The men’s lightweight crew team opens its spring season Saturday on the Schuylkill, racing Delaware in the morning and Saint Joseph’s in the afternoon. Hawks coach Mike Irwin, who led Penn from 2002 to 2009, will coach against his former program for the first time.

Credit: Ellen Frierson / Daily Pennsylvanian

When Fran Dunphy returned to the Palestra for the first time as Temple’s head coach in 2007, he was greeted with a standing ovation by Penn players and fans for his 17 years of service, during which he guided the Red and Blue to 10 Ivy League titles.

But that didn’t mean that upsetting the Owls that night wasn’t oh so sweet for the Quakers.

Saturday on the Schuylkill, the lightweight rowing team will face a similar situation. Facing former head man Mike Irwin and St. Joe’s, the Quakers would love nothing more than to pull out a few first-place finishes.

“I don’t have a prediction,” lightweight coach Nick Baker said, but added, “I believe if we row up to our ability that we should be on top.”

Irwin, who coached the Red and Blue from 2002 to 2009, is now in his first year at the helm of the Hawks’ program. As far as Saturday goes, he’s just excited to see the races.

“The fun part for me is … I happen to know a few more guys in the Penn program than I do at other places right now,” Irwin said. “The senior class were freshmen my last year at Penn, so more than anything, it just adds a little more familiarity to the racing.”

After leaving Penn for family reasons two years ago, Irwin stayed in close contact with his former program and his successor, Nick Baker.

“When I moved away from Philly, I would stay in touch with Nick because I certainly wanted the best for Penn,” Irwin said. And the two always shared a common bond in being from Buffalo, N.Y.

“Let me clarify, I’m from Buffalo originally, but Nick went to school in Buffalo,” Irwin joked. “So technically I’m the only true Buffalo guy.”

During his time at Penn, Irwin achieved a great deal of success. In 2005, his varsity eight earned a spot on the medals dock with a third-place finish at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship Regatta. He was elected Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges Lightweight Coach of the Year by his coaching peers that season.

But for Irwin, his biggest highlight at Penn was rebuilding a program that was having a hard time filling the roster when he first took over.

“When I first started, we were struggling to put together enough guys to have a second varsity [eight],” Irwin said. “I had two seniors my first year.”

By the time he left, he was able to fill five boats — three varsity eights, two freshmen — and boasted a roster of over 40 rowers.

Irwin is also proud of the work he put into building a bridge connecting current Penn lightweight rowers and alumni.

“When you’re building a program, you’re building a connection for these guys long term in giving back to Penn,” Irwin said. “And I mean that more in terms of spirit and energy.”

Friday night, in fact, Baker and his team will continue a tradition started by Irwin. Each year before the first home race of the spring, the team welcomes back former rowers who graduated in the past decade at the young alumni banquet.

Both Baker and women’s crew coach Mike Lane, who was at Penn during Irwin’s time, had nothing but praise for St. Joe’s new boss.

“He’s the type of guy who will come in and make a huge difference,” Lane said. “It’s really cool for the Philadelphia rowing scene to have him back.”

Before going head-to-head with the Hawks at 3 p.m., the Quakers will take on Delaware in the morning at 10 a.m. St. Joe’s also has an early session against Marietta and Williams.

And in their first racing day of the spring season, the Red and Blue would love nothing more than to start with a bang against their former leader.

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