On land, R.J. Pisani is naturally easygoing. Out on the water, he gets down to business.
“Eyes here,” he said somewhat sternly, addressing the group in the boat next to his in the middle of the Allegheny River. “It’s really tough to demonstrate when you’re looking other places.”
His demonstration was of the techniques “squaring” and “feathering,” which may not mean much to landlubbers. But for aspiring competitive rowers, they represent some essential knowledge.
Pisani is head coach of the Upper St. Clair High School crew team, which is entering its 24th season in 2012. He spent last week conducting an instructional camp for students who are interested in the sport.
“The novice camp is really two things,” he said after a session outside the Three Rivers Rowing Association's Lambert Boathouse at Washington's Landing, where the USC team is based.
“It gives all these kids who are interested the opportunity to try a week in the life of a rower to see if they really want to put in that time commitment,” he explained. “While we only practice for 10 hours a week, by the time they commute from Upper St. Clair and back, it’s about a 20-hour-a-week process.
“Plus, it’s a relatively expensive sport, so they try it for a week and see if this is something they really want to do.”
A vast majority of campers give end up giving the year-round sport a shot.
The fall season, kind of like cross country running, features longer races of 2 ½ to 3 miles, in which rowers race against the clock. During winter, they participate in indoor competitions, on rowing machines.
Spring is “our sprint season, my personal favorite,” said Pisani. “You really get the feel of what rowing competition is meant to be.”
Rowers compete on a variety of boat sizes, holding one person up to eight, and two different styles: sculling, with two oars per rower, and sweep rowing, using one.
The crew team is co-ed, but divided by gender and experience. In other words, veteran boys row against veteran boys, novice girls against novice girls … you get the idea.
On larger boats is a coxswain – that’s pronounced KOK-suhn – who controls the rudder and guides the rowers.
“I am to make sure that all the rowers are keeping in time with each other, to make sure we that don’t crash into anything, make sure the boat kind of flows and works together,” said Sam Connors, who served as coxswain on an eight-person boat, using a headset microphone to be heard instead of the megaphone you’ve probably seen in movies.
USC competes against a number of other high-school teams, including Mt. Lebanon, North Catholic and Taylor Allderdice, which also are based at the Lambert Boathouse.
An Upper St. Clair graduate who competed on the crew team in the mid-’90s, Pisani has been head coach since 2004. The USC women’s coach is Gordon Lubimir, former assistant coach for Carnegie Mellon University varsity men's and women's crews, and the USC novice coach is Sierra Pastel, who has rowed for the University of Pittsburgh Rowing Club varsity team.
For students who are incoming freshmen or older, another summer crew camp is scheduled, for Aug. 4-9. For more information, visit www.usccrew.org.