By, Gabe Taylor '12
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - After spending a grand total of seven years coaching Division I rowing at the University of Rhode Island and Boston University, John Wojtkiewicz (JW) has settled in on the West Coast, determined to elevate the Santa Clara University women's rowing program to new heights.
In his first year as head coach, the Broncos bolstered their roster size to 18 and brought home a gold medal in the Women's Pair at the 2011 WIRA Championships. SantaClaraBroncos.com (SCB) caught up with Wojtkiewicz to discuss his cross-country move, his time on Mission Campus thus far, and what lies in store for the upcoming season.
SCB: One season in, what has made the biggest impression about the University and the athletic department?
JW: Probably the biggest thing that has stood out for me as a coach is how much the University and athletic department support the student-athletes. The other day I heard some statistic that Santa Clara ranks very high nationally in freshmen retention, and it completely makes sense. The school works very hard to ensure, once a student sets foot on campus, that the student has every possible opportunity to fulfill their potential. I think that is very special and you don't often see that kind of commitment from schools to their students and student-athletes today.
SCB: What is your vision for the SCU rowing program?
JW: We have the potential to win a conference championship at some point. That is a worthy goal for this program. Also, in the years to come a conference championship will provide an automatic qualifier to the NCAA Championships, which would be a significant achievement for us as well. Although we are running with no athletic scholarships, I don't see it as preemptively holding us back. In our conference there are some schools dealing with the next fewest number of scholarships that are very successful, and concurrently the school(s) with the highest number of scholarships are only just ahead of us. I would also love to be the first Division I rowing team to compete in the NCAA Championship with no athletic scholarships. I think our secret will be to run "lean and mean" as a program. We won't ever have a big team (some of our conference rivals boast rosters of 40-50 athletes) and we don't need much more than the two eights and a four (about 28 athletes) the NCAA is starting to require for spring competition. Our MO will be efficiency, and keeping the coach:athlete ratio low to maximize the development process and potential of each athlete.
SCB: What's the biggest difference from coaching at BU and Rhode Island to coaching at SCU?
JW: The size of the team and school are the biggest differences. Especially at BU, I was dealing with three eights (about 36 athletes) of freshmen alone, whereas here I expect to only have three eights for the whole team. But I am embracing this new environment, as it allows me a level of influence and specificity over each athlete that I haven't had before. Plus I really like being able to walk around campus and see faces I know and recognize. In a big school that just never happens.
SCB: Coming from the East Coast, how is your family adjusting to the Bay Area?
JW: No snow and year-round rowing! We're never going back; 'nuff said.
SCB: What activities have you found to be the most entertaining in the area?
JW: When I'm not working with the team, I spend most of my time with my wife and our two children, Sophie (4) and James (19 months). There is so much to do in the Bay Area; we've never repeated a weekend activity.
SCB: What made you decide to come coach at Santa Clara?
JW: It's cliché, but the strength of the school as an academic institution had a tremendous appeal for me. I would much rather work with smarter athletes; they're easier to coach. Also, I saw the potential and freedom to build the program in the way I best saw fit. I have a reputation for building programs - which is I suppose one of the reasons they hired me - but one way or another I've never been able to get past two years with a single team. I build programs back up, and some life situation forces me to leave (wife changing jobs, the birth of children, etc.) and another coach steps in to reap the speed. I saw this as an opportunity to build up the program and see what lies beyond my personal "two-year barrier."
SCB: What are your thoughts on the addition of Elisabeth Johnson as the assistant coach?
JW: She's awesome. She brings so much experience to the program, and she is going to be a real asset for this program in the years to come. She is the perfect mix of experience and youthful energy the position requires.
SCB: What are you going to focus on in terms of training in the offseason?
JW: As is normal for this time of year we focus on long periods of steady-state (cardio) work and low intensity. What a lot of people don't realize is that although we race short distances (2K - about 6.5 - 7 minutes in an eight) much of the training is aerobically based. As we get later into the year we shift to higher intensity intervals.
SCB: Whom are you looking to step in as a leader for this coming season?
JW: We have five returners this year, all of whom have done a great job providing leadership and setting a good example for the freshmen and novice rowers. We have some new faces like Bissy Rail '15, Michileen Marie Oberst '15 and Mary Smith '15 who - with varying levels of experience - have effectively jumped right in with the varsity and are making a difference. Briana Wise '14, a sophomore transfer from UMass-Amherst has jumped in already and taken a leadership role. Although she's only been on campus for a month, it's like she's been here for years.
SCB: What is the team capable of doing this year?
JW: I have some ambitions of trying to get as high as third in the conference (if all the stars are in alignment), but I would be happy with an overall sixth place (out of seven) at the conference championship in May 2012. We placed seventh last year with less than a full team complement, so sixth this year with all the boats in place - but a still very young team - would still be a great step forward, and I think we can do it.