Strokes of good fortune /

It’s the classic rags-to-riches sports story.

Two friends from the wheat fields of Marion County, inspired by a single childhood canoe ride, dedicate their youth to competitive rowing and, against all odds, are awarded a Division I scholarship to mighty Kansas University.

In the case of Angela Herzet of Hillsboro and Melissa Moffitt of Marion, the story is mostly true.

They come from Marion County, they are good friends, and they’ve received rowing scholarships to KU. They’ve even had a canoe ride or two in their lives.

But dedicate their young lives to the sport? Hardly.

“I didn’t even know KU had a rowing team until I got a letter from the school,” Herzet said.

Ditto for Moffitt.

“I really don’t know how it happened, actually,” she admitted.

That’s true to a point. They do know they were contacted “out of the blue” by the Kansas rowing coaches. Since both intended to attend KU anyway, they responded on a lark to the initial query. Together, they made a campus visit this spring-and came away sold on the concept.

“When I got out there, something about it seemed really fun,” Moffitt said. “The camaraderie the girls (on the rowing squad) had was great. Everyone was friends and they were so nice.

“I like being on a team and belonging to something special like that. Especially to have one of my best friends be a part of it with me is even better.”

Though they attended rival high schools, Herzet and Moffitt met and became good friends through their church involvement in Marion.

Herzet participated in volleyball, basketball and softball during her years as a Trojan, and, as a senior, took a lead role on the girls’ basketball team that qualified for state.

Moffitt played volleyball, basketball and softball, too, and was a leader on the cross country team that qualified for state last fall.

Not only are the two girls friends, they’re almost mirror images. Physically, they are both around 5-10. Mentally, they are fierce competitors. Educationally, they’re both interested in health-related careers.

“We’re a lot alike,” Moffitt said. “It sometimes scares us how much we are alike. People often mistake us for sisters.”

Friendship aside, the similarity of their physical attributes and competitive history may have brought them to the attention of the Jayhawk coaches.

“They start out by looking for athletes,” Herzet said. “They tend to lean toward girls who are around 5-10 or taller.”

Moffitt and Herzet said the coaches weren’t put off by their lack of rowing experience. In fact, it may have been a point in their favor, according to team members they met on their campus visit.

“They said KU kind of liked it because they can teach how you to row the way they want you to,” Moffitt said. “You come with a clean slate.”

Both girls admit they’ve got a lot to learn about rowing. During their campus visit, they were informed about the different parts of the boat and were introduced to lingo that accompanies the sport.

They learned, for instances, that rowers compete in “regattas” (longer races) during the fall season, train inside during the winter, and then compete in shorter races during spring in pursuit of post-season honors.

Rowing is only six years old at KU. Because the state doesn’t have a lot of high school or club programs to find potential athletes, coaches have taken a more general recruiting approach.

“The coaches told me what they basically look for are athletes from smaller schools,” Herzet said.

She knows that an invitation to be part of the rowing program is her only real opportunity to compete athletically at the Division I level.

“I was a pretty good athlete here in Hillsboro, but it would be hard for me to go there and play basketball or volleyball,” she said. “But I could go up there and do something like rowing.”

The two girls will receive partial scholarships their first year. If they make their mark on the team, full rides are possible later.

Herzet said most of the rowing team members at KU came from the same athletic background she and Moffitt do.

“They didn’t think they could do it, but the coaches got a hold of them and they said after one year they were completely hooked,” Herzet said.

“A lot of them were volleyball and basketball players,” she added, “but they said after a year of rowing, you don’t even think of yourself as a basketball or volleyball player anymore. You think of yourself as a rower.”

The thought of learning a new sport relatively late in their competitive careers doesn’t intimidate either girl.

“I like to experience new things,” Moffitt said, “especially if it’s involving sports. I’m up for any challenge.”

Herzet agrees.

“I was excited about it anyway, but seeing it firsthand was a real eye-opener,” she said. “Then I really wanted to do it.”

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