The path to the men's national championship, begun in March and contested throughout the spring, has come down to the final weekend.
This Sunday, the top ranked collegiate men's teams will lock onto start platforms and sit ready to race for the finals of the Eastern Sprints, the PAC-12 Championships, and the Dad Vail Regatta, and ultimately, for one of the 13 available spots those regattas hold as automatic Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship qualifiers.
Getting to one of those automatic qualifications is the safest path to New Jersey's Mercer Lake, this year's IRA venue, and the opportunity to seek national glory on the first weekend of June. Miss the top finals in those conference championships and even the best teams in men's Division 1 rowing could leave their fate to the committee that will select the seven At Large bids.
Brown head coach Paul Cooke summed up the coming weekend like this:
"The ultimate goal is the national championship. So, this is a step along the way. But, obviously, it's a significant one."
With that said, here is a look at the two biggest regattas for men's D1 rowing this weekend.
Eastern Men's Sprints
Yale 1V in Copley Cup Racing at the San Diego Crew Classic
Yale University is the defending Sprints and IRA champions, and they are again the top ranked EARC team. Yale has lost only once this season, at the San Diego Crew Classic to Cal. At that time, Yale was without arguably their top guy - Charlie Elwes, who was a major oar in Yale's 2017 success.
Out since early in the year with a rib stress fracture, Elwes has been sidelined for the entire dual season. He was cleared to row with one week left in the regular season, but was has not raced a stroke yet. Having an athlete return to an undefeated crew on such an important regatta might give another coach pause, but not Steve Gladstone.
Yale's head coach knows what he has in Elwes. He's not worried. "If we were talking about a rookie, I might be concerned," Gladstone said Tuesday. "But Charlie Elwes has been around a long time and has been on enough starting blocks in his day."
If Yale was a favorite to win another Sprints title without Elwes - and they were - well, they are the team to beat. And that adds pressure to his crew, it does not concern Gladstone, who has coached enough fast crews to know that nothing written on the seeding charts, or listed on the collegiate polls, matters to an athlete on the start.
"I don't think it's something that has to be dealt with," Gladstone said when asked if he had addressed it to his crew. "I think any crew worth its salt is not thinking in those abstractions. Any group of guys that's going to sit in a varsity eight is going to be thinking about working the oar to move the boat, not some abstraction of being a favorite, or not being a favorite.
"It makes a good story to think in those terms," he said. "But I don't think many crews would be subject to fear of being a favorite, or concerned with being a favorite. Once you get on the blocks on a starting line, abstractions disappear immediately. You're in the moment, at the present, and you do what you are trained to do."
The seeding does matter for crews going into a championship regatta. That much is fact and has nothing to do with an individual team's prerace psyche. Being a top three seed in a regatta with three heats can be life-or-death (or the At Large Committee) for some teams.
(See the full heats schedule here.)
Brown is Sprints' second seed
Ranked second behind Yale and ahead of Harvard in the EARC heavyweight seeding is Brown and Cooke's squad. Brown was swept by Yale early in the dual season, but that is not their concern in the heats. Princeton is.
Princeton's top eight lost to Brown in the April 28 dual in Princeton, but the Tiger's second, third, fourth and fifth varsity all prevailed, so the depth of the Princeton crew is clear and the margin for error for Brown is narrowed by one crew. But like everyone else after dual racing, Cooke has had plenty of time to prepare his athletes and come up with the best combination for the top boat.
"We've had a lot of good things going on at the boathouse," Cooke said. "I would say overall, I think the leadership has been really strong this year. But, at the same time, we feel like there are a lot of crews out there with good depth keeping us honest.
"I'm always trying to figure out how we can get better, but overall, it's been a really enjoyable year to work with the crews here," Cooke said. "We're just trying to see if we can get through exams and have everyone ready to hit it in the right way on Sunday."
Harvard is seeded fourth
If the spacing between the top crews in the heavyweight division seems tight, there is very little light between the top team in the Sprints lightweight league. Last year, Cornell came to Worcester undefeated - and left that way. Until the end of the regular season, and the HYP regatta, Harvard's top boat was headed in that same direction.
But Princeton jumped past Harvard from the start and rowed through Yale in the final 500 meters at HYP, which was hosted by Yale this year. If that doesn't set up a hyped competitive atmosphere among the top ranked teams going into Sprints, consider the year Columbia is having.
The only loss Columbia's top crew had all season was to Harvard on the Charles River, and while the HYP was going on in Derby, Connecticut, Columbia was adding another two wins to the schedule against Delaware and Drexel. Columbia will come to Worcester itching to show their 2018 speed.
"For the whole team, I feel as if we are in as good a place as we've been over the last five years," said coach Nich Lee Parker. "The athletes are healthy and the preparation has been very well managed.
"We laid out a very detailed plan for them from the end of our regular season to the sprints. We told each individual crew, and each individual athlete, what was needed, and I think they have all done that very, very well."
Parker has been mostly set in his lineups from the start of the season and the top crew has remained unchanged through the dual program. "The lineup is the exact same as it has been, and I think they are continuing to improve, just like everybody else is continuing to improve, with water time."
Parker said that his team is confident in what they have been doing this year and will take that to the line with them on Sunday.
Columbia is top raked team in the collegiate poll and seeded first
"One of the things we talked about this week is that clutch performances are a myth," Parker said. "You don't get to turn it on come race day. How you race is simply a reflection of what you have done in practice, and I think these guys have practiced the way that they intend to race."
For Harvard coach Billy Boyce, the idea of having a regatta without an undefeated team just makes for better racing.
"I think our season has been similar to the overall picture of league," Boyce said. "There is not an undefeated crew this year, which I think is kind of cool. Last year, Cornell kind of led wire-to-wire, and some years you get that, and some years you don't.
"This year going into Worcester, there is no undefeated varsity and I think any team on the day, if they have a good race, could be coming home with a medal, and it is up for grabs what color that medal might be."
Washington and Cal racing at their annual dual
While the Sprints league offers up a full nine automatic bids to the IRA, there are only three in the PAC-12. Of the seven schools with men's rowing programs in the conference, four are ranked in the top 20 in the collegiate men's poll, and sitting on top are Washington (1) and Cal (2).
There is no argument that it would take an epic upset for either of those two schools to not contend for first and second in the conference championship. That means that the remaining automatic IRA bid will go to either Stanford University (8) or Oregon State (T-17).
Between Cal and Washington, well, that's the matchup to watch.
Cal had been undefeated until the Cal-Washington dual and Washington won. Both teams continued to dominate the conference. Cal closed out the regular season with a sweep of Stanford, while Washington's final dual was the Cal race. The Huskie men added a footnote to their season by defeating Oxford Brookes University, Britain's collegiate men's champs, at the Windermere Cup.
Like many other programs, both Washington and Cal have been trying different athlete combinations for their lineups. The 1V lineups for both schools were different in the final weeks of the regular season.
Cal coach Mike Teti told row2k that he has 12 athletes capable of racing in the top crew, but had not settled on the final combination right through the Washington-Cal dual. Tuesday, Teti said he might finally have settled.
"After the crew classic, I thought it was decent, but I didn't think we were fast enough and we tried some things. I think we've made some gains. So, I think we're improved, but I am certain that they (Washington) are as well. "We have 12 solid candidates for the top boat, and I don't think it's going to be the best eight guys, I think it will be some kind of combination. Sometimes you just have a combination that clicks better. We've been sort of systematic about that all year, and each race that we've had, we raced with a different lineup.
"Each time, I didn't feel like this is the lineup, it was more I want to try this, and I want to try this, and I want to try this. And you want to try them all in racing situations, which I think sometimes can be risky," he said.
"I think that we have come up with a combination that seems to be able to get to their speed in little bit of an easier way, and hopefully that will prove true. The one we will race at PAC-12, we haven't raced yet."
As for his outlook on the PAC-12 championship overall, lineups notwithstanding: "From a coaching point of view, you always welcome the challenge, right? If it was easy it wouldn't be as meaningful. It's always a challenge when we race against these guys and we know they are going to be very, very good across the board," he said.
"I think Stanford is much improved and they have some good guys. Washington is obviously the top team in the country, and they are really good. If we want the outcome that we've trained for, we're going to have to have a perfect race."
St. Joe's at the Kerr Cup
For a majority of the crews that will race in Philadelphia this weekend, the Dad Vails are the championships of the season. Dad Vail is the largest collegiate regatta in the country and serves as the pinnacle of the season for programs and schools not large enough to support teams capable of competing nationally against the larger programs.
As a qualifier, the top varsity, IRA eligible school will be awarded the single available bid. IRA eligible schools can also use a top performance in Philadelphia to support an At Large bid argument.
Among the favorites in Philadelphia this weekend to contend for that single automatic bid are the perennial Philadelphia rowing powerhouse programs, including, St. Joe's, Temple, and Drexel University.
St. Joe's has not won a Dad Vail championship since 1970. After finishing second to Drexel last year, the Philadelphia based university that rows from a boathouse right on the Schuylkill River, has gone undefeated this season and are in a good position to lock down the IRA bid.
Thnik you have a handle on which teams will win? Take your shot and test your knowledge with the Row2K 2018 Conference Championships Pick'em.
Latest Poll Results
Final EARC Heavy men's seeding poll
Final EARC Light men's seeding poll
USRowing Collegiate Poll