BY CHIP DAVIS | PHOTO BY MIKE CIRILO
Stanford won both the first- and second-eights grand finals to take the 2023 NCAA Division I National Championship Regatta in late May on the Cooper River in Camden, N.J. Cal Poly Humboldt won the Division II national championship, and Wellesley repeated as Division III national champion.
“Just a great group,” said Stanford coach Derek Byrnes of his crews. “They have an incredible amount of faith in each other and love for each other and we talk about it all the time. It’s like 23 get to race, but 43 get us there. It’s been a total team effort. The best part is we brought everyone here to watch it and cheer them on.”
Stanford’s national championship comes after The Cardinal scored the most point two years in a row, without winning the title. (The NCAA—unlike the IRA, where the first-varsity winner takes all—crowns a D-I champion based on points earned by two eights and a four.) In both 2022 and 2021, Texas won the national championship based on a tie-breaking better finish in the first eight.
Cal Poly Humboldt won both the eight and four grand finals to secure the Lumberjack’s third NCAA Division II National Championship on Camden N.J.’s Cooper River. Cal Poly Humboldt previously won the D II championships in 2012 and 2014.
Wellesley College made it back to back as NCAA Division III champions with a win in the first eight final and second place in the second eight final.
After a false start that brought all six grand finalist back for a re-start, Ithaca College led by as much as half a length in the first 500. But defending champion Wellesley rowed their way in the lead and never looked back, winning by open water. Wesleyan worked their way into second, and Ithaca recovered to win the bronze. Tufts, Williams, and Bates rounded out the grand final.
This year, Stanford amassed a Division I near-perfect 129-point total. Washington (120) placed second, followed by Princeton (118), Texas (110) and Yale (110). Pennsylvania (92), Brown (91), California (89), SMU (85), and Virginia (80) rounded out the top 10.
“Congratulations to Stanford,” said Washington coach Yaz Farooq, who was the Stanford coach the last time the NCAAs came to Camden in 2003—when The Cardinal also won. “They were outstanding and they set the bar high this year.”
When it began, Stanford’s 2023 racing season looked anything but championship-quality. At the San Diego Crew Classic on April 2, Texas rowed down and through Stanford in the finals of the first- and second-varsity eights and four.
“San Diego was obviously our first trial, our first run at things,” said Stanford first-eight coxswain Rachel Miller. “And then from then on, we were just willing to try new things. We tried a new strategy, we tried some new training plans. Derek just had a vision for it, and we all bought into it.
“It was super-internal, and we didn’t talk about anyone but ourselves all season. And yesterday, the announcers were talking about, ‘It’s all about The Cardinal,’ and that’s what we’ve been saying all season. So that was really fun.”
Washington, which had been even further afield of Texas at the Crew Classic—16 seconds behind, in the first eight—finished on an exceptionally strong note, with both the eighth-seeded first-varsity eight and fourth-seeded second-varsity eight finishing second in their respective grand finals
“Oh my gosh, all I can say is that everything that happened today was the result of every single person on this team,” said Farooq, who coxed at Wisconsin as an undergrad and really does say ‘gosh’. “I know that might sound like a cliche, but I am not kidding. The 1V and the 2V spar with each other every day, and it’s an atmosphere of pure, positive elevation. No one’s ever bitter, everyone’s always grateful. And the performances in those boats and also in the four were a result of challenging each other in a positive way all year long and holding ourselves to the highest standards that we could along the way. So I’m not surprised that they came through.
“We’re going to be very excited to bring the super-young team back next year. The fifth-years and seniors are leaving an incredible legacy of love, compassion, and collaboration.”
Princeton was one of four programs to advance all three crews to the grand final of each event and finished third in the championship, matching both the Tigers’ final standing and points total from 2022, despite having faster crews this year.
“I was happy to see everyone up on the podium,” said Princeton coach Lori Dauphiny. “I thought it was extremely competitive, one of the fastest I’ve ever seen.”
“This was the fastest NCAA-championship field ever,” Virginia head coach Kevin Sauer said.
“Oh God, yeah,” agreed Cal coach Al Acosta, who has coached the Bears to a pair of NCAA championships. “It used to be: Go under 6:10 in the 1V, go under 6:20 in the 2V, and then go under 7:05 in the four, and you felt like those were the standards—you were going to win. And now it’s like the four is going five, six, seven seconds faster than it was 10 years ago.
“This was a slow course today, but last year at Sarasota, there was a handful of crews in the 1V going faster than under-23s.”
“This is the fastest I’ve ever seen it,” concurred Will Porter, now in his 24th year as head coach of Yale women’s rowing. “Last year, we somehow finished fifth on the back of our JV. This year, we get three boats in the grand final and we’re clinging to fifth. The depth spread out through the field is remarkable. It’s exciting, it’s a lot of fun, but it takes so much to get crews to this point.”
Texas tied Yale for points but won the tie-breaker by virtue of the Longhorns’ higher finish in the first eight. The Texas second eight rowed into a gaggle of geese in the grand final, impeding the crew and leading to a protest. A re-row was not held, and Texas would have needed to have finished four places higher in the race for the final standings to have been different, but the incident revealed a major shortcoming of the Cooper River racecourse—its population of Canada geese. At least one coach raised the issue with officials earlier in the regatta weekend, but referees can do practically nothing from their launches following the races.
Texas won the varsity-four grand final, a result more than a year in the making for senior Jane McGee, “Getting third last year, coming off the water, I was like, ‘That was a great race,
but let me tell you, I’m winning next year.’” For fellow senior Olivia Fogarty, “it was the race of a lifetime, my last race as the coxswain, so a great way to end it.”
Three-time defending American Athletic Conference champion SMU finished ninth, with a program-best 85 points and The American’s first top-10 finish. It was also the Mustangs’ best finish ever. It’s SMU coach Kim Cupini’s third-consecutive top-15 finish for the Mustangs. SMU placed 11th in 2021 and 12th in 2022.
SMU crossed the line first in the petite final of the first eights, for seventh overall, another highest finish for a boat from The American in NCAA rowing championship history.
Virginia finished 10th, for a fifth consecutive top-10 finish at the NCAA championship, after winning their 13th-consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship in May. Syracuse, 13th at the NCAAs, finished second at the ACCs and the Orange first varsity earned ACC crew of the year honors and coach Luke McGee was named ACC coach of the year. Duke finished third at the ACC championship and 14th at the NCAAs.
“We were racing for a higher team finish than 10th but did not achieve our goal, even though every boat fought hard,” said Virginia’s Sauer. “We are very young, losing only three rowers and two coxswains from this NCAA squad. The future is bright but will take a commitment to training well over the summer.”
Sauer was already working hard in the summer heat following the conclusion of the regatta, guiding a shell truck on foot through a dust-clouded parking lot to load up for the trip back to Charlottesville. Sauer built the Virginia program by hand from scratch. The only head coach in the program’s 28-year history as a varsity—and also its coach as a club program from the late 80’s until it gained varsity status in 1995—Sauer was surprised by a million-dollar gift made by over 300 donors to establish The Kevin Sauer Fund for Excellence in Women’s Rowing endowment this spring.
Going into the May 14 Ivy League championship regatta, members of the NCAA rowing committee polled coaches informally to determine whether four Ivies—the automatically qualifying league champion plus three more at-large (half the league)—could be considered for legitimate selection again. Penn seemed like it could be the odd team out but was selected after its second-place Ivy League finish. Brown came back from a disappointing fourth place at the Ivies to finish a strong seventh at the NCAAs, a point behind Penn’s impressive sixth, putting all four Ivies in the top seven.
The Pac-12 and Big 10 were the other leagues to have four schools selected, with Pac-12 crews finishing first, second, eighth (Cal), and 16th (USC), and Big 10 schools Michigan (11th), Ohio State (12th), Rutgers (15th) and Indiana (17th) in the bottom half of the championship field.
“The level is way deeper,” said Cal’s Acosta. “They’re good teams that aren’t here. Oregon State’s a great team. They’re not here. So, it’s really good for our sport to have that level of deep competition.”