Laker Navy travels south to ‘Dodgertown’

Pete Barrows

In realty, it’s no secret that location is everything. Although it turns out that in the realm of collegiate rowing, location, like each oar blade and every stroke, plays a role.

The Grand Valley State University club rowing team will depart from Kirkhof Center circle Thursday afternoon for sunnier Florida skies. It turns out churning through ice coated water is harder than it looks.

The team won’t be asked to row down – it will pack into vans of 15 instead – but all participants will, for a seven-day period between March 1 and March 7, be asked to earn their keep in a place where other athletes were asked to do the same for decades.

“We’re very excited to be staying in Dodgertown,” GVSU head coach John Bancheri said. “Rowing is the oldest sport here at GVSU and is now going into its 50th anniversary year, so in a way, it almost seems fitting to begin the season in a place with so much history of its own.”

The Brooklyn Dodgers began spring training in 1948, back when Ernie Harwell voiced the soundtrack for the “Boys of Summer” squads of Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson, in a small town along Florida’s east coastline known as Vero Beach.

Harwell took his talents from South Beach to Detroit, players came and went with the seasons, and the Dodgers flipped coasts from Brooklyn to L.A., but one constant remained: every spring for 60 years the franchise would begin its season with a trip to an old converted naval base that affectionately became known as Dodgertown.

The Dodgers haven’t returned to Vero Beach since 2008 – the franchise has retired to host its spring training in Glendale, Ariz. – although the halls of Dodgertown will again facilitate a team’s ascension into the season upon the Lakers’ expected arrival on Friday.

Just 15 minutes from the beach, the location is perfectly suited to allow GVSU to hone posture, timing, technique, touch, balance and control with double daily douses of rigorous training sessions throughout the week – and those days will begin before 7 a.m.

Florida is also an ideal location to provide the Lakers an opportunity to get back in the water for the first time since the fall. Ergometers, indoor rowing machines that measure work performed in ergometers, only go so far.

“We spend a lot of time building strength and getting faster on the ergs in the winter, but going south gives us a chance to get out on the water, get back in the boat and remember what it feels like to row together,” junior and third-year rower Kaitlyn VanBoven said. “We have a lot of hard-working kids on the team this year, we’re determined, and I’m excited to see what we can do.”

What began as a physical education activity in 1964 — back when Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale manned the mound for the Dodgers — has evolved into a varsity level club that not only competes with NCAA Division I programs, but often defeats them.

The eight-woman varsity team for GVSU is typically one of the fastest boats not only in Division II ranks, but also in the entire country, and it might be even faster this year. The men’s team is equally accomplished.

“In the fall, we work on technique and how to get as much power as we can from the boat through technique,” returning rower Shelby Welbaum said. “In the winter, we build up the power and strength within ourselves, and in the spring, we put the power into the boat with technique and refine and remember how to move through the water together.

“We’ll have to see how it comes together, but I have very high expectations for this season — we’ll be very efficient on the water this season, especially if the fall season was any indication. We’re going to have a fast first boat this year — and a fast team all the way down.”

Tacked on the bottom of the PDF training itinerary for the week is a list of supplies each Laker must come equipped with for the trip — sun hat, shades, bathing suit, extra socks, sandals, water bottle, snacks, books to study, sun screen and alligator repellant — proving that no location is without flaw.

Also listed is “a desire to continue to get faster.”

To come together as a team, like the Dodgers squads before them, and enjoy a location where snow is replaced with sand.

“These trips help us to find a new gear and bring us back together in the boat, but also as a team — the bonding is a big part of the experience,” Welbaum said. “The sunshine and weather is a nice perk, too.”

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