NA crew standout Polanco signs letter with University of San Diego

When Maria Polanco enrolled at North Arlington High School a little more than three years ago, she didn’t know what she wanted to participate in when it came to extracurricular activities.

“I used to play soccer,” Polanco said. “I also did track and field.”

But when Polanco was a freshman, she was convinced by a friend to give a new sport a try, namely crew.

Under the guidance of Fabian Cortez, a veteran of rowing from his days in Belleville, North Arlington instituted a crew team and used the dock inside Riverside County Park as its home base.

“I had a friend who basically told me about crew,” Polanco said. “She told me that I couldn’t do it, so because she said that, I did it.”

Polanco had no idea what crew was.

“I didn’t even know that boats were a thing,” Polanco said.

So with no prior rowing experience, Polanco climbed inside the boat and began rowing.

“I started right away with water training,” Polanco said.

Most novices to crew usually start by working out on the erg (short for ergometer), a devise on land that basically simulates the rowing motion. But Polanco started the hard way, heading right to the Passaic River.

“It was awfully painful at first,” Polanco said. “When other people had the desire to stop, they stopped. I had to stick it out. I was miserable, but being out on the water helped.”

Polanco was also a natural at the sport.

“I was told my times were unusually good for a newcomer,” Polanco said.

Polanco was first a member of the Vikings’ novice four boat and sat in the third seat.

“I was told I was pretty good,” Polanco said. “I sensed that I was pretty good.”

By the time Polanco was a sophomore, she was competing with teams that qualified for national tournaments. She then realized that she had a bright future in the sport.

Last year, Polanco competed in the Youth Regional Challenge with some of the elite high school rowers in the country.

It was there that Polanco started to receive recognition for her talents. At a race in Philadelphia, the coaching staff at the University of San Diego spotted Polanco, especially because of her height, her strength and her ability in the boat.

Last week, Polanco did the unthinkable. She signed a national letter of intent to attend the University of San Diego on a scholarship. Yes, a North Arlington girl is receiving a scholarship to college for crew. And she’s going to attend school in perhaps the most picturesque and pristine setting in the nation.

“Oh, my God, it’s perfect out there,” Polanco said. “It’s so beautiful. I’m going to get the chance to row all year long and that’s what I want.”

Polanco is an excellent student who plans on majoring in biology.

“I hope to get my Master’s (degree) in nursing,” Polanco said.

Even after putting her signature on the scholarship letter, Polanco was still having a tough time coming to grips with the idea.

“I probably won’t believe it until I’m out there,” Polanco said. “It’s all so surreal. This couldn’t have come at a better time, because I’ve been so stressed out about college and worrying about whether we could afford it. I didn’t know if I could fulfill my dream of rowing in college. I’m going to one of the top schools for rowing.”

Kevin Blackford took over coaching the North Arlington crew team from Cortez two years ago. Blackford was ecstatic with the news of Polanco’s signing.

“I knew she had it in her,” Blackford said. “Someone of her size, strength and ability had to be seen someplace. She’s also one of the hardest workers I know. Her work ethic is off the charts. She always stays late, wanting to get better. She’s very dedicated to the sport.”

Even though Blackford knew that Polanco had talent, there’s still the idea that she’s coming from a small school with still a fledgling crew program. Opportunities like this don’t happen every day in North Arlington.

“I’m amazed,” Blackford said. “Not many colleges find their way to little old North Arlington in any sport. There are a lot of other huge schools with big crew programs. We’re still just starting out. That’s why we’re all so proud of Maria. This is a big deal in North Arlington.”
Blackford should know. He’s a North Arlington native and a graduate of the school, Class of 2009. He didn’t get a chance to participate in crew in high school, so Polanco getting this chance is groundbreaking news.

“We’re all so very proud of this moment,” Blackford said. “It’s very exciting.”

Polanco also competes with the Passaic River Rowing Association, so she has gained experience on the water outside of her time with the North Arlington program. Polanco also credited Cortez for being the father of the North Arlington program.

“I owe a lot to him,” Polanco said. “This wouldn’t have happened without him.”

Polanco said that she hopes to compete in the Olympics someday. It is possible, considering that former Kearny High standouts Jeff Klepacki and Jen Dore got their starts on the Passaic River and ended up competing in the Olympic Games. So there is a precedent.

But Polanco will always be the first NCAA Division I rower from North Arlington. That’s a distinction she owns now and forever.

“I’m basically holding a contract for $1 million in my hands,” Polanco said with the letter of intent in her grasp. “Is it real? I know the words mean something. I know that it’s a big deal.”

Sure is. There aren’t a lot of crew participants who have scholarship letter signings with school officials, coaches and parents present.

“I feel so happy that everyone is here,” Polanco said. “Everyone has always supported me.”

As for that girl who said that Polanco couldn’t do it, well…

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer