’s information meeting in November 2019. At the time, the team was in the “planning” stage. Parents were unsure they’d even field a team. Parents knew Passarella had coached rowing at Marietta College for three years three decades ago. They asked him to hatch a plan to get the team started.
“This isn’t like ‘every kids gets a trophy.’ It’s brutal,” Passarella told prospective rowers and their parents.
Passarella and a group of parents got to work raising funds, getting the school’s endorsement, and applying to the Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association. Within 90 days, Riverside established a team and bought five boats. Three other parents joined the coach staff: Jacki Meinhardt, John Bright, and Joseph Carrier. Passarella knew that they’d have to put up serious funds to buy a fleet of boats that would give his athletes a fighting chance. Raising money and buying equipment was a daunting task.
“As a coach, I have to send you up to the line knowing you have a chance a to win,” he said.
Northern Virginia is ripe with well-funded competition. Schools in Fairfax and Arlington counties sports custom boats and trailer rigs. These well-funded programs would be the Rams’ competition. In Loudoun County, crew teams are required to raise their own funds. The community pulled together the $93,000 needed for the vessels.
“We hit obstacle after obstacle, and kinda got passed it,” Passarella said.
Just as the boats and trailer rig were delivered in March 2020 and things were falling into place, high school sports shut down.
“In hindsight, that was the absolute worst time to start a rowing team,” the coach said.
The coaches arranged for the team’s 41 student rowers to train at True Fitness in Ashburn during the shutdown. Senior rower Mason Pudwill, one of the gold medal winners, said the team embraced grueling training, despite never having been in a boat together.
“It was a lot of calisthenics and weightlifting,” Pudwill said.
Pudwill had played baseball most of his life before joining the crew team. He said the camaraderie he found on the crew team was unlike anything he’d experienced before.
“Rowing is a much better team sport. You have a closer relationship with them. Other sports like baseball you’re not as close, like not as dependent on each other,” Pudwell said.
“We practiced hard. We practiced different. … I told my kids from the start ‘we’re going to do it this way’,” Passarella said.
He always emphasized that his team remain humble and hardworking. His message resonated. When the 2021 season finally arrived, Pudwell said the team was ready. The team had 41 rowers. The results spoke for themselves, as three boats medaling in an inaugural season is almost unheard of.
“I’m very impressed were all very happy because coach has been pushing us for 18 months, so we have something to show for it now,” Pudwell said. “We probably outworked everyone on the water.”
Pudwell will attend University of Rhode Island next fall where he will row on the club team. The crew team was one of the defining experiences of his time in high school, and he’s looking forward to following the Rams’ program grow.
“I’m excited, and hopeful for the program. There’s a lot of good rowers on the team. It was a great experience,” he said.