BY SOFIA SCEKIC
PHOTO BY ED MORAN
“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.
American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) teams consist of university and college men’s and women’s rowing teams that are not sponsored by the institution’s athletic department. The University of Michigan, which started the season ranked No. 1, has since fallen to No. 5 in the varsity eights but is still a contender for the national title.
The success of Michigan and other ACRA teams is remarkable, given that those schools lost two years to the pandemic, while most NCAA and IRA teams lost only their 2020 season.
Greg Hartsuff, head coach at Michigan and the founder of ACRA, said early-season meets showed how club teams lagged behind varsity teams after missing twice as much time. At the Head of the Charles, his team and other club teams tend to place much higher than they did this year. Far more varsity teams finished higher in the rankings, he said, probably because they were able to race the spring 2021 season.
“I don’t have a single guy on my team who’s raced a full season in a varsity boat,” Hartsuff said. “The seniors were freshmen last time they had a season and they rowed in that category.”
As a result of missing two years of racing, a unique problem that ACRA schools face is not having a normal sophomore class on the roster. Nearly all club teams were unable to hold recruiting events in fall 2020, so they missed out on rowers in the Class of 2024 who would be interested in continuing to compete in college.
“It’s pretty clear to me the pandemic really hurt the club teams, the ACRA teams, more than it did the varsity teams,” Hartsuff said. “Entries are down across the board across the country, and a lot of it is our sophomore classes. I’ve got only two sophomores [this year].”
But despite Michigan and other ACRA teams facing substantial challenges over the past two years, Hartsuff and his fellow ACRA coaches have been able still to put together successful teams. The Wolverines raced several non-ACRA schools at early spring-season meets, such as the Knecht Cup and recently had numerous standout performances at the Mid-America Collegiate Rowing Association (MACRA) Championships. Although Mercyhurst came away with the victory in the men’s varsity-eight final, Michigan finished fewer than five seconds behind as the first ACRA team. The Wolverines earned victories in the men’s second varsity eight, the men’s freshman/novice four, the men’s freshman/novice eight, and the men’s second freshman/novice eight. Before the ACRA championships on May 21, Hartsuff’s team will compete at the National Invitational Rowing Championships in Worcester, Mass. Usually a competitor at the Dad Vail, Mighigan will not compete at that regatta this year because Hartsuff wants his rowers to use the weekend before the championship to train at home for their ultimate goal: winning ACRA.
No. 1 George Washington University started the season ranked No. 4 but jumped up to the top spot two weeks later and has held it since. The Colonials launched their spring season at the Kerr Cupp in Philadelphia, taking third in the varsity-eight grand final and the second varsity-eight grand final behind two Division I schools — Drexel and Yale. On the first weekend in May, the team competed at the Maxwell Stevenson Cup against non-ACRA schools and took third again in both the varsity eight and second varsity eight. Unlike Michigan, the Colonials will compete at the Dad Vail Regatta the weekend before the ACRA Championship.
In the men’s freshman/novice eights, the University of Virginia is currently leading the polls, followed by Orange Coast College and UCLA in second and third, respectively. Michigan is ranked No. 6, while George Washington received several votes but was not among the top 10. Those rankings have not changed substantially since the first edition of the poll this spring.
On the women’s side of the varsity eight, Purdue is still leading the pack—and the Boilermakers have yet to relinquish their hold on the No. 1 ranking this season. In their first major race of the spring season, the Boilermakers’ varsity eight won the Division II/III/Club Final at the San Diego Crew Classic and followed that with a strong team-wide performance at the Lubbers Cup the following weekend. At the Southern Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship Regatta, the team continued its hot streak with a win in the women’s V8+ B Final and a third-place finish in the women’s Novice 8+ A Final. Despite Dad Vail’s taking place just seven days before the ACRA Championship, Purdue will race at the regatta before taking on the championships.
No. 2 Grand Valley State has held the spot in the poll just below Purdue for much of the season, and the teams faced off in numerous events at the Lubbers Cup in Grand Rapids, Mich. Purdue took the head-to-head victory in races like the frosh eight, while Grand Valley was able to pick up victories over the Boilermakers in other races, such as the second varsity eight. After a scrimmage against Michigan State, the Lakers competed at the MACRA Championships. Among several top finishes, perhaps the most impressive was a second-place finish in the varsity eight grand final, seven seconds behind Meryhurst but nearly 23 seconds ahead of third-place Northwestern. The second varsity eight also competed in that final and took fourth. The Dad Vail on May 13 and 14 will serve as the Lakers’ tune-up before the ACRA Championships in late May.
Purdue also holds the top spot in the freshman/novice eights after starting the season ranked sixth. Grand Valley began the season in the top spot, fell to seventh after one week, and currently sits at fifth. One surprise in these rankings is Clemson. For the first three weeks, the team was unranked, before jumping up to the top spot in Week 4. Clemson had recently taken second in the lightweight varsity 4+ A final at the SIRA championships, finishing second only to the University of Wisconsin. The Tigers have since fallen slightly and are currently tied for No. 3 with Vanderbilt.