Going into the 2011 EARC Sprints, the heavyweight crews from Harvard are at the top of the polls and the early favorites, but not by much...racing in the east has been fierce and close all season.
The Harvard Varsity is riding an undefeated regular season into Sprints, but the margins have been far from comfortable; the Crimson V8 was less than a length ahead of Brown in the second week of the season, and had to come from behind to defeat a very game Princeton crew by 3 seats.
"We have been very pleased with the progress of our crews this Spring," said Harvard coach Harry Parker. "They have trained hard and raced very well to date and I think they will be well prepared for the Sprints."
The darkhorse contender coming into Sprints with a full head of steam is Wisconsin, who have beaten every east coast crew they have faced this season (including a manic 4:37 2000 meter piece on the Connecticut River at Dartmouth), and also came within a second of Cal/Berkeley at the Stanford Invitational.
That said, Wisconsin's wins haven't been easy either: the Wisconsin/BU dual came down to .3 seconds on the Charles, indicating that no one is fully clear of anyone at the top of the field.
The Princeton Heavies seem to be fully out of a few years of the doldrums, and are ranked third. The Tigers lone loss this year was to Harvard, as mentioned above, and they look to be running for the medals at Worcester.
"We've had some close races this spring and there's no question that it has helped our crews improve how they execute under pressure," said Princeton head coach Greg Hughes. "I'm sure it is the same for the other schools around the league. Experience like that is extremely valuable and I hope that we can put that experience to use at the Sprints."
Although they have not raced each other directly this season, the BU heavies are close behind Princeton in the final seedings, and this should make for a very entertaining #3 vs. #4 matchup in Sunday's heat. BU has raced very well this season and also looks poised to make a run at the medals at Sprints.
BU's performance has definitely caught the attention of the league. "I have been very impressed with BU's peformance this season," said Harvard's Parker, among several EARC coaches to give a nod to BU's speed.
After the four top-seeded crews, things don't exactly get much easier in the field. Brown, Syracuse, Cornell, Navy, Yale and Dartmouth round out the top 10, but any of these 10 crews could realistically make the Grand Final.
"The Sprints heats and finals are raced over 2000 meters, but more often than not they're decided over the course of a much shorter amount of time," said Dartmouth's Topher Bourdeau. "You need to be in it to have a chance, but the way crews execute the critical moment--whether it's a start, move, or sprint--is usually the differentiating factor between those who go home happy and those who just go home."
In the JV8, the top three seeds mirror the V8, with Harvard (undefeated) Wisconsin and Princeton atop the final poll. The margins from one to three seem a bit larger, with Harvard 10 seconds ahead of Princeton in mid-April, but margins typically tighten up by Sprints. Navy, Brown, BU, Syracuse and Cornell make up the remainder of the crews nominally with a shot at the final.
"I think the intense regular season racing just gives you a sense of purpose," said Syracuse head coach Dave Reischmann. "Every time you go to the line you have to be prepared to go bow ball to bow ball for 2000m. That creates an awareness at practice that you have to make every stroke count because that is how the racing is going to be on the weekend."
On down the racing program, it would appear to be Harvard's regatta to lose; all told, the Crimson are ranked first in four of the five seeded heavyweight events. The Harvard frosh are undefeated, like their Varsity and JV, but the Crimson received a scare late-season from Northeastern, hanging on to win by one second. The Freshman Eight is once again tight among the top five crews, with Harvard, Princeton, BU, Northeastern and Navy all within two lengths or so on regular season results.
Then again, regular season result go out the window when you line up six-wide on Quinsigamond in May. As Yale's Steve Gladstone, in his inaugural year back in the EARC, puts it succinctly: "Regarding the parity in the league and tight racing, I'm not sure that it offers any specific advantages as we move into the championship section. In my opinion emotional energy is not a limitless commodity."