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On the surface, this year’s Fairfax High crew squad doesn’t appear to stand out much when placed alongside teams from other schools. The Rebels aren’t blowing opponents out of the water, nor are they falling far behind. They don’t have a particularly intimidating lineup, and their practice methods look the same as those used by other teams.

Yet a deeper look at the picture reveals a sea change aimed at revitalizing a stagnant program. Fairfax crew carries 52 members this season, a significant increase from last year’s total of 35. This marks the first year in recent memory where the Rebels have had more than one coach return to the team, as well as the first year they’ve had a coach stick around for more than two seasons.

The real change, though, lies in a newly competitive mindset that has every member of the squad dedicated more to the idea of winning than to the prospect of goofing around with friends. They aren’t consistently winning quite yet, but the Rebels are on the right track thanks to a culture change that took root last year with the arrival of an ambitious young coaching staff.

“Up until [last year] there was no continuity; there was no real passion,” varsity women’s coach Dan Martin said. “It was just a bunch of kids who were coming out here and being social and every once in awhile messing around in boats. What we were trying to do last year was instill the right attitude. We’re out here to work hard; we’re out here to win races. Yeah, we’re going to have fun doing it, but we’re here to win.”

Martin, 26, works alongside three other like-minded Fairfax crew coaches, all of whom have joined the team within the last three years. A University of Virginia graduate who started rowing during his junior season at Lake Braddock, Martin began coaching at Fairfax last spring alongside Chris Banh, a 2007 Thomas Jefferson High alum who started rowing in earnest during his days at William and Mary. The two upstart coaches teamed with Justin DeGaetano, a Fairfax High grad who began coaching the Rebels’ varsity men in the 2011 season. Rounding out the unit is Anthony Castaneda, another Fairfax grad who was convinced to come back to his alma mater this year to help coach the novice men.

The school’s eager coaching staff decided last year to devote their full energy to replenishing a program that had dwindled in size in recent years and had reverted into a team that was feared by no one. They cut last year’s rowers who didn’t show up to all five practices every week, making clear that athletes needed to earn their way onto the team just like any other varsity sport. Coaches and rowers alike followed the 2012 season with an aggressive recruitment push that helped bring on fresh waves of novices to replace the rowers stepping up to varsity boats this year.

“This year all my novices came back, so we have 100 percent retention, and that’s why the size of the team grows,” said Banh, the team’s novice women’s coach. “We had a guy come down last year to volunteer for about two or three weeks, and he mentioned when he saw the kids this year he was much happier with their behavior. They listen, they know what our expectations are. And that’s what you want. You want novices to take it seriously.”

With the 2013 season in full swing, Fairfax’s attitude change has so far translated into some impressive outings against bigger teams that often carry about 100 rowers. The Rebels battled near-freezing temperatures in the season-opening Polar Bear Regatta, where all of their varsity boats finished either first, second or third in their events. Last weekend’s Walter Mess Regatta produced first-place finishes by the second varsity women’s 4-boat and the novice women’s 8-boat, along with a close third-place finish by the boys’ novice 4-boat.

While those achievements might only have set the tone for greater things to come, they also demonstrated a level of improvement that has come with fine-tuned skills on the water and dropped times on the grueling erg machines in practice.

“We’ve always been cohesive as a team, but we’ve not been as strong compared to other crew teams,” said junior Kapil Gadre, a varsity member. “But this year we’ve all gotten better time-wise on the river and technique-wise, so we’re all trying harder, working harder. We know that winning is in reach. And our coaches have been really good about pushing us and motivation, so I feel like we have a better chance at succeeding this season than in the past.”

The Rebels’ next test will come this Saturday at the Darrell Winslow Regatta, which is set to take place on their home course at Sandy Run Regional Park along the Occoquan Reservoir. It will mark their second-to-last regatta before the state competition rolls around in early May.

“We’re still trying to put up those kind of results where people are going to start turning their heads and looking at Fairfax as anything but an easy out,” Martin said. “We’re looking to build to where year after year we’re always going to be in the mix. It’s going to take a couple years before we’re there, but we are starting to put up those kinds of numbers where we’re looking up.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com