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Dedication Builds A State Champion Rowing Program In Farmington

Lori Riley

5:27 PM EDT, May 25, 2013

FARMINGTON —

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When Darlene Cirilli's son started rowing at Farmington High in 2003, the crew team had two used boats that it stored in tractor-trailers by the Farmington River.

There was no boathouse. The boats were not in great shape. Lio Gervasi remembered a race when his son rowed by him and the oarlock broke and all of a sudden, his son didn't have an oar in his hands anymore.

"We started getting more and more kids," Cirilli said. "We had these crummy boats. One of them you had to put together every time they wanted to race. No one wanted to race us because we were really bad."

Gervasi and Cirilli decided to help. He fixed the boats. She became a fundraiser. There were galas and duck races and the kids and the parents and coaches all helped raise money and 10 years later, there are 12 shiny boats inside a nice snug boathouse down behind Tunxis Mead Park, right on the river.

And this week, there was also a trophy in the boathouse — the Emerson Point Cup, awarded to the Connecticut Public School Rowing Association state champions. It's a co-ed award, with both the boys and the girls teams points counting toward the trophy. Simsbury High, where Farmington's first-year girls coach Adam Askham learned to row, is a perennial Cup winner, but this was the first time that Farmington (whose program started in 2002) won.

"It was validation that we've been doing the right thing," said Laura Butterfield, who has been the boys coach for 10 years. "To win as a team was pretty special."

The girls team carried the load last Sunday at Lake Waramaug in Preston, with the first, second and third eight boats winning gold medals in their races and the novice eight taking the bronze.

"[Askham] said, 'If you guys pull every day at practice, I'm going to make you guys winners. It's that simple. Come to practice and pull 100 percent,'" said senior Connor Godlewski, the coxswain for the girls first boat. "And you're thinking, 'Yeah, yeah,' maybe not really taking it seriously.

"But we'd come to practice, we'd work them hard. And I would see their erg scores dropping. I was seeing numbers I'd never seen before. I've been around here a long time because my brother coxed the girls team before me."

The top boys boats had tough races last Sunday but still got points, while the boys novice boat won and the third boat was second.

"The first and second boat, we had some other schools get strong and I've got a very young team, only four seniors," Butterfield said. "Most of the other kids are sophomores. They're not used to that kind of intensity in competition."

Junior Ryan Rigney has been in the first varsity eight for the last three years.

"Our boat didn't place as high as we wanted to but if we were any lower, the whole thing wouldn't have happened," he said. "We owe a lot of credit to the girls team, who really pulled through this year and did amazing."

Rigney is a wrestler who won the Class L title at 145 pounds this season. He went out for crew the fall of his freshman year to keep in shape for wrestling.

"Crew is funny because a lot of people don't realize what it is," Rigney said. "They don't realize how much effort we put in. They think it's kind of a 'fool-around' sport.

"Finally winning a state championship, getting a banner — that makes us feel a lot better and it gains some respect from everybody around us."

Rigney's dad, Rob, took over the maintenance of the boats and the facility after the last of Gervasi's three children graduated last year. Neither he nor Gervasi was a boat expert but as Rob Rigney said, "You have to know which end of the wrench to use and the rest is learn as you go."

Boats cost $40,000. The program has grown to 100 rowers,so more boats were needed, as well as the boathouse in which to store them and all the equipment. Cirilli remembered nights when the river would rise and the tractor-trailers threatened to float away with the team's two boats inside.

For five years, she met with other parents every Wednesday, planning and organizing fundraisers for the program. The boathouse was built in 2007, with financial help from nearby Miss Porter's School, which rents the facility for its own team. Cirilli's name is on the front.

"People come down here and see all this and they're like, 'Wow, they're so lucky to have all this,'" said Wendy Burns, who recently took over the fundraising duties from Cirilli. "But they don't realize the hard work the founding fathers did to get to this point."

They did it for kids like senior Montana Mellon, who decided to go out for crew her freshman year but really didn't know what it was all about except that there were boats involved. Now she's a state champ.

"Once you get hooked, you don't let go," Mellon said.