Highlighting a really intensive weekend of conference championships in 2016 is the 60th edition of the Men's EARC Sprints. The Sprints, which also moonlights as the Ivy League Championships, the eastern supremacy regatta, and a serious pre-IRA speed check, is always a connoisseur's event, and this year's racing on Lake Quinsigamond promises to be no exception.
Full racing schedule here.
The Yale Varsity eight has been absolutely hammering opponents on both coasts this season, save for a two-second margin against Princeton. While Yale coach Steve Gladstone has graciously deferred to a "process," this Yale boat is scary fast, and is undefeated in all racing since the final of the Ladies Plate at Henley early last July, and has taken the Head of the Charles, as well as the San Diego Crew Classic to start the spring.
Princeton has come the closest to Yale this spring, and if the Tigers can find a bit more speed at Worcester, they *could* stand a chance to overtake the Bulldogs.
Behind Yale and Princeton, there is an almighty pile of crews vying for spots in the finals and on the medals dock; if you consider that the 11th-seeded Penn Varsity was only .5 seconds behind third-seeded Harvard in late April (in an admittedly poor race by the Crimson, but nonetheless), you get a sense of just how tight the EARC Heavyweight mid-pack is stacked. Besides a four-seat loss to Princeton, the Harvard V8 has had a strong season, and this with a very young crew.
"We have a bit of a youth movement going on," said Harvard head coach Charley Butt. "In the Varsity, we have five sophomores, two juniors, a senior and a freshman, and in the 2V we have three freshmen, three sophomores, two seniors and a junior. We're looking forward to getting out of exams on Saturday, just in time for the heats on Sunday!"
Similarly, Brown has had a strong spring season (losses to top-seeds Yale, Princeton and Harvard notwithstanding), and will be a team to watch for a medals threat.
"We got beat up pretty early by Yale," said Brown's Paul Cooke. "I think we have a group that's shown some weaknesses and shown some strengths, and we hope to put some races together that will challenge the top competitors, and we'll be doing our best."
Boston University, boasting a large team this year, has again made strides this spring and should also not be counted out for possible finals placements. "We've got five eights, 14 seniors on the team, and we've had some good races this spring," said BU head coach Tom Bohrer.
Given how close all of these top ten or twelve crews are, no one will take the AM heats lightly. With only two crews from each of three heats to advance, there are no "easy" races on Quinsigamond. It's not really even possible to pick the "easy" race out of the three hard heats...would you rather be in Yale/Cornell/Northeastern/Columbia, Princeton/BU/Syracuse/Penn or Harvard/Brown/Dartmouth/Wisconsin with two to go? Me neither.
Team wise, Princeton and Harvard look to the be teams to beat for the Rowe Cup. "We're delighted with the size of our group," said Harvard's Charley Butt, whose team will field five eights at Worcester, and whose 2V is undefeated. "We've had good racing, it's been very close all spring, and we are looking forward to the IRA and to Harvard-Yale." Princeton is fielding a deep team as well, with its 3V and 4V headlining the rankings going into Sprints.
The Yale Lightweights also lead the pack going into Sprints
If it's possible, the EARC Lightweight field is running even tighter than the heavyweight field; the only constant is the team at the top: the Yale Lights, usually close to the top anyways, are poised for center stage at Worcester this Sunday following an undefeated regular season, including their first win at the Harvard-Yale-Princeton tri-meet since 2006. Yale has also taken scalps from the defending national champs Cornell, and finished nearly a length ahead of their closest competitors Columbia a month prior to Sprints, so a betting man might be convinced to go with Yale this weekend.
"Yale are very fast, especially off of the line," said Princeton head coach Marty Crotty. "They have real true raw speed, kind of like 'War Emblem' (a racehorse that made a triple crown bid about a decade ago -- eds.). They go to the front and just keep going; it's a strategy that even my four-year-old would tell you to employ, but nobody has been able to run them down yet!"
As for his own team, Crotty was circumspect. "We're just working on making our boats go as fast as they can, and I hope the guys keep their eyes in the boat."
Columbia, Princeton and Cornell all trail Yale headed into the weekend, but there are just seats in it between these three crews (without forgetting a pretty convincing six-second margin that Columbia put on the Princeton Tigers to open the year).
"Our varsity has put together a great regular season; 11-1 in this league is a real achievement," said Columbia head coach Nich Lee Parker. "The biggest part of this achievement is that the crew is racing without senior Captain Jakub Buczek, who was injured in January. He's remained a leader for the group and that has been critical in seeing some of the younger guys step up to fill that role."
Cornell, ranked fourth going into Sprints, is also not to be overlooked. "Our 24-4 record has some heft going into Sprints, but as the thrill of league championship with medals and podium finishes looms, it brings a lot of excitement and for sure the best out of each athlete and crew," said Cornell head coach Chris Kerber.
Two teams that arrive at Worcester on the ups, and will very likely apply pressure on the top teams towards the finals (and perhaps even the podium), are Penn and Navy. Especially Penn, who after some more or less pedestrian early season results seem to have found some real speed in this last few weeks, will be a team to be reckoned with. For Navy, it's been a case of "almost-but-not-quite," as they've raced the top teams close, but have come up short against all of the teams ranked ahead of them. A squeaker of a win against Harvard, who themselves are uncharacteristically seeded out of the Grand Final going into the weekend, has been Navy's best result this spring.
Harvard's trials may have to do with lacking experience in the crew. "We have a lot of young guys in the boat; our Varsity has one junior, and the rest are freshmen and sophomores," said Harvard lightweight coach Michiel Bartman. "We have a lot of depth, but we are still working on finding the right groove. The season has been a little bit rocky."
"Naturally, Yale looks very strong with an undefeated regular season and some impressive physiology," said Columbia's Parker. "I believe that Princeton has really improved since our early season race and they are another team in the hunt this weekend. The league is historically known for having a great deal of parity, and although we haven't seen as much of it the last few years, I see a number of potential upsets possible this weekend. The regular season only carries its weight through the heat and the lane assignments, after that, all bets are off."
The award formerly known as the Men's Freshman Eight trophy
R.I.P. FRESHMAN EVENTS, LONG LIVE THE 3V!
The 60th EARC Sprints will also be the first Sprints without freshmen events; as part of the general movement to eliminate freshman racing across men's collegiate rowing, the 3rd Varsity event will henceforth replace the Freshman event for heavies and lightweights at Sprints. (The move was made official as Harvard's Charley Butt turned in the Worcester Bowl trophy during the EARC Sprints press luncheon during the week before the Sprints; formerly the MF8 award, the trophy will now be used for the M3V).
"It hasn't impacted the numbers at the regatta at all," said Gary Caldwell, USRowing's Commissioner of Collegiate Rowing. "We have 18 Varsity Eights, 18 2Vs and 16 3Vs, so the elimination of the Freshman events has not had an effect on overall regatta size."
The EARC coaches seem OK with this change. "There are two sides to this coin. We see freshmen learning and developing at a faster rate, but sometimes that's not always the best for them or their longevity in the sport," said Columbia lightweight coach Nich Lee Parker. "I think that if we as coaches can continue to do a good job of providing a freshmen experience that mitigates the typically higher stress of varsity level racing, we will see that this is an overall positive."
The biggest tangible change, it seems, is that very few of the top EARC schools have walk-ons coming out for crew these days; an informal poll of coaches showed only a handful of walk-on athletes represented in crews from the likes of Harvard, BU, NU or MIT. Gone are the days, it seems, when you might find your 6-seat in line at the dining hall.