The D1 racing at the 2012 NCAAs delivered everything that this year of close racing, and the kind of big upsets that make for even tighter polling, seemed to promise--all served on a platter of dramatic, booming thunder that brought things to a 90 minute halt midway through the 2V8 racing, but then gave way to flat, fair water that let the crews do the deciding out on the course.
With eight programs having a shot at medals across the three events, three teams--Cal, Princeton, Virginia--sitting on the sweet hand of three Grand Final spots each, and two teams--Michigan and Ohio State--with the two boats they did put through capable of winning outright to trump the folks with all three crews through, the stage was set for enough epic racing to make a pretty good case that the points trophy the NCAA regatta revolves around makes for some pretty darn exciting spectating.
The tale of the tally in the points race this year proved--yet again--just as exciting, and tight, as the racing on the course: after the fours, Ohio State was your leader, with Virginia in second; after the 2V, Ohio State was still ahead, Cal had gone into second, three points up on Virginia, with Princeton and Michigan just one further point back apiece. Ohio State bowed out of the race with a fourth place showing in the V8 Petite that effectively locked up fifth overall for the Buckeyes. As the Grand lined up, Cal was now in the best spot to win it, but only had a 3 point--or one place--margin to play with. There were four schools on the line still very much alive, all racing against a USC boat out of the hunt but very capable of of a V8 win. For the title, we could have had: Virginia, with any spot ahead of ALL other three, so basically, a win outright (barring, of course, any first place heroics by USC or Washington)
(The 1V win/Team win double is a bit of a rarity the past 7 years or so, by the way: pre-2006, 8 of 9 V8 winners won the team championship as well, but since 2006 it has only happened twice: today and in 2009, with Stanford)
In the end, though, Virginia's seasoned crew made all the math simple, with an elegant but aggressive piece that was just flat out faster than anything the rest of the boats could muster, even at their best. Virginia got their bow ahead for good in the early going, and the only drama left in it after they started to pull away near the 1000m mark was the wondering when they would break to full open water (the third 500 or thereabouts) and how much they would put into the field before the line (a deck or so).
That second thousand was the key to Virginia's win. "They were able to get away a little bit in that second thousand," said Head Coach Kevin Sauer, "and they did a great job with that." This UVA crew did have one mark against them this year, their double losses at the San Diego Crew Classic to USC, but otherwise the crew has dominated their opponents. "In every race, since the beginning of April, when this boat was put together, people may stay with them but, in the second thousand, they do a really good job," Sauer said, adding that, "I told them that might not happen today; you might have to fight for every inch of your life all the way down the course."
Fight Virginia did, locking things up with that second half acceleration to drop the field, but the real work for the team title, according to Associate Head Coach Steve Pritzker, had been done on Saturday in the semis: "We thought that Saturday, heading into the semis, that was going to be the real opportunity for the team championship." Putting all three boats through to the finals, including a 2V that had an up and down season, was the crux of their win here today. "[The 2V] getting into the final was the key, and we knew that," admitted Pritzker. "Some other things could go our way, but we knew that was the major points differential."
Michigan, who launched themselves back into the very top of the polls this year with a late March win over Princeton and Brown just a few miles to the northwest of Mercer Lake, rallied here in the final here to go after Virginia, and looked to be the only crew with any kind of answer for the Cavaliers. The Wolverines, in just their first trip back to the Grand Final since 2004, equaled their best-ever finish on the strength of their top two eights: second in the 1V8 and an emphatic, Hulk-smash win in the 2V8, put them ahead of a few teams that had bettered them in the fours racing, and earned them second place as a team even without sending all three crews to the Grand.
"We had a great regatta," said Michigan head coach Mark Rothstein. "We rowed our best and just came up a little short, but certainly very proud of our team and our finish." Michigan had faced off with Virginia in the dual season, and lost, so Rothstein knew what he was up against in UVA: "They're a great crew. They're aggressive and they're tough, and they're just fast. We knew we would have to have our best race to have a chance to beat them, and I think we did have our best race--they were better today."
USC's varsity eight--the pace boat for the Women of Troy all year--led the rest of the contenders to take third, and--like Michigan--matched their best-ever finish (USC came 3rd in 2007 as well).
Princeton took fourth, landing the Tigers on the podium as a team again here in 2012 (the NCAA podium has four spots), as Princeton matched their fourth place showing from a year ago. Last year, of course, the Tiger's 1V8 win paced the team; today's hardware grab was a full team effort. Princeton coach Lori Dauphiny said afterwards: "We were very excited to have all three boats in the grand finals. The team stepped up and got the job done. They raced well and with heart."
That fourth place finish by the V8 did take some heart, because, according to Dauphiny, the varsity had not rowed in their final line-up before the heats. "The adjustment was challenging," she said, "but they did a great job responding and making it work. The boat was improving race by race."
Just a spot behind Princeton in the 1V8, and a spot ahead of the Tigers as a team was Cal, taking third for the second year in a row--which makes Cal five-for-five on "top three" finishes since 2008. That is surely some sustained excellence from Coach Dave O'Neill and his Golden Bears.
"Based on where we were a few months ago," O'Neill reflected later, "you could say our team overachieved, so we have to be happy with third. But there is some disappointment. Even though we were ranked number one coming in, we never viewed ourselves as favorites, but, of course, we thought we had a chance. Credit to Virginia for getting it done, especially in the varsity eight."
Cal's 1V did have the points behind them to win the Bear's third team title, thanks to third place rows from both the 2V8 and V4, but O'Neill admitted "They simply got beat by some faster crews, [though] they gave it a good fight." Their approach, he said was to be "focused on themselves today, and they gave it their best."
Rounding out the Grand Final were the Huskies of Washington, who rowed their shell, "The Hunter," in the hunt for as long as they could. The Huskies' run into the final this year--up from 11th place last year--put the PAC-12 on the lead as the top conference today: three PAC-12 schools in the Grand Final, and UCLA and Stanford taking the top two spots in the V8 Petite, makes for another strong year from the West Coasters, and an improvement of 2011's conference finishes for sure.
Behind UCLA's 1V8--a bit of a revelation here in their best finish to date--and the Stanford crew in that Petite Final, the rest of the field went Harvard, Ohio State, Cornell, and Yale, while the order of finish in the also-pretty-heated Third Level Final was Wisconsin, Michigan State, Brown, and Notre Dame.
Some quick notes from the rest of the racing:
Second Varsity 8
Michigan didn't waste any time getting back underway once the weather delay ended and the 2V8's got back on the course. In the Grand Final, the Wolverine crew took it out to an open water lead in the first half of the race, leading an otherwise very tight pack down the course, and never gave up the lead, despite a late charge from Ohio State. The Buckeyes, who had lingered as far back as fifth in the first 1500 meters before charging to honk through in second place, were no doubt hoping to stake their team to even more points with a second win to go with a victory in the Fours racing, but the measure that Michigan took in the early going was simply too much. Cal was third, Princeton fourth, and Virginia came in fifth.
"They've struggled this year," said UVA's Sauer, of his 2V8. "So them getting into the final was huge, to be able to come fifth was huge--it made a huge difference in what we were able to do [as a team]."
Midway through the 2V Grand, UCLA was very much in the mix, and no surprise: this crew lead the Bruins all year. Here, though, a disastrous crab at about the 1000 meter mark dropped them out of the pack entirely, and even though they raced hard after getting themselves back underway, sixth was all they could manage. It is not hard to imagine that a lot of team points swung in the balance of that bobble by UCLA: on points, the Bruins would wind up tied for seventh (and get eighth, the V8 tie-breaker going to Washington), so even one place higher here would have helped UCLA to a better finish as a team--and possibly affected the accounting for Virginia as well.
Ohio State won their first-ever NCAA individual event in rowing with a come-from-behind win over a bold Virginia crew that had sprinted almost to the 400 meter mark before settling into a base cadence; Virginia's tactic looked incredibly promising for a very long time down the course, but once Ohio State could claw themselves back on terms, Virginia had nothing more to give. Ohio State crossed the line a solid half-length up and moving--this was the result that put the Buckeyes in the early lead for the team trophy. Virginia gamely sprinted with Ohio State, to stay a strong second, six seconds clear of Cal in third, followed by Yale, Princeton, and Washington.
"Winning the four was exciting," said Ohio State coach Andy Teitelbaum. "Coming in we obviously had high hopes for that boat. I think maybe the committee had them as the three seed, but we were pretty confident that they had the speed to take home the gold--and it was a fantastic race. With Virginia really laying it down for 1500 meters, it was everything we could do to stay with them and, fortunately for us, I think that tempo was a little bit much for them, and we had what it took to come back and through them."
Final Team Points & Trophies: