Taking a realistic look at how the college sprint season might shake out - which crews are leading their respective leagues, who will contend for league championships next month, and which will make it to the podium at the season ending national championships - is usually no more than guessing when it's done before there are enough results recorded.
Preseason poll rankings are worth having, but they are based largely on the previous season's results, mixed with a grain of salt from the big fall regattas, and the number of crews adding or subtracting impact athletes to their top crews through graduation and incoming freshman classes.
By the last weekend of April, though, it's a different story - which means it's time to start having a look and checking in with a few programs.
Cal racing in San Diego
When the season ended last year on Mercer Lake at the IRA Championship, Yale had finished up a second consecutive season of dominance, and Yale led in this year's pre-season polls. Washington was ranked second, followed by Harvard, with Brown and Cal tied at fourth to round out the top five.
Teams sitting six through 10 were Northeastern, Princeton, BU, Dartmouth and Syracuse. The top 10 haven't change much through the three polls, and in this week's polling, Yale retains its place on top, with Washington in second and Harvard in third, Cal in fourth and Brown in fifth.
Barring any surprises, that trend is most likely to continue until the championships start in about four weeks with the Pac-12s and the Eastern Sprints, and then again at the IRA, when the top crews in the country all meet on the same venue in Gold River, California.
So far this season, of the top teams from the East, only two have ventured to the West Coast. Northeastern traveled to Redwood Shores in April on the same weekend Yale went to the San Diego Crew Classic. Northeastern lost to Washington and beat Oregon State and Stanford. And, in what amounted to a single dual in the undersubscribed Copley Cup Invitation, Yale jumped Cal from the start and led to the finish.
Having bested Brown at Providence the weekend before the 2019 Crew Classic, Yale's last loss for a year was at the 2018 Crew Classic when they were beaten by Cal.
That was is a significant win streak and given that Yale graduated three seniors from last season's top boat, the fact that they keep winning is a testament to the stable of athletes in their boathouse.
Yale men's head coach, Steve Gladstone, said he is pleased with the way his crews are performing this season and attributes the continued winning to the level of expectation among the athletes.
"It's a strong group, and I think what's happened over the last few years is the expectation of the people on the squad has risen, and the level of commitment to the hard work and the teamwork has risen, so the energy is still there," he said.
Still, Gladstone knows that crews are not measured by early and mid-season successes, and that the season-ending championships are where the stories will play out.
"Until you race the Sprints, and the IRA, you really have to withhold accolades," he said. "To date, it certainly looks - judging by comparative margins, not necessarily times but margins - it would look as if they are doing very well. But all that gets condensed at the Sprints, and even more condensed at the IRA," Gladstone said.
"I'm optimistic," he said. "I feel the group has good energy, the mechanics are basically sound. They're never perfect, it's never exactly what your eye wants to see, but it's close. But, most important is the mindset and the attitude of the group as a whole, not just the varsity, but the whole squad."
Out West in the Pac-12, Washington has been piling up wins. Cal, meanwhile, is in the first season under Scott Frandsen as head coach after the departure of Mike Teti to the US national team, and is trying to find championship speed.
After losing to Yale in San Diego, Cal swept UC Davis, Hobart, and Wisconsin the following weekend at Redwood Shores, and then split a weekend against Washington and Oregon State.
Scott Frandsen (middle) is in his first year as Cal men's head coach
Frandsen is not new to Cal, not by a lot. He was a three-time national champion at Cal as an undergrad, and joined the Bears' coaching staff as an assistant in 2012. So, as head coach, Frandsen said he is doing a lot of the same things he has always done, just in a different position.
"It's a different role, but really not all that different," he said. "We're doing lots of the same things that we've been doing for the past six or seven years. Obviously, I'm in different shoes, but I think it's a similar, and strong, group. So the approach is the same.
"The pressure is definitely there," he said. "But I feel like the pressure is there to do everything I can to help these guys succeed. I don't really feel pressure outside of that."
As far as how his crews have performed to date, Frandsen feels that overall, "They're going well. I think we've had the chance to learn a lot, and I think that is what these early or mid-season races are all about. The goal and the idea is to go in and win these races, and we haven't done that.
"But we've learned a lot and I think the guys performed a lot better against Washington than they did against Yale," he said. "We know what to work on and what we have to do over the next four weeks to Pac-12, and six weeks to the IRA. And despite not achieving the goals of winning those races (Yale and Washington), I think the guys are resilient and optimistic about what we can achieve over the next six weeks."
This weekend, Cal races Stanford, ranked 13th this week in varsity eight, and 17th in the Ten Eyck team points poll. Stanford has just experienced an unexpected mid-season coaching change with former head coach Craig Amerkhanian announcing last Thursday that he was retiring, effective immediately.
Looking ahead at the weekend, Frandsen said he expects Stanford to be a challenge. "Stanford can be quick," he said. Of the effect the coaching change could have he said: "Having something like this happen can charge up a crew and be that cohesive link that has them race together with emotion."
Cornell men's lightweight at last year's IRA
Last season, Cornell followed an undefeated 2017 campaign with a down 2018 season, and missed the IRA varsity eight grand final. Columbia set the standard for the year, winning both at Sprints and the IRA. This year, so far, Cornell is back at the top of the polls on the strength of string of varsity eight wins.
"The season is going well," said Cornell lightweight men's coach Chris Kerber. Asked about the difference in this year's performance compared to the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Kerber said the differences can be attributed to "a combination of factors that many teams face when they are operating at a high level, and looking to repeat peak performances annually.
"Yes, the first varsity nailed it in 14, 15 and 17 - and in 16 and 18 not so much. Talent levels, leadership, and unsystematic conditions cause disruptions to the daily training," he said. "These can be the causes to teams working through off years. We've used these times to shore up things and help author the next cycle. I do feel the organization is stronger due to the draw downs."
The Sprints lightweight league is always competitive and having consistent winning seasons is difficult, with different teams taking the lead from season to season, and even week to week. Behind Cornell, having an impressive season, and ranked second in this week's polling, is Princeton, followed by Columbia, Harvard and then Yale in the top five.
"It's never easy," Kerber said. "The competition in the league is relentless - the new generation of top athletes are maturing in the league and contributing to top boats."
Purdue's first varsity at SIRA
When the trophies were handed out and the team points added up at the last ACRA Championship, Purdue was not present on the podium. Michigan, Virginia and Orange Coast led the points trophies. Michigan won the men's varsity eight. Purdue's top boat won the petite.
The landscape at the top of the ACRA polls this year tells a very different story. Purdue is currently ranked first in the varsity eight poll.
That is a significant change from one season to the next, and according to Purdue head coach Dave Kucik it is all the result of a top to bottom culture change in the boathouse that was began last fall in meetings with the 2018 freshman and sophomore crews, that filtered through the ranks.
"It has to do with the group of kids, not necessarily a new group in either varsity, but just with input from last year's freshman and sophomores," Kucik explained.
Kucik said that because Purdue runs four separate squads - novice, freshman, and two varsity crews - the athletes that rowed together as freshman and novices had grown into a tight, cohesive group, and when they were brought into the varsity levels, they expressed a desire to set higher standards.
"They're just a good group of kids that are buying into the common theme of how we row," he said. "The chemistry is different in the boathouse. We always look for input from them, about the goals what they want to achieve, all the normal stuff, but the group that came in was just a bit tighter, and they brought that into the varsity program.
"Their work ethic is up a bit, and we were able to hone into the commitment level to a pretty high standard." One of the changes he said was better time management between class work and exams and attending practices.
"It turned out that they figured out how to balance that, and not use it as an excuse to miss practice," he said. "That started last fall and we honed in on that again in January when everyone came back. We've just had a solid commitment from people. We've had that sort of culture before, it's just really gotten a lot tighter this year."
Another aspect that has changed, Kucik said, is the idea of team over self. "A lot of things that enter into whether a crew can come together can be impacted by the egos that run around the boathouse, with individuals that think, I have the best erg score, I'm fastest runner, I can lift more weight than you, I've never lost a seat race.
"We've been able to squelch the egos so it is not an I thing, a me thing, an ego thing, but more of a team approach and respect for that culture."
Last weekend's SIRA regatta in Oak Ridge was a test of where Purdue stood among the 2019 teams, and a second place finish to FIT in the varsity eight grand final was a good sign with the Dad Vail and ACRA Championships approaching.
"This group doesn't like to lose," he said. "I think there are some things we've looked at that they think they can do to bring the speed up, we're still ramping up for our spring. We haven't done too much to bring the top speed out of this crew yet, we're moving along naturally. We tapered for the SIRA regatta, but we haven't done anything to reach our peak yet."
Check out all of this weeks polls here.