The Ohio State Buckeyes captured their first team title in 2013, but NCAA rowing at the Division I level is a densely packed field—the most difficult in which to defend a title in all of collegiate rowing. While the Buckeyes are returning most of their 2013 squad, they’ll be up against a Virginia team that is reminiscent of the Cavaliers’ 2012 campaign. And the Golden Bears of California will be looking to carry the momentum from a varsity eight win in Indianapolis into the 2014 season.
“Having so many returners from a championship team leaves the bar pretty high,” says Ohio State head coach Andy Teitelbaum. “At Ohio State there are always a lot of performance expectations, so the trick is understanding those and using them to keep you focused on what you can control now, today. So far this group has managed that well.” The main difference for the Buckeyes this year? Experience. “One thing winning does is demystify the process of becoming a champion,” Teitelbaum explains. “The understanding of what goes into building a championship team plus the talent on the roster probably makes this group the most competitive team we’ve had at Ohio State. Whether that will translate into another championship, that’s anybody’s guess.”
And while there’s a great deal of similarity between the 2013 and 2014 teams, there are some significant differences too. “Change forces you to grow,” Teitelbaum says. “We’ve all had to adjust responsibilities a bit as [coaches] Madeline [Davis, formerly of the Stanford lightweight program] and Claudia [Herpertz] have gotten comfortable and moved up the learning curve. Still, having fresh eyes on the staff has been a blessing and we are trying to take advantage of that.”
The strongest challenge to the defending champions may come in the form of the Cavaliers, a team with so much depth that there may well be former junior national team athletes that don’t make the squad for NCAAs this year. “After 2012, we graduated 19 people, so at the outset in 2013, we really didn’t know what we had,” explains head coach Kevin Sauer. “Also our coaching staff turned completely over, and we had a lot of new kids on the team. We had a decent fall, so we thought, ‘Yeah, alright, not bad.’”
“Comparing this year to last, we lost some really good kids. Susanne Grainger went on to row in the Canadian senior eight at worlds, Sarah Cowburn was on the GB senior team, and Kristine O’Brien stroked the [U.S.] under-23 eight to a gold medal again, so we lost some pretty big guns. But sometimes loss creates opportunity,” says Sauer. “And that’s what’s happened so far this year. The fall ended up being really good—the upperclassmen have been stepping up and showing great leadership, and we have a really good freshman class that has come in and done some special things.”
While Virginia’s depth may be unparalleled, Cal has shown no sign of slowing down in 2014. And there’s no shortage of motivation either. “Our first race this year is going to be the Sydney International Rowing Regatta—we’ve never done a foreign tour, we’ve never done an international trip before, and that event actually coincides with our spring break,” outlines head coach Dave O’Neill. “So we’re going to take 10 people to that—it’s going to be awesome.”
Reflecting on 2013, O’Neill senses that the victory in the varsity eight at NCAAs is still paying dividends for the current team. “With that win in the first eight, everyone realized, ‘OK just focus on us, and we’re going to be really good.’” While it won’t be exactly the same athletes filling out the top-flight crews for the Golden Bears this year, they have made some significant additions. “Going into football-coach speak,” says O’Neill with a laugh, “we’ve added a few weapons, and this year I think we should have the firepower again to be competitive.”
Making predictions for the NCAA title is perhaps even more precarious than ever, and there is a long list of teams to watch. The Princeton Tigers, led by veteran coach Lori Dauphiny, always put together a competitive season, and Dauphiny knows how to get her squad to peak at just the right moment. USC had a breakthrough year in 2013 under head coach Zenon Babraj—now in his 12th year with the Trojans—but fell just short in Indianapolis. Bob Ernst’s Washington squad had a fantastic finish to their season in 2013 and may be a dark horse in 2014, while Yale also looks to be on the rise once again. And is it ever safe to talk about NCAA titles and not mention John Murphy’s Brown Bears? (Answer: No.)
NCAA Rowing: Division II
The field at the Division II level has been extremely volatile over the past two seasons, with first-time champions breaking through in both 2012 and 2013 following a long stretch of dominance by Western Washington. While the Vikings will likely always be in the conversation, the center of power in the DII ranks appears to have shifted to the opposite side of the country: Florida. While Barry had the better of the rivalry during the regular season in 2013, it was Nova Southeastern that had the last laugh.
“I think that the level of everyday leadership has increased with the veterans from last year’s squad,” says Sharks’ head coach Stephen Frazier-Wong. “There is a sense of purpose that permeates the returning squad that we only saw glimpses of at the end of last season. Other than that, the mentality hasn’t really changed except that we can’t play the underdog card any more. We went into last year with the goal to win the national championship and that is the competitive goal for this season as well. However, we try not to talk about wins or losses very much. We simply try to be better today than we were yesterday.”
Asked about the developing field in Division II, which has seen greater parity of late than at any other point in the 12-year history of the event, Frazier-Wong says there is still a ways to go to develop the division’s competitive platform in the eyes of junior coaches and rowers. “I do think that we are starting to gain momentum and see glimmers of parity in Division II. However, the educational, competitive, and scholarship opportunities offered at Division II schools aren’t fully understood by many junior coaches and rowers. As a result, we have lagged behind Division I in terms of benefitting from the increased number of junior rowing programs.”
NCAA Rowing: Division III
The Ephs of Williams have made a habit of setting the bar high and keeping it there, and while they had a coaching change prior to the 2011-12 season (in fact, the Ephs streak of eight straight NCAA titles has been under four different head coaches), Kate Maloney has shown that she was more than ready for the task. Still, like Division II, there have been challengers on the rise—most notably Bates, who pushed the Ephs all the way to the line in Indianapolis last spring only to come up just two seconds short. Look for that rivalry to continue to develop this season, as well as other emerging challenges from William Smith and Trinity.