The epic battle in the varsity eight reminded us all why a six boat V8 final is one of the great moments in our sport. Here at NCAAs, if just maybe winning a hot boat race was (somehow) not enough motivation, the points race again made sure there was drama in every lane, and implications with each lead change.
Coming in to the final, Brown needed to finish at least two spots ahead of Cal and beat Stanford to take the title. Brown got both jobs done with a courageous sprint that won them both the tie with Stanford on points and the tie-breaker over the Cardinal.
“What a cliffhanger,” said stunned Brown head coach John Murphy, “I’m a little bit in shock, to say the least.” The sudden, but hard won, change in fortune give Murphy and Brown a seventh title. Murphy, who coaches the team with his wife Phoebe, could not say if this was the most dramatic of the seven, but instead laughed, “they’ve all been greatly appreciated, and hard-fought.”
Princeton’s undefeated V8 had one last win in them here, but the Tigers earned this one using every gear. After a season in which they could take a length off pretty much anyone, seemingly at will, Princeton never led by more than half a length here, and even trailed briefly. This is Princeton’s second time atop the DI eights field and if the final was not so dominating as their 2006 effort, the regular season, Lori Dauphiny‘s fifth (at least) without a single loss, certainly was.
When asked how she counseled her eight before the race, Dauphiny said, “I told them that we had had a really great season and had some good races; that they knew how to race; that they needed to race their own race and execute it well; that there would be a few key times that they would have to respond to what was going on in the field, but that ultimately they needed to stick to their plan and do it well.”
Dauphiny added that she was incredibly proud of her whole team, which took fourth for the second year in a row. “I think it is really important to recognize the four and the 2V eight,” she said, “because they are what produced this top eight. I am glad that they were all recognized [here], as a team.”
Behind Princeton, Cal made an early, gutsy go of it, gambling everything on a blazing first thousand, right on the Tigers’ tail. Cal’s efforts actually put them a seat up on Princeton in the third 500--pretty much the only time Princeton trailed anyone all year--but Princeton responded like champions to punch back ahead.
Cal coach Dave O’Neill praised his V8: “they went for it,” he said simply. “I give them a ton of credit: they did everything a coach could hope for. They‘re not the most powerful crew, but they‘ve got a lot of guts and a lot of toughness.“ The crew, he noted, made some great progress during the week, before taking fourth in the final: “On Friday, they had a ‘B’ effort: they didn’t race hard ; they weren’t even sharp. So they got a little bit better on Saturday, but they admitted that the were a little bit nervous: they didn’t want to have a bad effort.” It all came together today for Cal, but even their best race came a bit short in the final strokes.
Just as Cal was taking its short-lived run on the lead, Brown was pushing through USC, hard charging on a move that carried them right through Cal as well. Brown owned the third 500 to seize second place, but it was no easy task to stay there with the head of steam Stanford was building in lane 2.
And it was some serious momentum Stanford had, moving relentlessly through Cal to challenge Brown right to the line. Stanford looked to be a bit off the pace in the first 1000 meters, getting off the line in last place and still only in fourth across the 1000, but this is a patient, experienced Cardinal crew. Stanford’s pedigree is beyond impressive: not one but two very successful US Olympians, Elle Logan and Lindsey Meyer, plus a U23 champ in Grace Luzcak. Those racing chops were on full display as Stanford methodically worked through the field, and only a desperate “we could win this whole thing” effort by Brown held Stanford at bay.
Coach Murphy said his athletes came into the day feeling "that they had a shot” at the title: “We knew what the competition was here, and it’s amazing, but they felt they could get in there and hold their own, and have a chance.” If there has been one constant, besides sheer excellence, at Brown during the Murphys’ tenure, it has certainly been the tenacity of the Brown crews, and it served them well here today.
That final margin from Brown to Stanford was just 0.05 seconds--essentially a sliver's worth of bow ball--and that was the margin in the team race as well. Only one place, and one point, separated Brown and Stanford in the four’s racing and, in the 2V, another one place, worth 2 points, for a total of 3 points. With each place in the V8 worth 3 points, any one spot ahead of Stanford would give Brown an edge in points and the tie-breaker of a higher V8 finish.
“Hats off to Brown,” said Stanford skipper Yaz Farooq. “It takes three boats to win, and they snuck up in all three classes; what an incredible effort.” Farooq added her congratulations to Princeton, “They proved they were the fastest team this year. It’s hard to win every race in the season, and at the NCAAs, and win at the end, so congratulations to them as Varsity Eight champions."
As for her own crew, Farooq said, “We always know the Varsity Eights race here is going to be a smoker. We knew we were strong sprinters, but we tried to get a little more in the race, earlier, so it wouldn’t come down to five-hundredths, but it did.” “I am really proud to be in the NCAA,” she added, “because we know that every year at this regatta it’s going to be tight and it does come down to those final strokes so many times.”
Cal, of course, was still in it to win the team title right until the final strokes of the V8: after all, the Bears had the points lead after the first two events. Cal had a 4 point advantage on Brown, being just one 2V spot behind and finishing fully 6 spots ahead in the four by winning the Grand over Brown’s Petite final placing. The Bears’ margin over Stanford was slimmer, just 1 point after the 2V race, but any one place in the V8 race either ahead of Stanford and Brown, or right behind Brown, would have given Cal their third NCAA crown.
With all of that math dancing in the heads of the coaches, and pundits, clustering near the finish line, every change in the order of three crews behind Princeton in the last 30 strokes hinted at a different winner. When Brown was running second, with Cal still in third, it looked to be the Bears to win; when Stanford took over third, it was Bruno’s title, unless of course Stanford completed their charge into second, in which case Stanford would, quite literally, have swiped the prize away.
In the end, the order of finish was exactly what Brown needed to win one of the more remarkable points races and Bruno, who lost the 2006 championship to Cal in a close 2-3 finish (behind the only other Princeton V8 to win, no less), had a measure of redemption to go along with their seventh title. They also outlasted, and outraced, the three schools who started the day with that “inside track” of three Grand Finalist boats, largely by stepping up in the big eights where it counts the most.
Each race today had points implications amongst the four schools making a run at the title, starting straight off in the Fours Petite. Just the second race of the DI program on the day, this was the race where Brown’s four nudged the door open for the eventual team championship. By winning the Petite, coming through from back in the field no less, the four gave Brown the most possible point they could get from the one crew to miss the Grand.
Stanford’s four left that door open by the slightest of margins by fading to sixth in the Grand Final. Not only did this leave Brown trailing Stanford by just 1 point, but Stanford finished just a hair out of being as high as fourth when both Washington and Wisconsin nipped them at the line. In the process, and by just three-tenths of a second, the Huskies and Badgers had taken away a crucial points the Cardinal sorely missed in the final tally. That said, Stanford’s four just by making the Grand after a dismal PAC-10s and lackluster season, had a remarkable run not just in the regatta as a whole, but even in this race. This newly-redeemed quartet actually made quite a stab at running in the medals in the final, so any points they left out on the course were not for lack of effort or determination to make as much noise as possible for their team mates in the eights.
Ahead of all that, Cal’s four, so often a second or third place in this event, took out the one Virginia crew that seemed on track to defend in 2011. Remarkably Cal’s victory in the four was just the Bear’s second individual event title ever, and their first in the four. All of the Bear’s team titles have been cobbled together out of seconds and thirds, which is quite the testament to the depth of coach Dave O’Neill’s squad, and the consistency with which they race.
Coach O‘Neill admitted he had to look up just how many seconds and thirds the Bears have racked up over the years, but said, “I’ll take that as a matter of 'we get the right people in the right seats' and we get the varsity right.” He was visibly proud of his squads effort: “This, in many respects, could be the deepest, best team we’ve ever had, and I think it just shows what the quality of NCAA women’s rowing has turned into.” He admitted being, like most coaches “super impressed” with what John and Phoebe Murphy have done with Brown yet again this year: “huge credit to Brown,” he said, “for doing everything they needed to do.”
USC’s four took third behind these two, which was the best Trojan finish in the four since winning it as an at-large four in 1997, a year when they did not get a varsity eight bid. After the four's final, USC looked to be right in the points mix, ahead of both Stanford and Brown at that point, with what may have been the weakest boat in their fleet, given the way the Women of Troy qualified in their eights.
It is pretty hard to say which event had the most impact on the points race, but the 2V was decisive for both USC and Brown. For USC, who ran in sixth the whole way, clearly off the back of the field, the 2V effectively ended any chance of a title. USC was now well out of the picture with anything short of an outright win in the V8, a result USC might well have been capable of on any other day, given the way they won the Crew Classic to start the season, but not here when it mattered most.
Instead, the 2V final saw Stanford, Brown and Cal cementing their spots in points race, with Stanford and Brown essentially turning the six boat race into a dual. Each crew had marched through the draw over the weekend looking like the crew to beat, and when they finally matched up here in the final, they put on a great battle. Stanford got the advantage they needed for the win by launching out to a 6 seat lead right off the line, but they only went wire-to-wire by first fighting off every charge Bruno could mount. Cal, meanwhile, got into a tussle of their own with the Ohio State 2V, but once they put the Buckeyes away and locked up the bronze medal spot, Cal was heading into the final event with a defensible points lead.
No team has taken the top NCAA prize as often as Brown, now champion seven times in the 15 year history of the NCAA era. Brown has won both by dominating the whole season and, as they did here, by weathering a rough start to nail it, just right, in the midst of some incredibly tight racing. “What John and Phoebe Murphy do . . . that’s a mystery to a lot of coaches,” Dave O’Neill observed. Mystery, perhaps, but certainly not ever surprising to see Bruno bear down and win it all.