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Thursday, December 9, 2021

Coach Kevin Gruber, captain Hannah Kirk lead rowing team into fall season

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Courtesy of Sarah Boekholder
Kevin Gruber leads the Blue Hens rowing team for the tenth season, as they look to improve on their third-place ranking at the conference championships last spring.

Managing Sports Editor

One year ago, graduate student Hannah Kirk thought her rowing career at Delaware was in danger of being cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the very least, Kirk knew she may never race in the fall season again.

However, just a few months later, the spring season started with a race at Saint Joseph’s University. Around the same time, Kirk knew she would return to the university to pursue a master’s degree, which allowed her to return for a fifth season with the team.

Throughout the months of March and April, the team competed on the east coast in five events before heading to the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Championships. With the persisting pandemic, head coach Kevin Gruber noted that the team’s schedule was different from normal.

“Last year we scheduled a lot of one or two-team races, to make the size of the gathering smaller and create the safest possible environment for the competing athletes,” Gruber said.

At the CAA Championships last spring, the Blue Hens placed third of seven schools, tying with the Villanova Wildcats at 23 points. Northeastern won their seventh consecutive conference title, beating out their arch competitor, Drexel. 

“There’s been a mass of schools chasing Northeastern and Drexel for a little while now,” Gruber said. “That’s where we aspire to go, we have to get tangibly faster to make that happen and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The goal to chase down Northeastern and Drexel begins with the team’s fall season, their first since 2019. 

Gruber said that the team plans to compete in the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston for the first time since 2018, with a select group of 14 making the trip for the Blue Hens. For Kirk, if she ends up competing at the Head of the Charles Regatta, it will be her first time there since her senior year of high school.

Later in the fall, the team will compete at the Head of the Schuylkill in Philadelphia and the Head of the Occoquan in Fairfax, Virginia. Kirk mentioned her excitement level was high to return to fall racing.

“Fall racing is a different animal from spring, but it’s a lot of fun,” Kirk said. “Fall racing is a little more strategic from a coxswain’s perspective. In the spring you do a lot of steering in straight lines, but coxswains can make or break the race in the fall.”

To help the team get back into rhythm and prepare for the upcoming events, practices were held earlier in the fall semester than in previous years.

“We normally don’t hit our fall practice schedule until a couple weeks into the semester,” Kirk said. “But we hit the ground running this year just because we wanted to capitalize on the momentum that we had from CAA [Championships].”

Another change for the 2021-2022 season came in June, when Ryan Hurley was promoted to associate head coach. Prior to his nine years and counting with the Blue Hens, Hurley served as head coach of the Liberty Flames rowing team in the 2012-2013 season.

He competed at the club level at the University of Massachusetts, then went on to be a head coach for the UMass-Lowell women’s team. After spending time at Virginia Tech from 2005-2011 and Liberty right after, Hurley has been a mainstay with the Blue Hens program.

“It was an overdue promotion to someone who has been integral to the program,” Gruber said of Hurley. “He knows every facet of this program, he’s got a keen rowing mind and his insights are always helpful.”

Meanwhile, as a captain and one of only two graduate students on the team, Kirk said she feels a leadership responsibility, especially since many upperclassmen will be unaccustomed to the fall rowing season.

However, inexperience and the loss of a full competitive year has not affected the team’s spirit or excitement to return to action.

“Team culture has been great so far this year, everyone’s been really positive and really excited,” Kirk said. “I think we have really good momentum right now and I couldn’t imagine a better group of girls to have my last year with.”

Editor’s Note: Photographer Sarah Boekholder went to the rowing team’s practice earlier this fall. Check out a gallery of her work here.

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