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Head of the Charles

Northeastern’s rowing alumni at head of line

Northeastern’s men’s eights have won the Head of the Charles alumni race every year since its inception in ’09.

courtesy of rachele pojednic

Northeastern’s men’s eights have won the Head of the Charles alumni race every year since its inception in ’09.

It started out as a standard reunion row, an enjoyable way to add spice to Northeastern’s traditional Saturday night get-together during the Head of the Charles Regatta. Then the Huskies, who’d won the inaugural race for men’s alumni eights in 2009, won it again and again and again. “It’s hysterical how competitive it has become,” says coxswain Rachele Pojednic. “Nobody can let it go. At first it was, hey, it’s fun to be back on the water — and now we’ve created a monster.”

These days NU’s old dogs have everyone else trying to chase them off the Rivah. “They always feel threatened and they’re thinking about the age handicap,” says head coach John Pojednic, Rachele’s husband. “I’m sure they’re a little bit nervous.”

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Brown is coming after them again on Saturday afternoon. So is Harvard, Crabtree (the Cambridge Univ. boat), Georgetown, and a pack of others. People actually are serious about wanting to win a single-file alumni race. “It’s getting out of hand,” jokes Gracio Garcia, who graduated from Northeastern in 2000. “We’ve got to do something about that and bring it back to what alumni rowing should be all about.”

What it used to be about was buddy boats, with oversized grads cramming themselves between the gunwales for 3 miles of undue exertion. Then the Northeastern guys figured that it might be a good idea to get in shape and actually practice. “A lot of the alumni crews are unhappy that we made it such a serious event,” says Joe Carroll, who graduated in 2010. “We’ve raised the bar. But I think deep down they really like it.”

The Northeastern men’s alumni eight crew created a bond — they haven’t been beaten at the Head of the Charles.

courtesy of rachele pojednic

The Northeastern men’s alumni eight crew created a bond — they haven’t been beaten at the Head of the Charles.

The alumni event brings back memories of Saturday morning cup races in the Charles basin with shirts on the line and the trash-talking endures. “The heckling at the line,” says Rachele, who coxed the men’s varsity a decade ago. “We got called out by the referee to tone it down a bit.”

It doesn’t take more than the creak of an oarlock to restoke the competitive fires. “I was rowing full time for 10-plus years and it really gets under your skin,” says Petar Lovric, a former Olympic spare for Croatia. “Rowing is like a virus. You can’t shake it off for good or bad.”

What the alumni event has done is create a bond across generations of Huskies as the undergrads get to meet grads who’ve been framed faces on the boathouse wall. “They’ve been a great source of programmatic pride and spirit,” says Pojednic, who’s beginning his 14th season at the helm of the program.

That spirit was on group display at last summer’s Henley regatta, where Northeastern boated not only its varsity and JV but also an alumni eight and four and where the 1973 crew did a ceremonial row-over to observe the 40th anniversary of making the Grand Challenge final. “We had stripes on our blazers,” says Lovric. “We looked like soldiers. People wondered, who is this squadron of Army guys?”

It was Northeastern’s first visit in two dozen years to the fabled Thames town where Jack Grinold, the school’s legendary sports information director, still is renowned as the Duke of Huntington Avenue. “All of the bartenders in town knew us by the end of the week,” says Carroll, who stroked the alumni eight. The aging Hounds showed that they still could pull an oar, with the four reaching the quarterfinals before falling to Harvard’s national lightweight champs.

When stroke Craig Smallwood couldn’t make it across The Pond, the quartet tapped two-time Olympian Elliot Hovey, a Cal grad whose grandfather Chandler helped found the program in the ’60s. “My wife and I had just bought a condo and we had to prioritize our money,” says Smallwood, who’ll be stroking the eight again on Saturday. “I’ll be hearing about that for years, I imagine.”

Alumni rowing is all about finding able-bodied spares. “We’re constantly looking for subs to plug holes in the boat,” says Garcia, who’s a hardy Head perennial. Fortunately, the Huskies have a pool of more than a dozen who live in the area and who have tolerant wives and girlfriends. “With Northeastern being in Boston, you have a hub of guys who are here,” says Carroll. “Guys who aren’t afraid to get up at 5 in the morning and go row.”

The NU advantage also includes having a cox who probably can steer the course blindfolded without grazing a buoy, plus head-of-the-line privileges as defending champions. “Starting first in the Head of the Charles is probably the best thing you can have going for you,” reckons Pojednic.

The Huskies dispatched Crabtree comfortably last year with the addition of Will Miller, fresh off rowing in the US eight at Olympus, and assistant coach Dan Walsh, who’d won bronze in Beijing. “We had a serious engine room,” observes Rachele.

With Miller and Walsh absent this time, the Huskies are fretting that their hegemony might be over. Not that they’d ever planned on establishing one. “We said we were going to retire after three,” muses Lovric. “Then we thought that four was an odd number, so we’ll go for five. If we win five we can turn it over to the younger generation. But if we lose the fifth time, I think we’ll have to come back and reinstate our status.”

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.
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