SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Allie Reilly and Erika Pena had never rowed before they came to the University of Rhode Island. Next week, when the Rams make their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance in the budding sport, they’ll be leading their team into the water in search of the school’s best-ever finish.
“It’s such a big honor,” Pena, a Warwick native, said. “I came in as a freshman and we made NCAA’s. Each year, we try and come, and prove who we are. This year, we can be ranked in the teen’s and have the best finish we’ve ever had.”
Both Pena and Reilly were named to the Atlantic 10 All-Conference team. The A-10 has only had an automatic bid for eight seasons, and the Rams have claimed it in four of those years.
Head coach Shelagh Donohoe also earned recognition from the conference, as Coach of the Year. It’s the second straight win for Donohoe, and sixth overall.
Donohoe is a Umass-Dartmouth alum, and her own athletic career has been the template for success at URI. After walking onto the team with no prior rowing experience, Donohoe eventually transformed herself into an Olympic athlete.
“I started out as a walk-on in college, and I won a silver medal in the Olympics,” she said. “There’s not too many sports you can start in college and go that far. Rowing is one of those unique sports where you can do that.”
Donohoe won silver medals at the 1990 and ‘91 world championships, in addition to medaling at the Barcelona Summer Olympics in ‘92. Reilly, a North Kingstown native, has followed in her coaches footsteps by competing internationally after picking up the sport in college.
“When I was in high school, we had no program,” Reilly said. “I didn’t know anything about it. Going into college, I saw an ad for it and tried out. I fell in love with it that way. A random thing I tried to pick up. It worked out.”
“I walked on as a freshman,” echoed Pena. “I used to run track. Coming into college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I reached out to one of the coaches, and said, ‘hey this kinda looks fun’. I like to compete, I like tough competition.”
“Allie and Erika, they were walk-ons,” Donohoe said. “They didn’t know how to row, but they were fantastic athletes. That’s where you can find great rowers. You can teach someone how to row pretty easily, but they had good body control, they were strong when they came in.
“Probably around half the kids [on the roster have prior rowing experience]. There are a lot more high schools [competing] now. There’s a lot of opportunity, especially for women. There’s a lot of scholarships out there. If they don’t feel they can make it in basketball or volleyball, and they have that structure, rowing is a great sport.”
Pena and Reilly lead a group of seniors that won the A-10 Tournament in three of their four years on campus. All three boats at this years conference championship won their respective categories, and that led to the team’s highest-ever seeding at the NCAA’s.
Both the Varsity 8 and Varsity 4 boats were seeded 19th in the 22-team field. The Second Varsity 8 boat was seeded 20th.
“This is the highest we’ve been ranked,” Donohoe said. “The Varsity 8, we have a lot of seniors in there, six of ‘em. Good leadership. They’re really fit. I’m hoping we can hit our ranking, and maybe go beyond that.”
The NCAA Tournament will be held from May 31 through June 2, in Indianapolis. The senior group will rely on what got them here to keep the historic Rhody run going.
“We have such a positive and open mindset,” Pena said. “We attack every practice with such fierceness. We push each other a lot. We all have a connection, our attitude is contagious.”
“We’re a pretty tight-knit group,” agreed Reilly. “We’re focused, which is really important. We have a good mentality as a group. We know how to focus in when we need to, but still be lighthearted and have fun when that’s necessary.
“We latched onto that feeling of winning and didn’t want to let it go.”