The Lehigh men’s rowing team prepares for practice on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Lehigh River. The team has had six prospective walk-on members, along with four for the women’s team. (Madeleine Burt/B&W Staff)

Walk-on recruitment plays integral role for Lehigh rowing teams

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Although the Lehigh men’s and women’s rowing teams may not hit the water until late September, their walk-on recruitment seasons begin the first week of classes. 

Unlike other Lehigh sports, the Lehigh rowing teams fill their rosters with both recruited athletes and walk-ons. Coach Brian Conley said walk-ons are a vital factor to the teams’ success. Conley said he encourages his returning rowers to recruit members themselves. 

“It’s been exciting this year because the team members have been the driving force with recruiting the walk-ons,” Conley said. “The sophomores and juniors stepped up and took control.”

Assistant Coach Alex Urbanik also believes the team’s motivation is largely internal, with graduate assistant and former men’s team captain Kyle Schipper leading both teams.

Urbanik said Schipper, who was a walk-on himself, helps strategize during the recruiting process and maximizes the team’s outreach.

“He took a lot of personal pride in this year’s (walk-on) class. (With) his background, he understands how important the process is,” Urbanik said.

The team’s initiative has resulted in 10 prospective walk-on members for the women’s roster and six for the men’s, which Conley said is the most successful outcome in recent history.

However, the new athletes face challenges in joining a rigorous women’s Division I program, compared to the men’s team, which is considered a club sport. Senior Liz Gagliardi said that difficulty for novices comes not only from an athletic standpoint, but also from a team-oriented one as well.

“We’re really big on accountability,” Gagliardi said. “A lot of times we’ll have new people from more of a (individual-oriented) sport, which creates an adjustment period for them.”

To help new walk-ons navigate these obstacles, returning team members work together with the new recruits to help them develop a more team-friendly mindset.

Gagliardi said seniors even have to go through the try-out process to ensure everyone is coming together with a team-first mentality.

“It can be kind of an ego-check,” Gagliardi said. “You come thinking that everyone’s on your equal playing field, but you have to start from square one. I’ve found that taking that step back does help us move forward. It also helps new people get on board.”

Urbanik said integrating athletes this way drives a strong chemistry between freshmen and experienced rowers play a large part in strengthening the team’s unity.

“The sophomores, juniors and seniors are helping the freshmen with classes, they’re eating meals together, and spending time together outside the practice,” Urbanik said. “All those pieces are in place, which is what helps to strengthen and develop that team culture.”

Such collaboration among team members fosters a culture in which any athlete, experienced or not, can find success. Previous walk-ons Jacqueline Ogden, Kyle Schipper and Laura Parks demonstrated the height to which previously inexperienced rowers can reach by becoming captains.

“All we ask is that you give your best effort every day,” Conley said. “If you’re willing to put in the work, you can be successful here at this sport very easily.”

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