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Canisius will row for a cause; Crew will travel length of Erie Canal

Like all students at Canisius High School, rower Jack Sardinia took a religion class this year, and for 40 minutes a day, the Bible verse on his teacher's podium looked back at him.

It's Luke 12:48: To whom much is given, much is expected.

It's an appropriate reminder for the students at the private, Jesuit school on Delaware Avenue that they're called to do more, to give back.

Keeping in line with the Jesuit value of being "men for others," Sardinia and five of his teammates are giving their time and resources to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation by rowing the entire length of the Erie Canal. Over the course of eight days, they'll cross all 340 miles of New York State history, the distance of nearly 13 marathons. Teaming up with rowers from McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, the boys will depart just after sunrise Thursday.

"We're blessed to have all that we do and to go to Canisius, and so we can't just sit there," Sardinia said. "We have to do something to give back to our community."

Six Canisius rowers -- Reid Yankowski, Jack Ruh, Mark Hirschbeck, Sam Hausmann, Owen Ogiony and Sardinia -- along with seven from McQuaid, Canisius' crew rival, plan to row almost 50 miles a day down the length of the canal, departing from the UB Boathouse and ending in Waterford, 20 minutes north of Albany.

Yankowski says he first thought up the idea in the fall on the ride home from a regatta in Saratoga. He had finished his homework and just started thinking about what he could do this summer. With the Eric Canal being so close, wouldn't it be cool to row part of it? But why stop there, he thought, why not row the whole thing?

When he first started tossing ideas around, his parents were skeptical.

"They weren't really supportive at that point," he said. "They still thought it was a joke."

Getting his Jesuit-educated teammates on board was no problem. By mid-March, Yankowski had most of the logistics laid out, and his and several other boys' parents started to help them contact local businesses and get donations. Each rower came up with 15 organizations in town to send a letter to, and they said they each mailed around 50 more to family and friends. Some of the connections they made came from friends at school, whose parents run businesses in town. They currently have more than 25 local businesses that have partnered with the Row for JDRF in one way or another.

One of the dads then got in touch with the rowers from McQuaid, who were more than willing to join forces.

"They were really gung-ho about it," Yankowski says. "Apparently it was really difficult for them to pick the rowers they did because everyone was so enthusiastic about it, which was really nice."

Both teams are funneling their money from businesses and individual donations toward the goal of $50,000, which they are near reaching. As of Tuesday, they have pulled in $43,872, with donations being accepted until June 30.

"One of the things I'm overwhelmed with, quite frankly, is the interest from the community about what's going on," coach Tom Flaherty said. "Apparently the rowing community is well aware of what we're doing."

Though none of the boys have a direct connection to diabetes, several have a friend or a neighbor whom they've seen struggle with the disease.

"I thought it would be cool to do," Yankowski says of choosing JDRF, the world's largest charitable supporter of Type 1 diabetes research, according to its website.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that causes the pancreas of nearly 3 million Americans to stop producing insulin, a hormone that effects metabolism and regulates the amount of glucose in the blood.

Stops are scheduled at intervals along the eight-day trip, which can be altered for bad weather or other unforeseen problems. Each day is scheduled to begin at 6:30 a.m., with a morning stop scheduled most days around 11 and night stop planned around 5 p.m.

The boys plan to camp out each night and sleep in tents. Parents will be following along in cars and preparing food for their sons at various stops. Some boys say they plan catch fish as a means of eating, but Flaherty jokes if that's the case, they're going to be a hungry group of rowers.

Flaherty will ride behind in a motor boat to supervise, just like he would during a practice. He says he's not concerned with the distance or his athletes' fitness.

"I knew we could do it, that's not a huge concern," he says. "The logistics is the biggest part of it. As far as the rowing part goes, I'll see them through that I think 50 [miles a day] is reasonable."

The boys -- all of whom will be seniors next year -- have never rowed this far. On the way home from the U.S. Youth Nationals in Tennessee last weekend, they stopped to eat in Ohio and realized the distance to home was about the same as they'll be rowing this week. Flaherty estimated the longest he ever had them go in one day was 35 miles, but they have been rowing six days a week to prepare for the event, and the pace will be much more relaxed than if Canisius and McQuaid were facing off in a regatta.

The thing for them to remember will be that, like the efforts to find a cure to a disease, it's a marathon, not a sprint.

email: nveronica@buffnews.com