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In Pursuit of ‘Late-Season Speed’ – Part I

BY SOFIA SCEKIC
PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY

“Late-season speed.” That’s the most common goal moving into the postseason for all rowing teams, from the college level to club teams to juniors. For some teams, though, “late-season speed” means improving on the already-fast times the crews have been rowing this season in hope of winning a championship. But for other teams, particularly ones that have been hit hard by Covid, that means just showing up and giving it your best effort, without a trophy in mind.

Every rowing team has faced unique challenges over the last two years, but the 2021-22 season looked more normal than any season since 2018-19. As most teams wrap up the regular season by mid-May and championship racing is in full swing by the end of May, here is some insight into which teams are leading the polls and how they fared during regular-season competition.

NCAA

Moving into postseason competition, Texas sits on top of the NCAA rankings for Division I. The Longhorns enter the postseason having lost only one race: the team’s second four finished less than one second behind No. 6 Michigan in early April. Among the highlights of the season was a four-race sweep of the finals races at the prestigious San Diego Crew Classic. The Longhorns beat three teams that ranked among the top 16 in the nation in then-No. 3 Washington, then-No. 9 Washington, and then-No. 16 USC. In its final regular-season regatta on April 30, the first varsity eight extended its season-long winning streak to 15, and the Longhorns won all five races against three more teams currently ranked in the top 16. The team will turn its attention to the Big 12 Championship on May 15 before the NCAA Championships begin on May 27.

No. 2 Stanford is the only other team that received a first-place vote in the Week 7 edition of the poll. The Cardinal started their season with a nearly seven-second win in the championship-eight division at the Head of the Charles Regatta and followed up that performance with a Cal Cup victory at the San Diego Crew Classic. The team’s boats then won every event in which they competed at the Pac-12 Invite and 12 out of 15 events at the Big 10 Invite. Their final regular-season regatta against No. 9 California was canceled due to Covid cases within the program, so the Cardinal’s next opportunity to race will come at the Pac-12 Championships in Oregon on May 15, this time against only Pac-12 teams. Six of the top-20 teams in the most recent poll come from the Pac-12, so the Cardinal will have their work cut out for them as they gear up for the national championship.

No. 3 Yale is another team that has spent most of its time near the top of the weekly polls this season. After starting the season at No. 11, the team has earned its climb up the polls with its 11-0 record and most recently swept five weekend races against Radcliffe and Northeastern en route to its ninth-straight Case Cup victory. The Bulldogs’ boats have won nearly all races in which they have entered this season, losing just one of five races to then-No. 4 Princeton in mid-April at their first home race of the season. The team will compete at the Ivy League Championship in Camden, N.J., on May 15 before the NCAA Championship. Yale is one of three ranked teams among Ivy League schools; Princeton and Brown sit right behind the Bulldogs in the rankings at No. 4 and No. 5, respectively. 

There has not been much movement among the top 10 in the Pocock CRCA poll this season, as Texas has held the top spot all season and Stanford has been just below the Longhorns for five of seven weeks. One notable mover is the University of Washington, which started out at No. 3 in Week 1 and fell steadily to No. 10 last week before moving up slightly to No. 7 on April 27. Consistent second- and third-place finishes for several boats during mid-season races seem to have contributed to the drop in the rankings, but the Huskies had a stellar showing at last week’s dual at then-No. 7 Cal. Washington took the victory in the V8+, 2V8+, 3V8+, and 4V8+ while Cal won in the V4+. 

In Division II, Mercyhurst University sits atop the rankings — a spot the team has occupied for the last three weeks. Both the Mercyhurst men (who do not compete in the NCAA) and women have competed against numerous Division I teams this season and held their own in all races, including the season opener at Bucknell, where the women’s four took wins over three Division I opponents in Michigan, Bucknell, and Lehigh. Head coach Adrian Spracklen also singled out the Knecht Cup as a regular-season highlight; between the men and women, Mercyhurst came home with four medals. 

“We got to race several of the Division I schools and that really helped us get battle-hardened and race-ready because the racing was close,” Spracklen said. “You learn a lot more in close races than you do by winning by a lot or losing by a lot, so having close races really gave us a lot of confidence and the belief that we’re doing some things right.”

Spracklen was particularly happy with the performance of his women’s team against Division I Drexel, which, although not currently ranked in the Top 20, he called a strong team. 

“We raced a school that we knew was strong in Drexel,” he said. “We came close to them three times, which was really exciting and really made us have a lot of self-belief and belief that we have some speed and that we can compete in Division II.” 

Most recently, the women’s eights team competed at the Division II East Regional Invite to take on No. 7 Jefferson and Franklin Pierce — the teams ranked No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the East Region. Mercyhurst defeated Jefferson by less than one second and Franklin Pierce by nearly a minute, turning in times under 6:40 in both races. The competition served as a tune-up for the Mid-America Collegiate Rowing Association (MACRA) Championships, and the women’s eights, along with four other boats, took home gold medals at that meet. The team will compete at the Dad Vails on May 13 and 14 before the women row at the NCAA Championships from May 27 to 29 and the men row at the IRA Championships on June 3.

As for postseason goals, Spracklen said that, first and foremost, he hopes his rowers “feel like all the work they’ve done has paid off.”

“Irrespective of what you achieve is knowing that all the work and all the sacrifice, including all the Covid things that have struck us down,” he continued, “everything you’ve put forward has counted for something.”

The other Division II team that has spent time on top of the polls is defending national champion No. 3 University of Central Oklahoma, which held the top spot for four weeks before dropping to No. 2 and now to No. 3. The Bronchos have competed against various Division I and II teams this season as well, most recently at the SIRA Championships, where the team finished fifth in the V8+ finals and fourth in the V4+ finals. UCO will have about a month off before it takes the water again for the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships on May 14 before competing at the NCAA Championships, where it could give Mercyhurst a run for the national title.

In Division III, Wellesley College has held the top spot in the polls all season. Its V8+ and 2V8+ have finished no lower than second place in a regatta all season, and just last weekend, the V8+ won the New England Rowing Championship for the first time in school history. The Blue has competed against numerous highly-ranked teams this season, including No. 2 Bates, the team that has held the ranking just below Wellesley for all but one week this season. At the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) Rowing Championship on April 23, the Blue won the conference title for the ninth time in 10 tries with victories in the first, second, and third varsity eights. Wellesley took down No. 3 Worcester Polytechnic Institute, No. 8 Clark, No. 10 Smith, and No. 12 Coast Guard at the conference meet and seems poised to make a run at the national championship in late May after automatically qualifying with its conference victory.

Bates, the team that has won five of the last six Division III national championships, has also finished at or near the top in nearly every race in which its team has competed. At the New England Rowing Championships, despite Wellesley’s taking the victory in the varsity eight, the Bates team score of 92.11 was nearly 20 points higher than the score of runner-up Wellesley. The Bobcats’ depth is exceptional this year, which will serve the team well in postseason competition, especially if further Covid outbreaks affect the team. The women’s team dealt with an outbreak about two weeks ago, while the men’s team had its own outbreak last week.

“We have an expression around here—‘Bring your flexibility trousers with you’—because we’ve got to be ready to adjust in any circumstances at the drop of a hat,” Head Coach Peter Steenstra said, referring to the last several years of Covid-related challenges.

The Bobcats are in a good position moving into the postseason and seem to be finding their top speed at the right time, as evidenced by their recent wins at the New England Rowing Championship. The team’s final competition before the women take on the NCAA Championships is the National Invitational Rowing Championship in Worcester, Mass. As for the postseason, Steenstra said, “Our goals are no different than they’ve ever been in the past, which is to just find our top speed.”

“There’s only so many things that we can control, and we certainly can’t control anything our competition is doing,” Steenstra added. “We’ve got to pull everything in our lane and put our best crews together and see what we can make for boat speed out of those groups.”

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