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Boom times: Tiny St. Mary's leaves big schools in its wake

The breeze that fills the sails of the varsity team at St. Mary's College isn't stronger, isn't truer, isn't steadier than for any other team.

But it does push the boats across the finish line first with a degree of consistency that is the envy of the college sailing world, which will try this spring to wrestle St.Mary's national coed championship title away.

The small state school with an enrollment of 2,000 students has won 14 titles since 1991, beating colleges four and five times its size. It has turned out three Olympians and several coaches who have been recognized as tops in their field by US Sailing, and its sailors have earned more than 100 individual All-America honors.

"It's a nice combination of a liberal arts education with a lot of sailing," says Gary Jobson, an America's Cup winner and network analyst who joined the college board of trustees several years ago. "They don't always win, but every year, they're a top-three or -four team in every discipline."

St. Mary's attracts sailors from around the country and around the world who appreciate the winning tradition and the extensive alumni support network that cheers them at every regatta.

"You always meet someone in the sailing world who's from St. Mary's," says Mike Kuschner, a senior from San Francisco who is co-captain of the team. "There's a strong bond. This team was built by its sailors and its coaches."

The construction, however, might be considered unconventional.

For example, returning team members rather than the coaches run the tryouts and choose their new teammates.

"It strengthens the group dynamic," coach Adam Werblow explains. "The veterans say, ‘We picked him. Now we're going to make him a success.' And every new person realizes that the team is important because those people selected him."

The program got a kick-start from an unusual endowment: In the early 1990s, Teddy Turner, the son of CNN founder Ted Turner, gave the college a $700,000, 80-foot maxi-yacht, which the school turned around and sold to buy boats and gear.

And Werblow colors outside the lines of the coaching world — part master of ceremonies, part mensch, who cracks jokes more frequently than he cracks the whip.

"Few people can make a living sailing, so why should we turn something we love into a chore?" says Werblow, who has been at the helm of the Seahawks' program for more than two decades. "We try to go out each day and be better than the day before."

Says Jobson: "Adam is tremendous. He works on one thing at a time to make incremental improvements. The kids aren't overwhelmed. They respond to that style."

Werblow learned to sail when he was 8 in a boat won by his mother for selling magazines and assembled by his father. While at a New Jersey boarding school, he started a sailing team and helped raise enough money to buy a fleet of six boats by choosing potential donors from old yearbooks that had nautical quotations under the pictures of graduates.

He was team captain at Connecticut College. Before graduation, a friend tipped him to a quirky school in Southern Maryland with a fledgling varsity program. Werblow landed the job in 1988.

His sidekick for the past four seasons has been Bill Ward, who coached Team USA at the Beijing Olympic Games and was named the 2008 National Coach of the Year by US Sailing's Olympic Committee.

The two men keep an eye out for young talent around the country, but they spend the majority of their recruiting efforts on students already attending the waterfront school.

"The water is part of our campus, and the boathouse is right in the middle of everything. You can walk from a dorm and be in a boat in minutes. It's what draws a lot of students here. If we find someone with drive, work ethic and a little bit of savvy, we can work with that," Werblow says.

That work ethic and dedication shows itself in strange ways. In the aftermath of the snowstorms of February that brought the school to a standstill, team members dug out their boats and went sailing.

And almost every weekend, 10 of the 28 students and their gear, plus Werblow and Ward, jam into two vans and head off to do battle. It could be in Boston or Wisconsin or Charleston, S.C. One thing is for certain: St.Mary's is almost always the little guy.

"It doesn't matter. We're trained to make the competition faceless," co-captain Ted Hale of Annapolis says. "We're a school most people haven't heard of, but we're almost always in contention to win."

If you like sailing …
The Sperry Top-Sider National Offshore One Design (NOOD) regatta series will be in Annapolis this weekend. The event has multiple races each day, from 10 a.m. until 4p.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 10 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

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