The American Collegiate Rowing Association held its 15th ACRA Championships for college club programs in Oak Ridge, and over 70 different clubs made the trek to race for national titles over the weekend.
Two sets of "bears" won the big races - the UCLA Bruins won the Men's Eight Championship and Bowdoin Polar Bears won the Women's Eight Championship--in all 22 champions were crowned in sculling, sweep, and one Para event, the Adaptive Single.
With entries back to pre-pandemic levels according to ACRA co-founder Gregg Hartsuff, the ACRA is the biggest regatta for college-based teams, with fully 30 Men's eights in the marquee event. By way of contrast, the IRA for Varsity Men's programs is capped at 24 entries and the NCAA at 22 D1 women's teams, making the ACRA Men's eight the biggest eights field in college rowing . On the women's side--which does have slightly fewer clubs due to the number of colleges that sponsor NCAA rowing teams--the events have "shown incredible growth" said ACRA President Cam Brown: This year, there were 26 Women's Fours entered and three heats worth of Eights in the Women's National Championship field.
Men's V8 Champion - UCLA
UCLA, after a great season out west and polling only behind the well-regarded defending champs from George Washington, got out early and rowed a well-executed race to stay in control. The water wizards of Westwood stayed ahead of a dog fight for the remaining medals and the edge in the point trophy between GW, Notre Dame, Michigan, Virginia and Rutgers. GW did make a late run, but couldn't dent UCLA's advantage, while Notre Dame rounded out the medals ahead of Michigan.
"The race was incredible," said UCLA 2 seat, John Morken, a senior in the crew.
"We started off hot and just trusted our fitness and I'm so thankful for the opportunity and the way that we executed. All the training and the investment from our coaches and our alumni came to fruition. Our coach Marcel Stiffey has got the program really trending in the right direction, and I'm grateful that we trusted in ourselves trusted the plan, trusted in our will to win and it paid off.
"This is just such a picture perfect way to go out as a super senior this year."
GW came away with their second set of medals in as many years as an ACRA team after losing their Varsity and IRA status in 2021.
"I think that we had a fast crew," said Nate Goodman, the Head Coach who stepped in two years ago when GW's varsity coaches had to leave the program. "We showed that in the first couple days of racing, but we got out-executed at the end, which is painful but that's why they run the races: UCLA did not get out-executed and they are deserving champions."
"Our seniors this year, and we have one grad student, were recruited to a varsity program by [then head coach] Mark Davis. Then they had COVID, then they were coached by Eric Gehrke, and they had a successful IRA that year but the program was in its last year as a varsity. Then all of a sudden, they were thrust into ACRA racing. So, they went through a lot to be here.
"GW is really excited to be at ACRAs now and looks forward to competing next year and trying to get back to the top," said Goodman. "Our 3V got a silver medal at this regatta with a gutsy race. They're composed of six freshmen and three sophomores. The 2V came sixth in the Grand Final and were disappointed, but I think showed a lot of effort. It was a tough field. They had five freshmen, a sophomore and two graduate students.
"As an organization, the GW rowing team has has a future and a big part of that in the excitement about having this regatta to come to and race at and belong to."
Women's V8 Champion - Bowdoin
In the Grand Final of the Women's eight, Bowdoin set the pace from the jump. The crew took 3rd at Vails as the fastest club, behind two varsity lightweight programs, and here at ACRA they finished ahead of Vanderbilt and UCSB to win outright.
They secured the Women's Point Trophy with the win. Bowdoin also won the points title at the Vails, so it has been a good two week stretch for the whole program.
"This was an incredibly ACRA for our team, especially for our second time at the regatta," said Brandon Schuster, the coxswain of the Women's V8.
"This has been a tough year for Bowdoin Rowing with the loss of team member over the winter break [ed. team member Charlotte Billingsley], so this spring season has really been about coming together and supporting each other. Our win today really speaks to the dedication of our rowers and the trust they have built in each other."
"It was the first year our women's side was able to field an eight," Schuster added, "and they were backed up by our incredible novice women, whose silver medal helped us secure the women's points trophy."
While the eights are the blue riband events, the ACRA runs events for boats, and programs, of all sizes, making the regatta accessible and competitive by allowing for clubs to choose the format and focus that best suits their members and the students at their school. We caught up the winners of the Men's Four (Bowdoin again!), the Women's Four and the Women's Double.
Men's V4 Champion - Bowdoin
Bowdoin also notched a win in the Men's Four, a great accomplishment for a program long known for its strong fours at the Dad Vail. That same crew took silver at the Vails last week before winning here.
"Our men's side continued their history of strong performances in fours," noted Schuster. "Their lineup has stayed consistent since Head of the Charles, and their hard work throughout the entire year has clearly paid off.
"None of this would have been possible without the support and tireless dedication of our coaches Ry Hills and Douglas Welling who was named as Women's Northeast All-Region Coach."
Women's V4 Champion - FIT
The FIT Women's Four won in Oak Ridge, repeating their win from the Dad Vails two weeks ago. Pretty remarkable, when you consider that the five athletes in the crew represents the entirety of their team--in the wake of their school's decision to cut both the women's and men's rowing teams in favor, partially, of an e-sports program--and that two of them just completed their novice year of rowing: only 2 rowers and a coxswain remained after the school's decision gutted the program.
What sustained this crew was the tireless work of their coach Adam Thorstad, the full-time women's coach at the time of the cuts, who stayed with the group and the Friends of FIT Rowing Association (FFRA) which sprang into action to keep the rowers who remained on the water. The FFRA also launched the legal fight which resulted in the reinstatement of the men's team just in time for the spring season, as reported here.
After the win, which he watched on the live-stream as any proud alum might, Craig McKay, the President of FFRA, told row2k that:
"All of us alumni couldn't be more proud of these five young scholar athletes, two of whom only learned to row last fall, six weeks before placing third in the Women's Collegiate Four at the Head of the Charles Regatta."
"We are very thankful to ACRA greeting them with open arms. As can be clearly seen by the races over the past three days, ACRA is critical to allowing competitive rowing to flourish in the U.S."
Women's Double Champion - Gordon
Gordon College, from just north of Boston, won the Women's Double going away and also picked up bronze medal finishes with their Men's Double and Aiden Perez in the Adaptive Single. The program was started in 2015 by the current Head Coach, Maddie Hopkins, when she was an undergrad and the Double's win was Gordon's first ACRA championship.
Lucia Hopkins, a younger sister of Head Coach Hopkins, stroked the double and, with bow seat Tiana Fox, got out to commanding lead in the early stages of the race. Washington State took silver and New Hampshire earned the bronze.
"We were just so grateful for the opportunity to compete on this type of stage and bring home Gordon's first national title for women's open weight rowing," said the younger Hopkins. "Our whole season has led up to this chance and I am so honored to be able to work with Tiana to represent Gordon through it. It was also so cool to have gone to ACRAs with the men's double and women's pair who both had strong finishes!"
Fox, who will be rowing this summer with the group headed to the World University Games in China (more on that below), agreed.
"I am just excited to have had the opportunity to compete with a crew that seizes every opportunity and shows up in every way possible. This program is truly a blessing."
Novice Eights Champions - Michigan Men & OCC Women
The ACRA only ranks 4 boats in their weekly Coaches Poll: the V8s, of course, but also the Novice Eights, which is as clear an indication as any that the lifeblood of these club teams are the novices joining the sport each year.
The Michigan Novice Men and Orange Coast Novice Women took the top honors, just as the pollsters predicted, but the racing was exciting.
More importantly, the novice events are flourishing: 16 Men's Novice eights and 13 Women's Novice eights came to Oak Ridge this year, along with 49 Novice Fours (of Men, Women, and Light Men) and seven "2F's" of Men--and that number, of course, does not even track the number of walk-ons finding their way into the varsity events.
The Michigan novices helped power the team to both the Overall and Men's Points Trophies.
"Our freshman class had a great regatta, winning three of the four freshman/novice events, highlighted by a dramatic sprint from the Freshman eight," said Michigan's Head Coach Gregg Hartsuff.
"Coxswain Francesco Ossino and Stroke Zach Hutchings are great leaders in that boat and the crew really trusts them and each other. We had seen glimpses of good sprinting capability in practice from time to time, where they could challenge the varsity eight on shorter pieces. So we knew they could do that and they popped a good one at the exact right moment. You always prepare them for situations they might find themselves in, and I loved seeing the crew make the decision to go for it at that time."
Hartsuff, who just completed his 30th year leading the Michigan Club Men, was excited for the freshmen and the promise of his young group:
"The team performed well overall, and I am excited for the team depth we have on the horizon," he said. "The 1V could return 6 oarsmen and the coxswain, and the same with the 2V. It's a young group, and of the 68 team members, 56 could return next year, and we also get add to another class to it."
State of the ACRA Report
Fifteen years in, the ACRA is going strong and continuing to grow
"This was an excellent weekend of racing and I think across the venue we were all pleased with how it went," said Cam Brown, the OCC head coach in his role as ACRA President.
"The depth and quality of racing continues to grow every year and has never been better. The women's events have shown incredible growth, the speed of some of the top crews in all the events, especially the 8s, was quite impressive, and the skills of the small boats is getting more obvious and competitive."
Michigan's Hartsuff seconded all of that:
"The regatta was a phenomenal event, and many people have given positive feedback. Oak Ridge hosted another fine regatta and Chief Referee Sam Dempsey and his crew kept things running on time and efficient. The static refereeing approach worked really well and there were no wake issues during racing. HereNow did great with the livestream and timing and added to the experience. The three day format was tweaked to make all the many races fit and get west coast crews home on Sunday evening."
Hartsuff who helped found the ACRA when it became clear that his very successful club would no longer be welcome at a varsity-only IRA, has been writing a history of the ACRA and the issues faced by club programs for row2k that you can read here: Part 1 and Part 2, with Part 3 to come tomorrow.
In his history, Hartsuff touches on what it means to have former varsity programs like George Washington and Rutgers joining the ACRA, and we asked GW's Goodman about what the ACRA has meant to the team he took over in that moment when it became a club team:
"For GW, when the team got cut, they really had no plan. No one had any idea what was going to happen. I wasn't hired until the fall term had already started in 2021. I came in and it was a pretty ragtag bunch of guys that remained from the varsity team that had existed before and guys that were new."
"We spent that season figuring out how to be a team, and as we were figuring it out, and making a lot of mistakes, the ACRA organization and the ACRA coaches were really excited to have another team in the fold and shared a lot of wisdom and did us a lot of favors. UVA's Frank Biller, in particular, did a lot to bring us to races and help bring us along.
"I was a first time head coach, and I don't think I would have been able to have last year's crew have their success and set ourselves up to have this year's success without some of the support we got from from the other ACRA coaches and from the regatta, helping us when we didn't know what we were missing: all the logistical and administrative pieces.
"Because the guys who run the regatta and the other coaches at the regatta were eager to bring us into the fold, that really inspired the athletes and made them feel like they belonged after they had been made me feel the opposite by their own university."
Next Stop: World University Games
Seven of the athletes who raced in ACRA finals today, including Gordon's new champion Tiana Fox, will be a part of the group of college athletes training for the 2023 World University Games in Chengdu, China this coming August. Gordon coach Maddie Hopkins will be coaching the group along with Cory Conzemius from Oklahoma City University, with the following invited ACRA athletes:
Notes From the Course
The ACRA Spirit - if you've never been to the ACRA, here is the kind of moment that sums up the vibe amongst the athletes, volunteers, and coaches (many of whom are semi- if not wholly volunteering themselves): the SMU Men's Double that won shouted up to the Finish tower, "Thank you officials. Thank you volunteers."
Another Maybe Only at ACRA Moment - At the finish of their Petite Final, the Novice Women's Four were all waiting and cheering for the last place boat as they crossed the finish.
Coxswain Call of the Week - the one coxswain screaming "Remember the Alamo" at her very much non-from-Texas-at-all crew.
Dual Drone Coverage - it looked like a small flotilla of drones chasing the last race and sure enough, the live feed featured picture-in-picture "dual drone" footage of the final race from overhead and behind. Check it out here.
And the Downside of Drone Coverage? - You might just get close up video of yourself trying to get back in your boat after you flip in your single mid-race, or get caught rummaging in the bushes like this Minnesota Gopher, who we later learned was taking the opportunity to collect some of the honeysuckle that grows along the course.
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