Zachary Coons and The Blue Collar Crew

By Helen Tompkins | November 18, 2014

Over the Head of the Charles weekend, I substitute coached the Roman Catholic/Crescent boys crew. The crew is Roman Catholic slash Crescent because Roman Catholic high school only supports rowing during the spring semester. The remainder of the year the boys row as Crescent. These boys are definitely hard working but they struck me with something more.

I was caught off guard with how respectful and helpful the young men were. Without thinking twice the guys made practice run efficiently. Two guys pumped water out of the launch, which was starting to sink, while another rower filled the gas tank. A few of the guys helped me pull the launch out of the cramped docking area which is difficult anywhere on boathouse row, but especially at Crescent.

The guys really wanted to understand technical changes I asked for and never stopped pulling. Before and after practice they gathered around waiting or direction. In the erg room one of the rowers took the initiative of recording scores. They were excited to report to their coach how their erg relay had performed. There was always lot of positive energy, they were excited to be there and excited to compete. Each of the boys thanked me for coaching after every practice, with no one reminding them to do so.

I met with first year head coach Zachary Coons to find out how his team created their culture. He said when he took the job the parent board told him they were a blue collar crew, but at the time he didn't know what exactly that meant. In many ways the team mirrors the working class background they come from.

Roman Catholic was the first free private catholic school in the United States. It was free until the mid-80s. Today Roman tuition is $6,150, a bargain for a private education in Center City, Philadelphia. It pulls from all over Philadelphia and brings kids together from different backgrounds.

Rowing for Roman costs $850 per year including racing fees. While many juniors programs can cost thousands per year, this relatively affordable pricing is still a burden on these kids and their parents. One of Coons' main goals for the program is to establish an endowment to alleviate the dues. Fund raising techniques include a Black Friday Event at Crescent, a team calendar, and alumni networking.

Walking in the boathouse one day I meet a few of the parent board members. These women were in jeans and hoodies, all very young, one having dyed her hair with pink highlights. They did not strike me as your typical crew parents. They were friendly and we easily started to chat. One woman was a CPA and the team treasurer, another the team president and another the secretary. They all had jobs to support their family. No one on the parent board had rowed themselves.

Coons observed that “rowing for these boys provides structure and reward in hard work which allows them to thrive on and off the water.”

Last year the team posted excellent results. In the varsity 4x, they won City Champs, 2nd at States, and 2nd at Scholastic Nationals. The lightweight 4x went undefeated and won Nationals. The varsity 2x won States. The JV quad won Cities and made finals at States and Nationals.

Rowing has helped some of the boys get into and row for competitive college programs. Last year there were seven seniors, five of whom went on to row in college. Now representing Delaware, Iowa, Temple, and two at La Salle. This year is a larger class, where Coons expects 80-85% of the seniors to continue rowing in college.

“The demanding schedule of practice helps the guys find consistency in life. They find a home in rowing,” stated Coach Coons.