If spring has been arriving slowly but steadily in New England, then the regatta site at the ECAC National Invitational Rowing Championships (NIRC) in Worcester yesterday was a strong reminder that summer is, in fact, on its way. In contrast to the scent of damp, cool air that has hung around for most of this spring, the shores of Lake Quinsigamond were filled with the aromas of sunscreen and barbeque. It was a hot, dry day—perfect for watching racing, if not a bit warm for the athletes.
The field at the NIRC is not very different from last week's New England Rowing Championships (NERC), but the few schools that venture in from out of New England (including Michigan, Hobart, Ithaca and St. Lawrence) are quick enough to mix up the results from the NERC - many boats who had been in last week's grand finals were faced with increasingly difficult heats and were sent to the petites, or even third final level races. In fact, two of the men's varsity 8 medalists from the NERC, WPI and BC (second and third, respectively), raced against one another in the varsity 8 petite final.
Hobart Men Make History
The beach that overlooks the last 250m or so was packed all day with parents, friends, alumni and teammates cheering on as their teams approached the finish line. Worcester's angled course made some of the close finishes difficult to interpret, and spectators waited with bated breath for the announcement of the winning crews. One of the most exciting races of the afternoon was the final men's varsity 8 race, when the Hobart men threw down an impressive sprint to beat 2013 winners Michigan by a half second for their first ECAC win in program history.
The men were elated; as they celebrated their victory, they credited a fierce sprint and their coach, Paul Bugenhagen on their success.
"We had anticipated coming into this event being down on Michigan going into the last 250," said stroke seat Joe Biesemeyer. "We anticipated 3 seats and it turned out to be 6 or 7. We always knew we could bank on our sprint and that's what we did today.
"My first year here we had six first years in the varsity 8, now we have all juniors and sophomores in the boat—we're a young team and we're definitely on an upswing. This is going to be our first year at the IRA in a very long time and we're looking forward to it," he added.
Coach Paul Bugenhagen, who started at Hobart three years ago, accepted his second ECAC Coach of the Year award after being tossed into the lake by his crew.
"Paul Bugengagen is the best coach I have ever had; we would be in the same 10th place spot as we were my freshman year without him," said Biesemeyer, definitively.
Bugenhagen spoke highly of his team, in awe of their accomplishments.
"It's been an undefeated season, it's been magical," he said. "The guys have been remarkable all year long; like any good crew they do everything I ask. This is certainly a historic cap to the end of the year for our program. We're going to be going on to the IRA with the entire team.
"We talked about racing the race you're in, not the one you think you're in. We thought of a lot of scenarios, but I think the one we thought of the most was the absolute respect we have for Michigan and Williams, and understanding things about ourselves that we're probably not going to be in from in the first thousand meters," he said. "But they are unbelievably skillful, they have a deep capacity and we talked all week long, that at 600 meters we were going to start moving and we're gonna win it."
The team is excited to take on their first IRA race in many years, and begin to grow the program from a decent program to one that is truly on the map. Although they edged out Michigan for the gold in the 1V, the Michigan 2V, 3V and 4+ all took home wins, bringing the team to the men's points trophy. The UM team was excited, and exhausted after having arrived in Worcester at 2am; they had traveled through the night from Dad Vails in Philadelphia (where their varsity 8 captured the gold) to ECACs.
Bates Women Defeat Rivals
The women's races were no less exciting as the Bates crews swept their entries (winning all women's events except the N8, which they did not enter). The sweep kicked off with the women's 4+ utterly confused that they had won. The race was so close that as the coxswain sat off the awards dock, ready to come in, her face turned to sheer joy (and confusion) when someone yelled out congratulations.
"It was one of the closet races I've ever had," said freshman coxswain Abbey Bierman. "It was us and UNH, it was absolutely unbelievable. I actually told my boat that UNH had it at the end. I said 'I don't know for sure, but I think they had it, but you guys put up a great fight.' When we came into the medal dock, they told us we were first, so that was a nice surprise!"
The 2V and 3V finished their races with more definitive margins, but each time the celebrations were just as sweet. As coach Peter Steenstra came down to the dock, over and over, the Bates crowd on the beach grew more and more excited, but it was the 1V that everyone was waiting for, the boat that had placed second at NERC. As the boat got into sight of the crowd, they were ahead, and the Bates family roared their cheers louder than any at Worcester may have ever heard. Bates, who had placed second many times over the last couple of years, finally finished first, followed by Williams then Trinity. Though these were the top three crews from last week, the order was entirely different, and the energy on the medals dock was electric. There are three weeks until the NCAA championships, and none of the three teams will rest until the final stroke is taken across the course in Indianapolis.
The sweep was significant for Bates, a team that has placed in second in points at the NCAA championships for the past 5 years, and women from each of the boats spoke of the depth of the team, and the intra-squad collaboration that went into accomplishing their goal.
"Our team has worked really hard this year, we were just all crying on the beach," said Emma Conover, the 3V bow seat who was a walk on at Bates last year. "It feels so good to be a part of something so big and that has so much history and a program that has been working for so many years to get to this point."
"We have definitely put in over four years a lot of time, sweat, and energy into this," said senior Taylor Kniffin, 6 seat in the 2V. "We had a lot of alums here today too, so it was really nice being able to share that with them; they're definitely still part of it. The fact that our team is as deep as it is—it's really nice being a senior and graduate knowing the team is going to be just as strong."
Gabriella Bilotta, who coxed the 1V to victory, spoke almost poetically about the race. "Right from the start it was tight, Bates Williams Trinity pretty early on, and it was a dogfight and we raced like it. We came through pushing through the body and slowly walking. It was a slow, steady walk on the other crews, but you just start to believe it more and more as it starts to go down. It's hard to believe it going into it and as you get dead even you start to believe it more and more and you could just feel the confidence build every stroke, like a tidal wave."
More than one of the Bates women commented on the support of their alumni community and the fact that they very much play a role in the strength of the team.
"In this program, it's hard not to remember all the alumni that build this," Bilotta said. "We're a program that's really aware of our foundation; we have phrases and slogans that have been passed down. I am extremely proud to be a part of a team that remembers its history. Coming down the course I made calls for former members of the varsity 8, and some of the girls never even met these people, but they know their names and I think that's unique to Bates, and the second I said that you could feel it light up. You're faster when you don't forget."
The team points trophies went to Trinity on the women's side, Michigan for the men, and the combined points trophy went to Williams College.
Trinity women's head coach Wes Ng was also honored with the 2014 ECAC women's Coach of the Year, and with him leading the team, the Trinity women are itching to get their seconds back from Bates and Williams.
"I am feeling ready to take on the next three weeks, to back into our laboratory and find some speed, ready to take on the end of my last season," said senior Renee Swetz.
A few of the men's crews will be going onto race at ACRAs, and the women's DIII NCAA announcement this evening will let the women's crews know who is heading toward another three weeks of practice. It was a beautiful day of great racing on Lake Quinsigamond, and while all teams are itching for their next race, whether it is in three weeks or three months, the Bates, Trinity and Williams women are perhaps the most excited for the next time they line up on the start.