Avon Crew beats the odds
By Paul Palmer
AVON – There is often a blurred line between fact and fiction when it comes to stories of sports lore. How far a ball was hit, how fast someone ran are often grown more incredible as the years pass. In the case of the 2022 Avon High School Crew Team, it would be hard to imagine what anyone could add to the tale.
After having parts of the 2020 and 2021 seasons wiped out by COVID, the Avon Co-Ed Crew Team was eager to get back in the water this past fall. The crew season is split into a fall and spring schedule, with the championship falling in May. The Falcons got through the fall season in good shape and showed a lot of promise heading into the spring. That was until a series of nearly unbelievable happenings struck and would have led a lesser group to throw in the towel.
‘Did we just lose our season?’
It started in April, when a post-practice routine knocked head coach Jonathan Kostal out of action. “It was a Friday night,” the 14-year coach recalled, “ and we were moving one of the coaches launches up at front of trailer. As one of the team captains, Ian Doukas remembers it well. “Someone comes running over saying coach is hurt and we go over and see him being carried by other coaches.”
Tri-captain Dylan Nickel remembers thinking “Hopefully it wouldn’t be a serious problem. Then we were concerned because he looked injured and he’s a tough guy.”
“I felt something hit the back of my leg and then I went down. It was a torn Achilles,“ said Kostal. For Doukas the impact was immediate. “I was thinking did we just lose our season but coach kept saying I’ll be alright.” But Kostal’s injury would require surgery and immobilization, meaning he could not get into the launches to be on the water with his team. But the first of many fortunate bits of Karma came to the program. “I knew I wasn’t going to be able to go on water, Kostal said. “Former team member and former coach Jonathan Rossow reached out to me when he heard about the situation and said he could coach from 4 til whenever each day we needed him. That was very fortuitous.”
It was also an indication of how tight the past and present members of the program are. The team would miss about a week on the water before Rossow came onboard.
“Coach Rossow himself saw us in a time of need and because he’s part of the (crew) community, he knows the value of shared experience of the sport. His actions speak volumes about him and the sport,” said tri-captain Eric Wilken
‘I thought it was a joke at first’
For decades, the Avon Crew Team has called Batterson Park, which is in Farmington but managed by the City of Hartford, and its pond, their practice home. Connecticut does not have an abundance of sites that will work for a team to have space to store their equipment and be able to practice and hold races. “You need 12-15 hundred meters of space in a straight line with an 8–10-foot depth.” Kostal said. “Races cane be 2-3 miles long so you need room to turn without stopping as we race in figure 8’s.” But Batterson – which has had its share of funding and facility issues – is more than just a place to practice for Avon. The team, along with the Batterson Park Conservancy, and the Friends of Batterson Park Facebook group would hold beach and grounds cleanups before and after the season. Allison Cappuccio is a member of the Batterson Park Conservancy and worked with Avon Crew team members. “I worked with the entire team last year organizing a cleanup. The whole team showed up at 8:30 in the morning. To this day, it’s the only large, organized group that has reached out to cleanup the park and wanted nothing more than the opportunity to clean it up.” Neighbors of the pond are quick to point out that the team was really the only one making good use of the water.
“The point of the park is for kids and families to enjoy it, “ said Neil Patrick Connors. “That’s what they were doing. They were the main users and a good use for a safely abandoned park.”
The relationship soured quickly just weeks before the state championships. Through an agreement with the City of Hartford, Avon’s crew team was given an exemption to the no motors rule on the water. But on May 11, the city received a complaint and a photo from someone asking why the school’s coaches’ launch was allowed to use a motor. The simple answer is it is for the safety of the athletes in case something should happen to one of the shells on the water. Within days, the city informed the school that they were revoking the exemption and Avon could no longer use the pond as long as it had gas-powered motors. The team members were in disbelief and shock when they got the news.
“I had to do a double take when coach sent the email, “ said Doukas. “The next 24 hours it set in that we’re not going back to Batterson,” added the senior. “It was an emotional time for us packing up for the last time.” Added Nickel,” I thought it was a joke at first and had to read it twice. It is what we have and we always worked with it.”
With a coach sidelined with an Achilles injury, an interim coach just getting comfortable, the rowers had to now deal with losing their long-term home and wondering if this would mean that their season was over. As the district officials and others worked to find a new practice facility, the team members tried to keep their focus as they could only workout on land. For the team captains, which meant once again taking on the role of motivators.
“It was most important to keep up the spirits of the team members,” said Doukas. “The amount of times I was asked ‘ Why am I practicing if we’re not going back in the water. I was like trust the coaches, we’re gonna race.”
At what might have been the lowest point of the season, the rowing community in the Farmington Valley and in the state stepped up. “The rowing community and several clubs reached out and said if you want to share our facility we’d be open to that,” Kostal recalled. “The girls were in Riverfront for a week, Farmington High was prepared to help the boys and then Lewis Mills shared Winding Trails with us.” There were just 6 days left until the state championships when the team got back on the water.
But the travails of the season were not over yet. Nickel was knocked out of practice with COVID and the Varsity Boys 4 consisting of Doukas, Wilken, Dalton Charbonneau and coxswain Colin O’Connor had to practice with a substitute in Nickels’ place. As it was, the foursome of Doukas, Charbonneau, Nickel and Wilken had not raced together all season and were just days for the biggest race of their high school careers.
‘We all just kind of prayed our season was not over again.’
Having overcome so much, the team was ready for the CT Public Schools Rowing Association Championships on Lake Waramaug in Preston on Saturday May 28. As the athletes gathered in buses at Avon High School, Kostal and his wife were getting ready to hit the road hauling the teams shells to the race site…. But this was Avon Crew 2022, and nothing was going to be easy.
Kostal remembers exactly what happened. “We had everything lined up and ready to go. My wife rides in the truck with me to help guide me. We left for the regatta around 5:30 a.m. – on schedule – as we were going uphill on West Avon Road the truck shuttered, the check engine light came on and it stopped.” Along with it, the hopes and aspirations for the boys and girls crew team members at Avon. One of the coaches with the team members told them to hop off the bus as they were not going be leaving right away. The first race was at 9 a.m. and the original departure time and come and gone. It was then that the captains were told exactly what was going on. “We all just kind of prayed our season was not over AGAIN,” said Nickel who had been cleared to return. ”But this is Avon Crew 2022, and once again karma was on their side.
Since the truck was near and intersection and posing a traffic hazard, Kostal called the Avon PD to get some help. As fate would have it, the officer who responded, was also the department liaison with the towns Department of Public Works.
“He got there and he started calling Alex Trujillo the Deputy Director of the DPW in Avon. Alex got his mechanics looking at the truck, but they couldn’t fix it.” We were racing against time and looking for solutions and he knew the DPW had a truck that would tow our truck.” Working in tandem, the group managed to unhook the trailer from the broken-down truck, move that vehicle, bring in the new truck, hook-up the trailer and get on the road- hoping they made it to Lake Waramaug on-time.
‘We narrowly made the first race’
The efforts were not in vain, as the bus and the boats made it in time…barely. As Kostal recalls, they pulled in at 8:20, the bus at 8:25 and the first race was going off at 9 a.m. The Varsity Boys 4 was not going off until much later in the day, but that did not mean those rowers had time to relax. “ We knew we had a long time ‘til our race, so our focus was getting everyone else where they needed to be,” said Nickel. Added, Doukas, “Until 30 minutes before our launch time, our focus is on other members.”
The first Avon boat to race that day did make it off on time. But it would be hours until the Falcons would find out if all the effort and energy, all the positive thoughts and hard work was going to pay off in the water. Their first chance came in the finals of the 2nd Varsity Boys 4. Starting at 11:50 a.m., just 3 hours after arriving the team of Michael Gouveia, Abhi Poddar, Jake Gouveia along with coxswain Emily Weldon medaled with a 3rd place finish. Next up would be the 1st Varsity Boys 4, in what would be their final race together after 4 years. They had approached Kostal at the start of the fall season, asking if they could row as a team, and he agreed. “I knew they had all worked hard together and were good friends. I thought if this is what they want let’s find a way to make it work. I believed they could do well; I don’t think any of them thought they were state championship caliber.”
‘Our warm-up was atrocious!’
Four years of dedication and work, of finding ways to overcome and stay focused would come down to a 1,500-meter race on a brutally hot day. “ Our warmup was atrocious,” Doukas remembered. “Messy starts, and it was tough to block out what happened at warmup. At the starting line my heart was beating out of my chest.” For Nickel, it was a time of reflection. ‘The moment right before the race, I realized it was coming to a close and I had been with these people since day 1. I knew I wanted to make them proud and they thought the same thing.”
As the countdown to the start ticked away, the crew’s coxswain O’Connor called for an adjustment and the foursome was worried they would not get it done before the start. But they did and what came next is what dreams, books and movies are made of.
‘I said these are going to be the best 15 strokes i ever take.’
“I see we lose Lewis Mills instantly at the start. I see the bows of the other boats, I see we are ahead and it becomes real,” Doukas recalls. “The Varsity Girls 4 was on the water at our start. They watched the takeoff and after said they were amazed we were going so fast out of the start,” Nickel said. “Halfway through we started to slow and the coxswain cracked the whip to get us through. It was pure electricity as we came towards the finish. I could hear our parents cheering,” Doukas remembers.
“The last 150 meters, I looked to the right and behind me and I saw a buoy to show the end of the race. I see we have a healthy lead on the second-place team and I said these are going to be the 15 best strokes I ever take,” is how Wilken remembers the moment.
In 5 minutes and 40 seconds, the Boys Varsity 4 and done what no other boys boat had done in Avon crewing history – they were state champions.
“I was amazed,’ said Nickel of his immediate reaction. “ I high 5’d Ian and smacked Dalton’s back, we were all shouting with excitement. I could not fully comprehend what happened.”
“I dropped my head down as I had nothing left,” Doukas said. “Dylan smacked my leg and I had a big handprint on there. I’m in the middle and I look and Eric has tears in his eyes.”
The margin of victory was seven and a half seconds over Lyme/Old Lyme – a team that had beaten Avon just a week prior. Doukas had a flashback to something he had told his teammates just days before the championships. ‘“Despite all odds Avon Crew WILL compete in CPSRAs this weekend. We have been stripped from our home, taunted and humiliated. NOTHING is more dangerous than a crew with nothing left to lose.’
‘I was still not really sure i bought the news’
One person who did not witness the moment of victory was Head Coach Jonathan Kostal. Because of his injury and the way the course was set up, he could not see the race. “Younger rowers came out ‘Coach the boys won the race, the boys won the race,’ and I thought they were confusing it with girls 4 which had been competitive all season, so I was still not really sure I bought into the news.” He got the confirmation he was looking for moments later, as his championship entry made their way up a hill to their coach.
“When I saw the boys coming up with their boat and I saw look on their face I knew. Win or lose when you shouldn’t be able to look at an individual and know if they won or lost, it’s all about putting best effort forward,” said the coach. “Looking at that celebration it was hard to imagine that they had not won based on their smiles. Couple of guys got very emotional. It was pretty special and overwhelming.”
“I remember going up to (Coach) Kostal and that’s when it hit me. I told coach we won and started sobbing,” Wilken remembers. As great as the moment was for Avon at that time, there was more magic yet to come. Moments after the boys win, the Varsity Girls 4 took a second place in their race to give the Falcons three medals on the day.
‘Our objective is to create the best citizens they can be, not just row fast.’
The memory of what they accomplished this season and that day on Lake Waramaug will stay with the members of the team for a lifetime. But they, along with their coach, know that crew is much more that what you accomplish on the water. For Dylan Nickel, it is about impacting those around him. “I want to leave the team knowing we made an impact on one person on the team.”
For Eric Wilken it is about making sure that the opportunities he had are there for others in the future. “I remember people saying our chance of continuing the team went up 50% with our win. Seeing the winning lets them know there is a future for this team.” For Ian Doukas, it was about making a lasting change that will go on long after he is gone from the school. “I wanted to make a new culture to show up, work hard and do what we can to win and when we win, we are going to do it again and again and again.”
What is still unknown is where the team will practice in the fall, and even if there will be a program in the fall. Kostal and school officials are already working on finding a new home for the team. They are not the only ones that hope the tam can return to its home at Batterson.
“We miss them and hope they are finding a way to come back next season,” said Connors. “ A reasonable accommodation can be made.”
In order to return to Batterson, Avon crew would need to find affordable electric motors for their launches or find a way to get their exemption reinstated. “We don’t have any finalized plans right now for fall,” he said. “We are definitely looking at all options available to us. If we can find a way to make it work at Batterson we’d love to, but if that doesn’t I’m confident we will find a place.” For Wilken, it is simple. “ They are not letting a winning program die off.” VL