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

BY SOFIA SCEKIC
PHOTO BY SPORTGRAPHICS

“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.

IRA

The No. 2 Yale heavyweight men have dominated the IRA landscape thus far this season, winning every race they entered before the varsity eight was disqualified in last week’s Carnegie Cup. After the disqualification, the University of California, Berkeley took over the top spot in the polls, but the Bulldogs have been the team to beat all season.

Despite all the wins Yale earned on the water this season, Head Coach Stephen Gladstone characterized the success of the regular season not by the wins but the growth and development of his team.

“More than half the squad this year had never taken a stroke with a ‘Y’ on their chest,” Gladstone explained. “They were new. They were new to the culture, new to the basic structure of our stroke.”

In a typical year, Yale has nine or 10  new members on their approximately 60-person roster. But because of Covid, Yale has seen those numbers jump, and Gladstone said the integration process for new members was “much more lengthy” this year, but he found it “very enjoyable.” 

Now that dual/triangular cup events are over for this season, the Bulldogs will turn toward the Eastern Sprints on May 15, which Gladstone said are the team’s Ivy League championships. “The Ivy League pecking order is established at the Eastern Sprints. For us, that’s our league championship, and that’s very important. It’s like winning the Pac-12,” he explained. 

The team will then compete at the IRA National Championships in Mercer, N.J., from June 3 to 5 before closing the season with the famed Yale-Harvard regatta. Yale will look for its fourth IRA title; the team won three straight from 2017 to 2019 before the pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 edition. The Bulldogs did not compete in the IRA Championship last season, and Washington took advantage of their absence to claim the title.

Two Pac-12 schools, No. 1 Cal and No. 4 Washington, have been near the top of the polls all season as well. The Golden Bears, who have won a total of 17 IRA championships in the men’s heavyweight varsity 8+ for the third-most in IRA history, split their team among two meets for several weekends earlier this season, showing off their depth. On March 5 and 6, the Varsity 8+, Second Varsity 8+, and Third Varsity 8+ all won their races at the Las Vegas Invitational, while head coach Scott Frandsen sent the Fourth Varsity 8+ and a Freshman 8+ to Newport Beach for the California Cup Challenge. 

A month later, Cal swept the V8+, 2V8+, and 3V8+ races at the Pac-12 Challenge as well as the 4V8+, 5V8+, and 6V8+ at the Ebright Invitational the same weekend. The team also bested the Huskies for the Schoch Cup by winning four of five races, marking the first time since 2017 that Cal won its dual against Washington. Last weekend’s dual with No. 10 Stanford was canceled due to Covid issues within the Cardinal’s program, but the team has the Pac-12 Championships as its first race of the postseason before the IRA Championships.

Washington started the season at No. 2 in the polls, receiving several first-place votes and stayed in that position for two weeks until Cal overtook the Huskies in the April 19 edition. The Huskies started the fall season with a bang as their Varsity 8+ took first in the men’s championship 8+ division at the Head of the Charles in October. During their spring schedule, the Huskies’ boats went undefeated through four regattas until the dual at Cal on April 23. At that regatta, Washington won the Freshman 8+ and took second in the other four races. 

The team will race at the Twilight Sprints on Friday, May 6, and at the Windermere Cup/Opening Day Regatta on Saturday, May. 7, before starting the postseason with the conference championships and then the IRA Championships. Washington boasts the second-most all-time IRA heavyweight varsity 8+ wins with 19, sitting behind just Cornell, which has won the race 25 times since 1895.

The Yale men also sit on top of the lightweight varsity-eight standings, a spot they have held for the last three editions of the poll. Like their heavyweight team, the Bulldogs’ lightweight eights have found substantial success this season, and the first varsity eight has yet to lose a race. The U.S. Naval Academy, currently ranked No. 3, started the season ranked No. 1 and took down Yale’s second varsity eight, third varsity eight, and fifth varsity eight in the team’s dual on April 2. Outside of Navy’s first varsity eight’s loss to Yale that day, that boat also has not lost a race thus far this season. Navy also enters the postseason as the defending IRA team champion for the men’s lightweight competition. Yale has yet to win the men’s varsity lightweight overall team trophy at the IRA Championships, which was first awarded in 2015. Yale has won the 1922 Trophy five times, however, which is given to the team that wins the varsity eight at the championships, and will enter the postseason looking for its first title since 2011.

On the women’s lightweight side, Princeton University has held the top spot all season. No. 2 Stanford, which had won the Freeholders Trophy nine times between 2010 and 2019 and the women’s varsity lightweight overall team trophy from 2015 to 2019, has not been able to capture the same magic it had in previous years. The Cardinal lost to Princeton in the varsity eight, varsity four, and varsity 2x in their dual on April 16, and the team’s trip this past weekend to the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association (WIRA) Championships was canceled due to Covid issues. No. 5 Wisconsin, which won the overall team trophy at last year’s national championship, began the season at the bottom of the polls at No. 7 and has since climbed to No. 5.

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