Trinity novice 8 cox toss...and rower fall.
Spring came late, but it finally arrived in Massachusetts this weekend, at least above the water line - though the sun was shining, and the air was warm, ask any of the coxswains tossed into the freshly melted Lake Quinsigamond and they'll let you know it hasn't been like this for long. From a late thaw to ice-melt flooding, high winds, and sustained winter temperatures until recently, most of the crews at the New England Rowing Championships (NERC) had only been on the water about a month, if not only a few short weeks. The shortened regular season meant crews were making vast improvements from one week to the next, and many showed up at NERCs not knowing what to expect from their opponents.
There is something special about the first championship weekend of the spring. For freshman and novices it's a novelty: the crowds, awards dock…and well, backing into stake boats. For seniors, it marks the beginning of the end. After a season of quiet duel races and small regattas, with no more than a handful of parents huddled under an umbrella to watch, the excitement of the day is palpable, especially on a day as beautiful as this one.
The women's varsity race was one of the most anticipated of the day; the Williams College women who had an impressive 7 year streak winning at NERCs had been defeated during the regular season, something that hadn't happened in nearly as many years. During the season, rankings changed weekly after crews continued to become more competitive with one another—and when the day was done, Trinity came out on top.
Edging out Bates by 2 seconds and Williams by 5, the Trinity women had a strong performance to capture the trophy they have not held since 2008. Stroke seat Jillian Zieff attributed their win to the extra work they put in during the season. "It's the extra workout, deciding to stay-in and study—all those little things add up to success," she said.
"We got on the course to have our race, to do our thing," said Rose Lichtenfels. "For the last four years we have been building as a team—we're not a team that places in the same spot every year and we just keep looking forward."
The Bantam novice 8 also took the win, demonstrating the depth of the Trinity program and setting the stage for continued success.
"We've been doing a lot of work with the varsity and that's been important for our team--to be strong across the board and not just one boat; having that expectation raises the bar for everyone," said novice coxswain Maura Griffith.
The novice women all agreed that they were optimistic, yet nervous for their first grand final at NERCs.
"We went into the race cautiously confident," said 7-seat Hillary Vossler. "We hadn't raced Williams yet, but we knew we had similar times as them, and after the heat we felt good. Coming into the race were nervous, but once we realized we could walk through the field we knew we could do it,"
"I never doubted them for a stroke," added Griffith. "As a coxswain I put that encouraging face on, but there are days when you go out and pretend to believe it, and there are days you really believe it, and today was one of those days."
Though they were nipped out of the gold in the varsity race, the Bates women had a very strong showing, bringing home two wins in the second and third varsity eights, as well as in the novice four.
"Our heat went pretty well and we were out ahead early on," said third varsity coxswain Clare Jessup. "In the second race we were a little more nervous because we haven’t had close races this year, but we really wanted to win and we wanted to put it all out there and we did it."
The second varsity crew had a decisive 9 second win, yet were cautious until the last stroke, wondering if other crews would be able to blow past them in the sprint.
"Even in the last 250, I wasn't sure we had the win," said stroke seat Ainsley Fahey. "All the teams we were racing have great sprints so it didn't hit us until we crossed the finish line."
"I think we go in day-by-day trying to get faster and faster," added coxswain Molly Huffaker. "Our coach encourages us not to just reach a limit or goal, but to go beyond what expect we can do, so I don’t think we have been trying to 'beat people'" we have been trying to get faster and faster on our own."
The novice four race was the first Bates win of the day, and the strong crew is looking forward to more years of success as Bobcats.
"It was a great race; it's great to see the novices race one another and see what the next few years are going to look like. We loved having Bates first followed by Bowdoin, representing Maine," said novice coxswain Abbey Bierman.
The Williams men showed their dominance, winning both the first and second varsity eights.
"We trained all winter and started our spring going down to Myrtle Beach, raced in Philly; Temple got us by a couple seconds which gave us some good motivation to start the season," said 1V stroke and senior co-captain Erick Quay. "A few weeks ago we came down [to Worcester] for the Donahue Cup against MIT and WPI and it was our first really good race of the season, the boat started to coalesce and it's been an upward trajectory since then."
"We got on the water this morning, and it was some of the best strokes we have had all season; a really focused energy," added coxswain Maggie Hughes. "Thirty strokes into the final I looked to my left, to my right and thought 'oh my gosh, we're up on the field,' It gave our whole crew a surge of motivation to walk away in the first thousand."
The second varsity boat had five seniors, including the coxswain, and as their last NERCs, and one of their last collegiate races, it was an especially sweet victory.
"We had a meeting the night before the race, and talked about what we wanted to make happen; there are a lot of seniors in this boat and it’s the beginning of the end for us, so we just wanted to go out and make a statement," said coxswain Andrew Marsh.
"It was just an absolutely perfect race- we took a length in the first 500 meter and had our way the whole piece," added 4-seat Phillip Oung.
"It's all part of the New England's magic—there's so much energy when you line up on the start, and we had one of the most perfect starts I have ever had as a coxswain," added Marsh.
Williams will be back on Quinsigamond next weekend for ECACs.
New Teams Prevail
One of the most exciting parts of any championship regatta is seeing the success of newer programs. Until last year, Wentworth College Crew was a club team, comprised of students from three different schools in the Colleges of the Fenway consortium in Boston. The varsity four took second at NERCs last year, but they face new challenges when they became a varsity team this year and lost many of their teammates that were not Wentworth students.
"Stepping up to varsity this year, we lost a good majority of our team because it was an intercollegiate team," said junior Mike Drollette. "Because we lost those rowers we had trouble getting two fours together this year; we were able to produce two boats that I didn't think we had in us.
"Through the training and teamwork we did much better and pushed passed the Bowdoin boat that beat us last year by .07 seconds. Seeing that Bowoin crew pushed us in the last 500 meters."
Winning the first and second varsity fours was a success not only for the individual crews, but for the whole program. Head coach Katie Lane has been with the team since 2011 and has overseen its growth from a small club team to one that tosses coxswains and receives varsity letters.
"It's a huge milestone for us in that it's put us on the map in more than one way," said Lane. "It's allowed Wentworth to excel in an area of athletics which they hadn’t before and it's helped put us on the map for high school programs that normally wouldn’t look at Wentworth as an option for competitive rowing programs. It was an adjustment year with the new guidelines as a varsity program.
"Winning New England's is something we have been working towards and Dad Vails is our last hurrah of the season; this is a good stepping stone as we look toward next week."
After capturing the gold in the novice men's 8, silver in the second varsity 4 and bronze in the varsity 8, Boston College won the points trophy for the first time since 1997. Fred Gonfiantini and Sean Fanning, senior co-captains, led their team, with their goal in mind, to the victory.
"We feel ecstatic, it was a beautiful performance all around on our team," said Gonfiantini.
"On the first day of the year we talked about winning this points trophy, and there were some days in the winter where it didn't seem like it was going to happen but it really came together today," added Fanning.
Despite the grueling winter, the team kept workouts interesting to make it through to spring without going too crazy.
"This fall we started going to Crossfit a few times a week and mixing up our workouts kept us sane throughout the winte," said Fanning. "Coming into the spring, we didn’t know what was going to happen, but we just stayed positive throughout the winter."
"It's a beautiful way to start the end," said Gonfiantini.
Trinity took home both the women's and combined points trophies.
As one the first of the championship races, the mood was determined at the end of the day — crews that won were heading home to defend the top spot in the coming weeks, and others were already plotting how to get those seconds, the inches back to improve their races in the coming weeks. Everyone knows it's not over 'til it's over, and for many of the crews, there are quite a few more weeks of hard work until they can feel completely defeated, or revel in their victories.