For the second time in two weeks, a US collegiate national championship chase centers on two undefeated crews, one from the west coast and one from the east coast, with a host of other dangerous crews in the mix. Harvard and Washington have both run the table on their respective coasts, Harvard with a course record-setting win at Sprints just over two weeks ago, and Washington with a half-length win over Cal at Pac-10s on the same day.
Neither Harvard nor Washington got their most recent wins easily: witness Washington's 1.6 second margin over Cal (if the Jamco splits are to be believed, the largest margin between these two crews all the way down the course was 6 seats, whew), and Harvard's 6-7 seat advantage over Yale at the finish of Sprints. All of this might indicate that it doesn't look like anyone is going to run away with the 2007 IRA.
On paper/conjecture/bunker augury, the early edge goes to Washington; on transitive speed by margin over Wisconsin, the only common opponent close to both, Washington might have a hair more speed than Harvard. That said, both crews have raced distinctly and differently this season: Washington has only truly been pushed in what was essentially two dual meets, closed water affairs with Cal in the dual and at Pac-10s, with the bulk of the margin established early in the race; a crew with a decent start and good speed down the course could offer some good challenge. A six-boat final with Harvard and others in the mix might be a bit of a different animal, and it will be essential that they can adapt.
Harvard, by contrast, has shown a near-flawless ability to show up when it matters; an undefeated regular season notwithstanding, Harvard was one of the slower qualifiers to the EARC Grand, only to blow that race open early and handle all challenges from Yale, Princeton and Wisco. That ability to shift gears, coupled with the steely nerves required to race six-wide, will hold the Crimson in good stead this weekend.
This focus on the two undefeated crews might obscure the fact that this field is extremely tight; Cal, Yale, Wisconsin have all had near-overlap on one or both of the above, and Princeton (who lost out on bronze at Sprints in a photo-finish with Wisco) and Stanford are the likely crews to challenge. Also lurking on the premesis are the Brown heavies, who saw seasons of promise in the V and JV vanish in other crews puddles during the afternoon racing at Sprints; there's quite a bit of raw speed in all three Brown crews, and the Cooper might be a good venue for redemption: Brown took a surprising bronze in the V8 here last year, and will be looking to make another run.
Other crews on the radar: Purdue shows up with a Vails gold, while Michigan (a club program) might be worth a surprise; the anticipated Michigan/Trinity showdown at the ECAC Championships never materialized, as the regatta itself never materialized. With racing cancelled, the coaches of Michigan, Trinity and UVa regrouped and came up with a quick tri-meet on Cornell's racecourse in Ithaca, which Michigan carried.
All of these crews are race-savvy, but the depth of the schedule at the IRA is another wrinkle that crews will need to navigate: a 24-boat field creates a severe progression that tolerates no mistakes.
The heats on Thursday morning ought to give the first relative indication of what's up; the field is seeded smartly, with Washington/Brown, Cal/Princeton, Yale/Wisco and Harvard/Stanford making up the selected crews pairings. These heats are two to advance/avoid the rep, and an upset pick might be Navy in the Cal/Princeton heat; Navy lost to a Sprints bronze-medallist Wisco by less than a second a week before the IRA, and might have the goods to make the going uncomfortable for someone.
A sidebar to the V8 race is that the Rutgers crew, in what is most likely their last competition as a varsity-level squad, did not make the invite cut. On results alone, this is probably just and fair based on results at Sprints; still, this is a really harsh way for a historically important program to bow out, especially given the situation: the Rutgers administration has literally slammed the door on a couple million dollars alumni and benefactors have pledged to put toward the RU sports on the chopping block. Members of the Rutgers V8 will be racing in the Varsity Four with and Varsity Four without this weekend.
The east/west divide is markedly more pronounced in the other heavyweight marquee events, the JV and F8. Where the east coast contests were incredible nailbiters (Wisco over Harvard by .8 seconds in the JV, Brown over Harvard by 2 secs in the F8) Washington and Cal blew out their Pac-10 competition in the JV and F8, respectively. Of course, this could also mean that the west coast lower boats are the standards in their events, and historically, Cal and Washington have performed very well here.
The F8 traditionally sees ferocious racing, and strong entries from Brown, Harvard, Cal and Washington will probably seeing each other in the final, along with potential challenges from Princeton and Northeastern, one of the lone bright spots for the Huskies this year.
With the Harvard and Yale V8s on the top of the heap at Sprints, the H-Y squad tussle has been ratcheted up a notch at this years IRA, with Harvard and Yale each fielding TWO eights in the JV event, presumably their respective 3Vs. These crews will see a lot of each other this weekend, as Harvard "A" sees Yale "A" in the middle of the racecourse in heat 4 of the JVs, while Harvard "B" and Yale "B" face off in lanes 5 & 6 just to the right of a Princeton/Washington/Brown brawl in heat 2 on Thursday morning, whew. This could make for some interesting semis down the road.
The national championships in the Men's & Women's Lightweight Eights will also be decided this weekend. Men's and Women's Sprints champs Dartmouth and Wisconsin will look to each claim the "double", winning Sprints and IRAs, but these events are tricky to navigate at the IRA; witness Wisco's trip through the reps in the LW8 before defending their national championship in 2006. The men's light eight is wild, simply put: Sprints #1 seed Harvard will probably look to bounce back from a disappointing 5th place finish at Worcester, while the defending national champs from Cornell, who were 4 seats down on Dartmouth at the line at Sprints, certainly don't want to give the trophy back just yet. Princeton and Navy are in the hunt as well; the lightweight men do it all in one day, with heats on Saturday morning for Saturday afternoon finals.
On the women's side, Wisco, Princeton and Georgetown are the medallists from Sprints, with about a length between each, while perennials Radcliffe were uncharacteristically off the pace. While not quite as deep or tight as the men's field, this event has experienced growth and challenges from new crews in recent years. Where the men's light eight is an all East Coast affair, with the crew furthest afield coming from Georgia Tech, the women's field arrives from all over, with the west coast in the mix (Long Beach State, Stanford, Loyola Marymount) as well as crews from Ohio State and Univ. of Central Florida adding regional color.
The light women gain an extra event this year, a championship in the Women's Lightweight Four, with Duquesne, Lawrence U., Georgetown, Princeton, Radcliffe and Wisconsin lining up for a straight final on Friday afternoon.
The small boats are harder to handicap, but also provide some of the most entertaining racing at the IRA. This years field is huge; the IRA Finals Schedule heads deep into the alphabet this year with "E" and "F" level finals for the Men's Varsity Fours. In the V4, the mass of crews involved produces an unusually tough progression, with all 36 crews time-trialling for spots in the "A" & "B" semis for the top 24 spots, while lower place crews will head to the "E" and "F" finals directly from the time trial, ouch. Time trials obviously rely a little on a crews imagination to race at full tilt boogie down the racecourse with no one on either side of them.
The course is ready, and the mercury is rising. See you in Camden!