Fall races are a curious beast in college rowing: it is "just the fall," of course--the NCAAs and IRAs are many erg-test and seat-race filled months hence--but they are, well, races . . . and we all know what happens when you put boats on the water, start the clock, and start keeping track of who is fastest.
The Princeton Chase fits neatly into that conundrum: there is a severe concentration of some of the top college crews in the country, racing a relatively straight course where they can really show their speed. At the same time, the Chase remains just a "chance to break your training up" as Princeton head coach Greg Hughes puts it, and the races that really count might be built on the foundations of the speed the crews have in late October, or they might not.
As Hughes, whose Tiger heavies rowed away cleanly to keep the top spot, pointed out, "We've had good results like this in the fall [before], and in the spring time, they mean nothing. So I'm going to look at it that way: we're going to get back to work and see what we can do in the spring."
For the Princeton heavies, the Chase worked out better than the Charles--where their 2010 crash had the young boat starting pretty far back--and they beat two crews that eluded them in Boston: Cornell and BU. "We learned a lot in Boston," Hughes said, "and put it to good use this week." Indeed, despite coming off a late-Sunday return from Boston and a week of mid-terms, the Tigers got away early from the Cornell-Navy-Syracuse dogfight for second.
Taking second place, Cornell had what coach Todd Kennett called a "solid performance," but the Big Red missed a chance to really get after Princeton by getting tangled up with Syracuse: "we were trying to pass a boat and didn't do a very good job of it," Kennett said. "The boat ahead of us was doing a really good job of holding us off and that really hurt our speed and our rhythm."
The women's field featured the last two NCAA champions--Brown and Virginia--and the last two programs to win the varsity eight final at NCAAs--Princeton and Yale--so even with the West Coast contenders busy racing each other 3000 miles away this weekend, this was a notable collection of champions. Virginia, of course, came in fresh off a victory at the Head of the Charles last week, where they had passed Princeton for the win, but coach Kevin Sauer knew that was no guarantee of success: "Princeton is dangerous anywhere, and on Lake Carnegie, they're even more dangerous. I told [the crew]: they are going to make some changes, they're going to be faster, they're going to respond--just like [we] would."
Out on the course, Princeton did keep Virginia from passing them outright--and narrowed a lot of the gap--but could not keep Virginia from setting the best time. "I was pleased that we could close on them, on their water, while they were going after it," Sauer said afterwards. "Obviously, we showed more speed than [Princeton] last week, but those kinds of things can change in one week." Sauer's advice to his crew? "You've got to be honest with yourselves. I'm not going to change [the crew] and I'm going to trust that you're going to respond with the boat you have…and I thought they did a pretty good job: Princeton rowed a great race and really went after it, and we hung with them."
Sauer addressed the "meaning" of fall racing, if there is one, pretty directly: "fall racing shows what could happen, but it does not say what is going to happen." To build on this, Sauer said, the team needs to work on one thing: "Get better every day." "If the coaches, coxswains and rowers can get better every day, then we'll be in the hunt," Sauer said, "We'll just be 'in' the hunt, but that's all we can ask for."
The light men's race at the Chase features all the heavy-hitters in US men's lightweight rowing and, like the women's race, it played out just like the Charles, minus the US National team: Harvard ahead of Princeton and the surprisingly resurgent Georgetown lights. Yet, as Harvard coach Charley Butt was quick to point, consistency is nice, but not necessarily predictive for the spring.
"It's nice to win, of course," said Butt, "and it's nice to know that we have good speed over three miles. We've done it two weeks in a row, which is nice for consistency, so I think it's for real--but the issue [now] is transitioning successfully to 2k from three miles. 2k is an overall different can of worms--so there are more unknowns than knowns right now, and nothing matches the spring for the intensity and the proximity of boats."
For Butt, making the transition to the spring, is going to be about "sustaining the [good] work" they've done in the fall and "not getting complacent." "We all know," said Butt, "that, in other years, the boat on top in the fall can often be the boat off the back in the spring. I think every coach has experienced that, so that's what you have to be aware of, because it is easy to think this is how it is [going to be] but there's nothing that matches a 2k side-by-side."
While the coaches were drawing their very tempered "fall racing" conclusions from the eights races, the small boats and freshmen took the course. A big part of the "break your training up" ethos of the Chase is the chance to race twice, in a four or an even smaller boat that may (or, more likely) may not have had much time together. "The small boats are a little bit hit or miss," said Princeton's Hughes, noting that they don't row the combinations much and admitting, with a wry grin, "It looks like we 'missed' a little bit more than 'hit' today--but the fall is all about getting the guys out to race as much as possible."
A case in point was the Cornell heavy four that won out, with what Kennett called a "wicked good run," but which had not rowed at all in a coxed four before today--and only had a few training sessions in straight fours. All the fours races went to folks from the programs that took first or second in the eights, with Harvard's lights taking a second win and Princeton's women prevailing in the fours--which UVA skipped--and the freshmen races went the way of the top programs as well: Virginia winning the women's event and Princeton taking the top spots in the freshmen race with the heavy and light frosh going 1-2.
In the smaller boats, Princeton men snapped up the pair and double, while Duke's women capitalized on the time they spend sculling--and the U23 team quad veterans on their roster--by winning both the single and double. The Cornell women won the pair, again--for the fourth straight year--and took second place, too, for good measure.
Notes from the Lake
So, yeah: it snowed a bit this year, as you may have heard. row2k's random poll of the boatmen on-site found that most had not brought shovels from home in anticipation of the unusually early accumulations--so much for being prepared for all things--but a quick run to the Home Depot saved the day in most cases (and what regatta, really, is complete with out at least one trip to the Home Depot?)
The snowy weather was more than just a quirky detail of the event for Brown's women: they lost the sterns of two shells to a falling branch while parked overnight in Princeton. It was not even a particularly big branch, but falling from sixty feet up, it did the trick. Fortunately, Brown was still able to able to race in the shells that escaped the blow and some borrowed boats.
With all the crews from each squad racing a single event, the Chase also become a chance to look at--and showcase--the team's depth: "To have more than one eight finish at the top of their group [means] we're doing a little bit of a better job getting the depth of the team ready," said Hughes, who had the top 1V and 2V on the heavyweight side. For some deeper depth, how about Navy? The Midshipmen put three eights in the top 15: in addition to the 3rd fastest 1V on the water, they had the 2nd fastest 2V, the top 3V--both of which finished ahead off a few first eights--and a 4V that knocked off every other 3V except their fellow midshipmen and Cornell.
The Chase gave everyone another peek at the new look Holy Cross blades: a purple version of the Cornell's famous curved chevron. The Crusaders have been racing with the blades all fall, which are a return to the original blade design that dates back to the founding of the team about 50 years ago. The blades drew a few double-takes from Cornell alums but perhaps they can take comfort in the confession of one Holy Cross coach: "Man, that design is tough to paint."
The Princeton Marching band, orange plaid and all, made their annual visit the Chase, playing for the crowds at the parents' tents and making at least one coach's pre-race talk look--and sound--like he was running a time-out huddle on a basketball court. Perhaps this is why rowing, generally, doesn't have band accompaniment.
Truth in (fall) advertising: the Harvard lightweights may race as "H150s" in the spring, but their fall racing shirts admitted they were "Harvard 170s" this time of year.
Pre-Chase confidence quote of the day: "Yeah, I'm ready, coach: good things always happen to me when I come to New Jersey."