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NCAAs: The Dawg Days Aren’t Over

In 2016, the California Golden Bears came within a few feet of accomplishing something never seen before at the NCAA rowing championships—only Ohio State’s third straight victory in the varsity eight, pushing Cal into second, prevented a sweep. Meanwhile, the Washington program was going through a somewhat tumultuous year after the departure of longtime coach Bob Ernst.

What a difference a year makes. Yasmin Farooq, who guided the Stanford Cardinal to an NCAA title in 2009, took the reins in Seattle last fall and never looked back. But it didn’t start out that way.

“I think what made the team ultimately successful was how much they learned and improved from the start of the season to the end,” Farooq explains. “They were genuinely motivated, but Washington hadn’t won the NCAAs since 2001 so we were in a rebuilding mode where they were going to have to gain and develop confidence from one race to the next in just one season. The early season success showed that we were in the hunt, but there was still work to be done technically and toughness-wise in all of our lineups. The losses to Cal in the third varsity and varsity eight reminded us that you can’t lose focus for a single stroke, as well as the value of sticking together. It was a mid-season reminder of what it was going to take.”

That depth and commitment across the whole program makes you a contender, but it can also be very difficult as a head coach. Having all the right pieces doesn’t necessarily make the puzzle easier to solve. The key is getting the culture right. “We never talked about winning. We just focused on our fitness, becoming tougher, and being the best team we could possibly be. So we were all in it together. It required being selfless and everyone understood that,” says Farooq.

Still, the course of an NCAA title never did run smooth. “Once we got to the NCAAs a couple of really strange and unlucky things happened. We have a ‘team board’ that we take to every regatta—it’s an eight-foot piece of driftwood from Lake Washington (the board had come to signify the ‘foundation’ upon which the team culture was built). We hung it above the ergs in our tent, and on Wednesday, Brooke Mooney, four seat in the varsity eight, hit her head on it. She sustained a mild concussion and had fluid draining from her ear for the next 24 hours.”

But that’s not all. “That same day, Chiara Ondoli, the varsity stroke, dislocated her shoulder while carrying oars. She is one tough woman, and the team doctor cleared her to race and they essentially taped her shoulder in place. In the final when they checked the boat down after crossing the finish line, it popped out again.”

Add the fact that Elise Beuke, the seven seat, became ill right before the heat and raced with a fever, and you begin to see why Farooq would say that the outcome was a testament to the toughness of the women on her team. “At the end of the day, I believe the success of that boat had more to do with human will than anything else.”

The results also made Farooq the first-ever coach to win NCAA rowing championships with two different programs. “Seattle is a magical place. I have a wonderful coaching staff, and working side by side with Michael Callahan and our men’s team has been fantastic. It’s an environment of excellence, and we’re all having a ton of fun working hard and making boats go fast.”

Just behind Washington (virtually across the board) was last year’s champion, California. The Golden Bears finished second in the varsity four and second varsity eight, and finished third in the varsity eight, rounding out a Pac-12 sweep of the podium in the marquee event of the regatta. “I think all the boats did a really nice job of progressing through the three-day event,” reflects Cal women’s head coach Al Acosta. Cal came into the regatta with supreme confidence as the only crew to have taken down Washington’s varsity eight this spring. Still, working toward the right combinations took time. “We decided on the JV lineup about three days before their first race. They did a really nice job of getting excited about the lineup change and I thought they raced really well across the heat, semi, and final.”

The Cal varsity also adapted well to some late changes, emerging from a very tightly packed semifinal for a chance at the medals. And when they lined up for the grand final of the varsity eight, the Golden Bears could have taken home a second straight title if they had won that race (only Cal, Washington, and Michigan managed to place all three of their boats in A finals this year).

“I guess we were set up to win the [NCAA title] if we had won the whole thing in the varsity eight, so I’m happy with that. Washington is really good. I don’t know that even if we had nine or 10 rowers in the boat on Sunday that we could have caught them. They were pretty fired up,” Acosta says with a laugh. “They did a really nice job.”

While the top Pac-12 teams stole the show at the top end of the field, there were also some noteworthy performances from traditional Eastern powerhouses, as well as up-and-coming programs from Middle America. Case in point: Dave O’Neill’s Texas program landed on the podium for the first time, taking home the fourth-place trophy for team performance, as well as placing both their varsity eight and four in the A Finals (both crews finished fourth).

And of course, Michigan had an outstanding finish to a great year, fighting for control of the Big Ten Conference with perennial contender Ohio State, and putting all of their crews into the A Finals, taking a bronze in the second varsity eight.

Meanwhile, in the Division II ranks, the past several seasons have seen a bit of a shakeup at the top end, with perennial champ Western Washington dethroned after a seven-year streak by Humboldt State in 2012. This year marked a return to glory for the Vikings, but it didn’t come easy: Western Washington edged second-place Central Oklahoma by just one point (17-16) on their way to an NCAA team title.

Division III saw a similar, very closely contested battle for supremacy between Bates and another perennial champion, Williams. While the Ephs took the title in the varsity eight, it was the Bobcats who prevailed by one point, 39-38. Bates’ victory in the second varsity eight, coupled with their silver-medal finish in the varsity eight was just enough to seal the victory for the program—their second overall, and first since 2015.

IRAs: It’s a Dog Eat Dawg World

The 2017 IRA championships were not short on drama. Nor were they short on firsts, either. Like NCAAs, the coaching ranks at IRAs would see something never before done, and the final race of the regatta made for one of the most epic finishes in the history of this storied event.

The racing on Sunday on California’s Lake Natoma took on a very similar feeling to that across the country the previous weekend, as Washington built momentum, winning race after race, putting themselves in position to sweep the regatta just as the Washington women had done. While the Huskies had suffered a setback against Cal on home water at the 106th Cal-Washington dual contest earlier this season, the Huskies had bounced back with a rousing victory at the Pac-12 championships on this same course at Lake Natoma. They had every reason to be confident coming into the final of the varsity eight.

“Yale has a very strong first half of their race, for sure,” says Washington head coach Michael Callahan. “The idea was to stay with them, neutralize that, and use base speed across the whole 2k course to get ahead. I think they had an outstanding race. In the end, we were in a position to do that, but Yale was able to have a better day.”

The race played out just as the Huskies had anticipated. The Bulldogs shot out in front of the tightly packed field, but the Dawgs held on through the middle of the course, and began, ever so slowly, the reel Yale in as the final 250 approached. And the Huskies’ plan almost worked; crossing the finish line, it wasn’t immediately clear whose bow had edged in front on the surge.

“It’s a tribute to them,” Callahan says. “They’ve been winning a lot of close, hard races.”

“They’re bright guys,” says Steve Gladstone of his Yale squad. “They stayed on-purpose. I know it’s a cliché, all coaches talk about it—but dealing with setbacks is a prerequisite for getting where you want to go.”

That adversity he’s referencing? The Bulldogs were without their team captain, varsity oarsman Rob Hurn, who missed the IRA this year due to illness. That meant that freshman Jonathan Winter of New Zealand had big shoes to fill—and fill them he did.

Gladstone continues: “We knew it was going to come down to a seat or two. It did the day before. Why would that change? What’s so satisfying is that, on the day when it needed to be done, that fraction of a second went our way.”

That fraction of a second—0.069 to be exact—made Steve Gladstone a 12-time IRA champion coach. It’s a historic feat—only Charles ‘Pop’ Courtney of Cornell has more IRA titles to his name, but he was competing roughly 100 years ago at a time when Yale and Harvard didn’t compete at the IRA. The victory also marked the first time that a team other than California or Washington won the men’s varsity eight at IRAs since Wisconsin did it in 2008.

Also turning in very strong finishes were Harvard, Princeton, and California. The defending national champion Golden Bears medaled in the varsity four, third varsity eight, and second varsity eight, only missing the podium in the premier event, with their varsity eight finishing fifth overall. Meanwhile, Harvard showed not only its top-end speed but also its depth, placing all their eights in grand finals and taking bronze in the varsity eight.

While the Washington heavyweight men missed a sweep of the regatta by roughly a foot, the Stanford lightweights had no desire for such fireworks. The Cardinal were flat-out dominant across the board, winning the lightweight double, four, and eight all by open water. The five-plus second margin in the eight proved the closest race of the day for head coach Kate Bertko’s squad, in her first year at the helm.

“The field is pretty fast,” Bertko says. “We have been able to race a ton of lightweight crews this year, so it’s always kind of an unknown. Boston University took us at the Knecht Cup, so we knew that we’d have to pull hard. No one lets you have [a national championship].”

On the men’s side, the varsity lightweight eight was a battle all the way to the line. Chris Kerber’s Cornell crew came in as the team to beat, and for good reason. The Big Red posted an undefeated season, and had just won their third Eastern Sprints title in the last four years. And they wouldn’t be denied at IRAs either, claiming their third in a four-year span.

Pressing Cornell all the way to the line, and finishing in historically great fashion for the program, however, was Penn. The Quakers have consistently moved up the ranks throughout Colin Farrell’s tenure as head coach, and the silver-medal result for his varsity eight on the grand stage was a sure sign of both progress, and the process.

“It’s been a lot of hard work,” Farrell says. “But these five seniors in this boat did a lot of that work. It’s been about us trying to figure out how to get here—figuring out what are the standards in this league, and what does it take to get to the next level.”

Taking bronze behind these two crews was Yale—a great performance from the Bulldogs when it mattered most, bouncing back from a rough go at Eastern Sprints, where they finished a distant sixth. The medal for Yale also meant that both their lightweight and heavyweight varsity eights wound up on the podium at IRAs.

ACRAs: Go, West!

The American Collegiate Rowing Association national championships have long been a showcase of the dominance of powerhouse club programs from Michigan and the East. But it might be that the tide is turning thanks in part to Michigan itself.

When longtime Michigan assistant coach Charley Sullivan headed west to take over the UCSB men’s team, he was arriving with years of experience alongside the most decorated club rowing coach in the country, Gregg Hartsuff. And the team that Sullivan took over wasn’t far from the mark to begin with—the Gauchos had been second the year previous, just over a second behind the Wolverines in the men’s varsity eight.

“I think there’s a tendency out in California to think, ‘Well, we can be on the water, so we should be on the water,’” says Sullivan. “But I think one of the reasons that, at least in ACRA, the dominant teams have been on the East Coast, is that you have to go inside. There’s a certain level of work, a certain volume of work that it takes. But it also allows you to really control the work, and set [the athletes] up to do very specific things indoors. So we did that.”

Despite a few setbacks through the course of winter training, when Sullivan says he felt he assigned too much volume and intensity, the work paid off. “One of the critical things I did in the winter was recalibrate, and just say, ‘OK, hey, I made a mistake, let’s figure this out. Let’s go forward,’” he says.

While their fitness was improving through all the work indoors, the Gauchos had also showed promise on the water from the beginning.

“I’d known from the first time I’d seen them on the water that I potentially had a really fast eight,” Sullivan explains. “I don’t think they realized how fast they were. But I just kept seeing it, and seeing it. I don’t think that varsity eight had a bad practice—a session where it fell apart—all year.”

He continues: “They were on a mission to ‘take the next step,’ as they called it.”

That’s exactly what they did. When all was said and done, the Gauchos executed their plan, moving well at base speed, and establishing enough of a lead to hold off a late charge from Bucknell and Virginia in the closing stages of the grand final.

“ACRA has gotten a lot better,” Virginia men’s head coach Frank Biller says. “This is what we wanted. Gregg [Hartsuff] and I and others. This is what we were dreaming of, and to see that happening, it’s very satisfying.”

That comes from an atmosphere of cooperation, including among the top contenders in the league like Michigan and Virginia. “We’ve put a lot of work in to help other programs develop, not just on the water, but also on the business side and how to run the finances,” Biller explains. “I’d say I probably spend two hours a week working with other programs.”

The camaraderie amongst the ACRA coaches and programs is something Biller feels has not only elevated the level, but also promotes sportsmanship. “When UCSB won, everyone was excited for them. Truly excited. And that helps the development of these other teams as well.”

Judging by the results, it seems like the formula is working. The 2017 ACRA national championships once again featured eight-lane finals in the varsity eights, and in the men’s marquee race, the first five crews were separated by roughly five seconds, a testament to the growing depth of the field.

Another indicator is that 2017 marked the first time the Michigan varsity eight has missed the podium. Though they did continue their program-wide success, taking home the men’s team points trophy.

Given that ACRA coaches are not going to be recruiting experienced athletes and bringing them in on scholarships, the field is naturally limited to an extent, but that also fosters tough competition and a focus on development.

“The better each program gets at athlete development, the tighter it’s going to get at the top level,” Biller says.

On the women’s side, UCSB defended their 2016 title, winning by open water over New Hampshire, followed by Grand Valley State. The victory also helped seal the overall points trophy for UCSB, which, alongside a victory in the women’s points race and a second-place finish in the men’s tally, helped make the California club the most decorated ACRA program once again, echoing last year’s results.

What will next year hold? Given the increasing parity and level of development already taking hold from coast to coast, as well as a revamped national team training center keen on identifying new talent, we’re guessing that 2018’s outlook is more boat speed.

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