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SCHOOLED BY THE BEST; An overmatched West Side men's eight comes away from Henley richer for the experience

St. CATHARINES, Ont. -- West Side Rowing Club came out of the gate with a vengeance in the finals of the Championship Men's Eight at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta on Sunday, charging to a small lead in the first 500 meters. But it couldn't last. As the experience and fitness of the other boats caught up with it, the West Side crew slipped to the back of the pack. By the 1,500 meter mark, the boat was well behind.

The West Side rowers finished dead last. But sometimes that's the best you can do -- especially when you consider the opposition. The winning boat was propelled by former Olympic gold medalists and the Argentinean national team was also competing.

West Side coach John Haumesser, excited by the team's fast start, said that while winning the race wasn't a priority to the club, the experience for the young West Side team is invaluable.

"It's kind of a treat for these guys to race against a couple guys who have won gold, and at 19 years old to kind of test yourself against some of the guys who have been to the absolute highest [level] of the sport," he said. "They're getting a glimpse of kind of where they want to be eventually some day, and kinda see where they are in relation to that."

The eight of Daniel Corso, Andrew Sauvageau, Keith Pfirrman, Chase Crimmen, Daniel Klassen, Ryan Rosts, Trofym Anderson and Pat Kenney with coxswain Connor Laffler finished sixth of six in a time of 6:05:49, 21.69 seconds off the pace of the winners from Penn AC, the team with the former Olympians. It wasn't the finish, but the start that had the rowers abuzz as they returned to dry land.

"We had a good start," said Sauvageau, who rows at Cornell. "Our plan was just to see how long we could hold off the Penn AC boat, because about half of them were ex-Olympians and we're all about 19, 20-year-olds."

Sauvageau said he enjoyed the opportunity to race against the best.

"It's fun," he said. "It's kinda cool when you go out there and you're racing against national team guys, Olympians, and hoping that maybe you'll get there one day."

Laffler, who is also a coxswain at Northeastern, said that seeing the speed of the best rowers was an eye-opening experience.

"It's amazing," Laffler said. "The fact that you're racing against someone who in '04 won the Olympic gold medal at Athens, it's just incredible."

The men's championship race was the second of the day for West Side, which also had a boat in the Under-23 men's four. That boat came in last in the finals, too, an even more disappointing result to the rowers.

The team had earned its place in the finals by finishing second in its heat on Friday in a time of 6:26:76, just .22 seconds away from first.

The four of Sauvageau, Pfirrman, Crimmen and Jamie Hamp finished the 2-kilometer course in a time of 6:51:55 on Sunday, more than 22 seconds behind the winners from Penn AC.

"It wasn't the result we were hoping for," Haumesser said. "I guess getting into the finals is small consolation, and being sixth out of that group of 21 is nice."

"It was a little bit frustrating, because we had beaten the boat that took second place [St. Catharines] by more than [Penn AC] beat them," said Pfirrman, who will be a senior at Yale. "I don't think we were in [the best of shape]; I think we were all a bit tired from this week."

Because of the proximity, West Side had seen plenty of St. Catharines. The two met at the West Side Invitational, where West Side won by a seat, then at the St. Catharines Invitational, where the hosts won by about the same margin, Pfirrman said. But in the most recent race, West Side had prevailed by seven seconds.

Unlike the other race, it was the beginning that was tough going for the four.

"We had a couple rough strokes on the first five or so," Hamp said, adding that seaweed may have gotten stuck on the rudder, affecting the boat's steering. "I don't think we got into a good rhythm until about 500 [meters] down, and by then we were already behind by a length or so."

The competition in both races was fierce, Haumesser said, and it's only getting better.

"It's some of the hardest I've ever seen," said Haumesser, who formerly rowed for West Side and the University at Buffalo. "I've been coming here since I was racing forever ago, and it's getting harder and harder every year.

"We're gonna learn from it, see where we went wrong, and fix it for next year. It was hard, these guys are tough kids and they're going to be back next year."

email: skilb@buffnews.com