New rowing program earns local, state titles

Ask Tom Graham about rowing in South Buffalo, and he has a folder full of memories to show you. There’s the picture of him being thrown in the water after his Timon crew won the All-Catholic regatta in 1958, or the picture of his grandfather coaching from a dock on the Buffalo River at the Mutual Rowing Club — in 1906.

He’s one of many links to a proud history of rowing on the Buffalo River, and thanks to a community truly pulling its oars together, South Buffalo has started to add to it again.

The recent establishment of the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association, a rowing club, enabled Bishop Timon-St. Jude to restart its program this year on the same stretch of the Buffalo River where the school used to race nearly 40 years ago — and they are already winning championships.

The last two weekends, wearing green-and-gold jerseys modeled after those worn by Timon in the 1950s, Timon’s novice four with coxswain won title after title. On May 6, it made Timon’s first regatta in Buffalo in 37 years even more special by winning at the John Bennett Invitational at the West Side Rowing Club. This past Saturday, it rowed to a hugely impressive victory at the New York State Scholastic Rowing Association championships in Saratoga Springs.

“They are very representative of the resurgence [of rowing in South Buffalo],” said Craig Thrasher, who coaches Maritime Academy and is on the board of the BSRA. “It’s been 37 years since Timon’s been on the water — now they’re not only on the water but they’re winning.”

The crew consists of juniors Sean Overdorf (stroke), Conor Gilson (No. 3 oar), Matt Eagen (No. 2), Stephen Moran (bow) and freshman coxswain Will Welsby.

“I tell them a lot of stories about the old days, and the tradition and the discipline of rowing at Timon,” said Graham. “We really went over the history with the boys, because they are part of this restart of rowing at Timon and a rowing renaissance on the Buffalo River. To win at the New York State championships is icing on the cake.”

Graham, who serves as a Timon assistant coach, has told the current crew about how Timon’s program ceased in 1975, after a fire destroyed the old West Side Rowing Club boathouse. He’s shown them videos that have been converted from 8mm to DVDs showing Timon winning races in the late 1950s. He’s told them about how he grew up in the Old First Ward, just two doors down from the Mutual Rowing Club, one of many rowing clubs operating in Buffalo early in the 20th century.

The Mutual — at Hamburg and South streets — was located a short distance down the Buffalo River (Mutual Riverfront Park is being constructed on that site, complete with a canoe/kayak center housed in a replica building of the old “Mutual”). It’s just a few meters down from the BSRA, near what rowers describe as “silo city” as they row past towering silos lining the twisting river.

“It feels good coming back after 30-something years and still being able to compete with crews that didn’t go anywhere,” said Eagen. “The Timon coaches are as dedicated as we are.”

“If it wasn’t for them,” Moran said, “we wouldn’t be able to get this going.”

But before the coaches, there was the BSRA.

A temporary boathouse was opened in August 2010, making the BSRA Buffalo’s first new rowing club in about 70 years. The land is owned by Carl Paladino, who spent tens of thousands to clear the land and allows the club to operate there rent-free. A temporary Quonset hut houses boats from Canisius High, Buffalo Seminary, Timon and other schools, including the Buffalo Public Schools. Ground has been broken for the Patrick Paladino Memorial Boathouse, named for the late son of the developer; Thrasher said the boathouse is projected to be completed by December.

Timon’s involvement with the BSRA was an idea that literally came floating down the river.

Timon head coach Mark Cassidy, a 1977 graduate of the school who rowed in what would be the schools’ final season of 1975, moved back to Buffalo in 2007 after helping start Pittsford’s rowing program in suburban Rochester. Still an avid rower and interested in getting involved in Buffalo, he was paddling his own single on the Buffalo River when he came upon some of the members of the BSRA at its current site.

“It was like the rowing gods came down,” said Cassidy. “The BSRA had been starting up, so it was the perfect opportunity for Timon to get back on water. We think this is the start of something great — the opportunities for rowing in Western New York are incredible.”

At the end of the 2010-11 school year, an organizational meeting was held at Timon and 15 boys showed up. A learn-to-row program was held in the summer. Then the four rowers who would make up the novice boat did what rowers do: They worked.

“We worked out together all winter at Timon — all four of us worked hard,” said Overdorf. “We’ve all played sports together before, so we’ve got a good connection in the boat.”

Timon used equipment that Canisius and other BSRA crews shared with them before donations helped them buy their own. The Tigers participated in fall regattas in Pittsford and Saratoga, and trained through the winter at the nearby Valley Community Association and on ergometers in the school cafeteria.

“We laid out a plan, and they followed it,” said Graham. “They were on their own. They’re just committed to rowing. These guys really surprised me. They are all perfect gentlemen, humble. They really hooked me. I wasn’t expecting that.”

The novice category is limited to those who had not had rowing experience prior to Aug. 1 of the academic year. The four did well in their first spring regatta, which came against crews from throughout the Midwest and East at the Governor’s Cup in Columbus, Ohio. Timon just missed the final after finishing seventh of 25 boats.

Then came the traditional local opening regatta of the season, West Side’s John Bennett Invitational, an event that draws from Canada, Rochester and Syracuse and one which gets larger every year.

In the time trials, Timon finished a half-second behind leader St. Joe’s to earn one of the four spots in the finals.

“When we finished second by half a second to St. Joe’s, I knew going into the final we could definitely compete with them,” said Eagen. “We have a really strong mental ability to endure … pain. Your legs are killing, your lungs are burning, but we’re able to forget about it and keep rowing.”

In the final, Timon beat runner-up St. Joe’s by about 13 seconds. “I’m stroke, so I’m in the back of the boat, so I could see every boat in front of me go behind us,” Overdorf said. “The whole way I knew we were leading — as soon as we got to the Peace Bridge, you could hear the finish 500 meters away — you could hear people screaming and it just got louder and louder.”

The four won the school’s first state championship this weekend — a fact that represents how quickly the young program has come, but also how long it has been away. Timon had never competed in the state championships, which are just about two decades old. (The Tigers’ novice eight finished 12th of 27 boats in time trials).

“Going from the Bennett, a local regatta, I said if we had made the finals I’d be totally ecstatic,” said Cassidy. “In the time trials, they were the best by 39 seconds, and that said it right there. They were confident, and we told them to focus on beating their time, and they did that by 15 or 16 seconds [in what was a 38-second victory over runner-up Nichols].”

Timon heads to the Welland (Ontario) Invitational this weekend, and with no novice category, the four is stepping up to the senior four category. On May 26, Memorial Day’s annual Fontana All-High Regatta will be held at West Side.

As per tradition, winning crews have painted the breakwall along the Black Rock Channel, complete with school colors and mascots. Early this season, Timon coaches took this new edition of Tiger rowers to the channel for a practice, not just to get a workout but to see part of Timon’s rowing past.

On part of the wall, there’s a cartoon Tiger wearing a green Timon uniform holding an oar — and wearing a life preserver. The image was photographed and has become a symbol of the new program.

“I wasn’t expecting to win anything when we started — I was just expecting to try to compete not with Canisius but hopefully with Joe’s, and this is pretty amazing,” said Moran. “I always wanted to make history for Timon.”

“I want Timon to win anything and everything,” said Overdorf. “If we can do our part to get Timon crew to win, that’s all I want to be a part of.”

kmcshea@buffnews.com