First-year program already making competitive strides
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Fabian Cortez loved his experience as a member of the Belleville High School crew team.
“I rowed for all four years of high school,” said Cortez, now age 24. “I always wanted to share that experience with others.”
Cortez, a teacher at Orange High School, learned that the Passaic River Rowing Association was looking to expand its teaching program to the local high schools along the Passaic River, one of which was North Arlington.
“I was recommended by my coach at Belleville, Jeff Lahm,” Cortez said. “I went for an interview and North Arlington decided to go with it.”
With the hiring of Cortez as a coach, North Arlington had the birth of its new crew program.
“Throughout the interview process, the goal was to race next season,” Cortez said. “They wanted to just get the kids out on the water and I understood that.”
Since the boat house was built in the back of Riverside County Park in Lyndhurst, right on the banks of the river, the Passaic River Rowing Association has been trying to encourage schools to participate in crew.
Over the years, schools like Ridgewood and St. Peter’s Prep have been able to start crew programs based out of the Riverside County Park boathouse.
The association has also donated equipment to be used by the fledgling programs. King’s Court, the fitness club in Lyndhurst, donated three ERG rowing machines for use.
Cortez didn’t know what to expect in starting a new program.
“I took it very lightly at first,” said Cortez, who had help from volunteer assistants Gerard Geronimo and Jared Helenic. “I rowed at Belleville with Gerard, so that was a big help. We really didn’t know what we were getting into.”
The prospective rowers didn’t know as well.
“I thought it was all about what I saw in movies, you know, ‘stroke, stroke, stroke,’” said senior Bryan Ugaz. “That’s all I thought. I figured it had to be a challenging sport.”
“They really didn’t have a clue,” Cortez said. “The school didn’t have an idea either. But there was a lot of interest in January when we started and that shocked me.”
Cortez had the prospective rowers get a typical crew workout in January. He figured some would lose interest, once they realized the difficulty of the sport.
“It was grueling and strenuous, but they still came,” Cortez said. “This was all without getting on the water. That amazed me. They had a lot of dedication from the beginning.”
In mid-March, through the still blustery conditions, Cortez brought his team down to the boat house.
“We went through a quick walk through before they went out on the water,” Cortez said. “I put a coach in the guide’s seat just to see how they would do.”
The response was tremendous.
“Just to see the looks on their faces was a miraculous gift,” Cortez said. “They were in their hoodies and freezing out there, but they wanted to be there.”
Senior Natalie LaBarbera is a member of the North Arlington volleyball team who came out for crew.
“It seemed like a really tough sport and I knew it was going to be a big challenge,” LaBarbera said. “It also seemed like a good way to stay in shape. But I wanted to do it.”
LaBarbera recalled her first thoughts when she got onto the river.
“It was like, `What am I doing?’” LaBarbera said. “It took a lot to get used to it. It was really tough and unlike anything else I’ve ever done. It’s also really time consuming.”
However, from the minute the boat touched the Passaic River, LaBarbera was hooked.
“It’s a whole body experience,” LaBarbera said. “I really like it a lot. I just like competing. It’s really like no other sport. It’s a new thing to all of us, but I really like it a lot.”
Competing – now there’s a novel approach. The school wasn’t so sure that the North Arlington crew team could actually compete in its first year, but Cortez and the kids had other things in mind.
“After a month or two, I knew that they had the potential to be competitive,” Cortez said. “I wanted to see if they could compete. But my first goal was to send them out on the river and see if they came back alive.”
The Vikings survived – and they have two competitive teams, one boys’ team and one girls’ boat. Of course, both row in novice 4 races.
“They knew exactly what to expect,” Cortez said. “They were ready.”
The North Arlington novice 4 boys’ team consists of Ugaz, Vinny Ribeiro, Nathaniel DeLeon and Jose Antunes, with Daniela Camacho as the coxswain.
The Vikings’ novice 4 girls’ team features LaBarbera, Lizbeth Infante, Brianna Cappuccino, Bailey Carlo and coxswain Melis Ozbay.
“The first race, they made it across the finish line and didn’t finish last,” Cortez said. “That’s success.”
North Arlington also competed at the North Regional Championships on the lake in Overpeck Park in Teaneck and will compete May 11 at the Passaic River Sprints against some of the more established programs, like Kearny, Nutley and Cortez’s alma mater, Belleville.
And Cortez is working on developing other boats for future races, like eight-member boats.
“It took a while to get everyone together,” Cortez said. “But we’re getting there.”
Not to mention, the rowers all know the routine now – how to get the boats in and out of the boat house, how to clean them after use, how to maintain them. It’s called “rigging” and “de-rigging,” but the Vikings have become old hat at that already.
“They don’t look like a first-year team,” Cortez said. “They know what they’re doing.”
Needless to say, it’s been a joy for Cortez to see the development.
“They’re the ones who pretty much keep me going,” Cortez said. “They’re willing to do anything I say. They’re willing to work. Once they realized that they needed to put the effort into it, I’ve seen their willingness to do anything and that’s the most encouraging thing.”
Ugaz, who is a soccer player at NA in the fall, agrees.
“Once you get the boat moving, there’s no better feeling,” Ugaz said. “It’s extremely difficult to grasp and not easy to do. But when that boat moves, it’s like no other experience.”
And there are 25 or so other North Arlington students who are getting to feel the same way that Ugaz, LaBarbera and the rest of the Vikings crew team feels.