In D2, WWU may have a streak going, but Humboldt State dealt the Vikings one of their first D2 losses in nearly a decade, and the whole D2 field has been getting tighter of late.
In the D3 ranks, Williams did run unscathed through a gauntlet of pretty solid east coast D3 competition, and may be the one sure thing, but 2011 runner-up Bates is still in dogged pursuit, getting within a length at ECACs. Further, a resurgent William Smith is back in the field this year as well.
D1 is where it--might--get really interesting for fresh faces: the D1 field does have at least two V8's that separated themselves from the pack in the late season - and while Virginia is only two years removed from a title, the other hot crew all year--Michigan--is a fresh face, poised to make perhaps their best run at a title since the third place they claimed in 2004 (the Wolverines' last NCAA Grand Final appearance). But remember back to San Diego, where USC topped both Virginia and Cal, but then later lost to Cal at Pac-12s, and you have a bit of a free-for-all in the varsity eights, and beyond.
On the team side, Cal, with three top 3 finishes since 2009, may be a stalwart--and, with UVA and Michigan, brings us to three teams that dominated their regions, and time zones--but add in an Ohio State team that has both its 2V8 and V4 in the top three seeds, a UCLA team with a 2V8 that won the Crew Classic and lost only to Cal all year, and a Washington squad one spot ahead of UCLA in the 1V8 and just 1 spot behind in the other events, and you quickly run to six teams with a shot at scoring a lot of team points. That's without even getting to the Ivy crews, who emerged from the epic sibling rivalry racing in conference this spring with few undefeated crews, but lots of boat speed; one needs only go back 12 months to find an Ivy squad--Brown--who parlayed that kind of season into an all-squad effort to take the title in 2011. For the record, Princeton won the points trophy in the Ivies this year, while Harvard-Radcliffe rode a V8 win to take the Ivy title and top spot in its region, ahead of Yale and defending champ Brown. It is no small thing, by the way, that Brown made the cut for selection this year: Bruno had a rough conference championship, shut out of the medals in both the V8 and Four when they took fifth in each, but as the fifth (and final) selection out of the Ivies, Brown does get a chance to defend their title on the one weekend of the year they generally get things pretty right.
Here's is who to watch in each Division:
Virginia, Michigan, and Cal are, in that order, the top-seeded Varsity eights, and it is hard to imagine the three of them not leading the field when the Final starts on Sunday--though we imagine that the very talented, and only once-beaten USC V8 may be deep in the mix to the end. What those crews will be racing for at that point, though--the NCAA team title--may well have been predetermined by how the racing unfolds in the 2V8 and V4 finals. USC's 2V8 and V4 have not been on par with their top eight, so the Women of Troy likely do not figure in the team accounting. Virginia's 1V8 and V4 might well be second to none on a good day, but the Hoos' title bid almost certainly hinges on their 2V, which has struggled mightily at times this season, but still has both the depth and talent to shore up their team's run with a good showing. Michigan's 2V is solid, and owns a win over Virginia, but the Wolverine's V4 could be the weak link, with losses to UVA, Wisconsin, and Yale. Cal's team is quick across the board, and owns the top seed in both the 2V8 and V4 after winning all three NCAA events at PAC-12s even against some stiff lower boat competition. The question with the Bears might be whether they can win a title on the strength of the two lower boats taking wins before the V8's take the course. If, indeed, the stars are aligning for an interesting team race, then any of these four teams could will get all three of its crews into the Grand Finals as well, and thrust themselves into the team points hunt: Ohio State, with two 3-seeded crews, the 2V and V4; UCLA, whose 2V had a stellar season and could arguably be right behind Cal's; Princeton, who may not have the 1V speed of a year ago, but won the Ivy team title with perhaps the deepest Tiger squad in a long time; and Washington, who was third in the PAC-12 team race, but a few good races from that deep squad could see three Husky crews through to the Finals, and into the team title chase.
This Division has been Western Washington's domain for seven straight years, and the Vikings will be headed for their eight straight title this year, unless of course this year's regular season can repeat itself: the Vikings dropped the V8 final at NCRC's by a length to the Humboldt State varsity that won the DII/DIII event at the Crew Classic. At WIRAs, Western Washington reversed that margin almost exactly, but this is as much intrigue as this event as seen in some time, and with D2 tightening up out east and newcomer Central Oklahoma making their debut at the 2012 Championships, the D2 Championship may be as up for grabs it has ever been. Western Washington will have the heft of their history on their side, of course, and the WIRA win over the feisty Humboldt State crew does show them peaking at the right time, but expect to see Mercyhurst--who shook things up in 2010 by winning the V8 over WWU, but with an at large eight that made them ineligible for the team title--and the South Region's powerhouse Nova Southeastern, looking to keep things tight in the final.
Williams is seeded to take it all again, the Eph machine looking to take title number seven, under head coach number four--that's right: Williams' run has continued unabated across a few coaching changes, and Williams is not missing a beat under latest head coach, Kate Maloney. That said, Bates returns as the challenger of record: as close as a length to Williams at the ECACs, Bates fell just 3 points shy last year in the team race, by taking second to Williams in both eights. Chasing Bates, and back in the NCAA field this year, is William Smith from New York, and the Herons have put together an excellent year. Marietta is the only team in the field from west of the New York/New England region; the Pioneers and Puget Sound's At-Large eight will be doing what they can to represent the rest of the country in what has become a very East Coast-centric region, owing to the long traditions of the D3 programs out east and, no doubt, to the pursuit of regional power Williams.