The IRA Finals this Saturday are perhaps the most tantalizing in years; two undefeated crews, Washington and Wisco, a host of fast regional players and numerous other storylines will likely make this year's 106th running of the IRA one of the more memorable ones.
Washington are the defending champs, and have gone through a season of reloading and coaching change (Mike Callahan stepped in when Bob Ernst switched bays at Conibear to coach the UW women) just about unscathed; although Cal narrowed the margin to a scant 3 seats in the Grand at Pac-10s after leading for part of the race, UW had the presence to see them off. The Huskies are a legit #1 seed.
Wisconsin on the other hand, coming off a heavy, heavy winter, started their season under the radar. You had to look pretty hard through the Stanford Invitational results, but over two days, Wisco served notice that they were serious, handing Cal and Stanford 4 and 7 second losses, respectively. As some then suspected they might, Wisco dominated the Men's Sprints, winning the V8 by open water and capturing the Rowe Cup for the first time in 46 years. It's been something of an IRA standard that Wisco would arrive with one of the deepest teams, represented in nearly all open weight events, but I can't remember a time when Wisco showed up with a team as loaded as this, top-to-bottom. If coach Chris Clark's crew has gotten even faster than they were at Sprints, the IRA may be a two-horse race.
The IRA seeds the top 12 eights in each event into four heats, and clearly there is intrigue there, with 3 seeded crews battling it out for two direct tickets to the semis. Top seeded Washington sees Stanford and a surprising Columbia team, while Wisco is drawn with Sprints petite-final winner Navy and Northeastern.
After that, it starts to get interesting: Sprints silver-medalist (and #3 seed) Brown faces off against Yale and 11th seeded Harvard; beyond the pure Ivy rivalries going on here, you have the Crimson with a pretty sour late season taste in their mouths from an uncharacteristically "off" performance at Sprints, where they not only missed the Grand for the first time in 44 years, getting knocked out by Yale by half a second, but then also failed to win the Petite, falling to Navy by half a seat. (On comparing times, which is hard to do, the V8 Petite and Grand at Men's Sprints were pretty close; this would seem to indicate that, behind Wisconsin, a lot of the eastern crews have good everyday speed.)
It's pure conjecture at this point, but it's unlikely that this bunch will care to be remembered as the lowest-performing Harvard crew in the last 50 years; add to this the usual fireworks that go off between Harvard and Yale (remember that Yale upset the heavily favored Harvard V8 at the Harvard-Yale race last year), and you have the makings of a pretty uncomfortable race for Brown.
The final heat also sees some heat, with Cal, who have seemed to find very good speed in the past weeks facing off against Sprints bronze medallists Princeton, who are quietly having a good year, and Cornell.
In the Men's JV, Wisconsin and Washington also occupy the top seeds, albeit in reversed positions. The Washington Huskies actually come in off a slightly more dominant performance at their championships, a near-length win over Cal, while Wisconsin lived life on the edge a bit more; down 3-4 seats to a Harvard 2V that had seen dominant performances throughout the year, Wisconsin took advantage of a Harvard miscue extremely late in the last 500 of the race to claim the win at Sprints by two-tenths of a second. Clearly, these top three crews can give each other a race on any day of the week.
Cal, Brown and Cornell round out the top six seeds in the JV. Harvard's 3V, who won their event at Sprints rowing away, is also entered in the JV event, but is not seeded. Indeed, the travails of their V8 notwithstanding, it's Harvard who, along with Wisco, field probably the deepest team at the regatta. Harvard's 4V finished second behind their 3V at Worcester, and the Harvard 2F also won at Quinsigamond, so expect to see Harvard crews make some noise in the small boats.
The frosh eight sees similar compaction at the top, with Washington, Harvard, Princeton and Cal stacked at the top; Harvard had Princeton by a second at Sprints, while Washington put six seconds on Cal at Pac-10s. Realistically, these 4 crews are probably within a length of each other. The Frosh eight also sees two entries from Yale, which could mean that Yale's Sprints-Champion Frosh lights are in the mix.
A thinnish field of just 10 crews will contend for the national title in the Men's Lightweight eights. Conspicuously absent from the entries is a crew from Harvard; in a year that saw decade-long streaks snapped all over the country, Sprints saw no Harvard lightweight crews in any Grand Finals for the first time ever. "Repeat offender" Cornell, winners of the last two national titles here in Camden, comes in seeded first, with Princeton, Yale and Navy all looking for an opening to pounce. Dad Vail champs Fordham have shown good speed this year, and will certainly make things interesting. Again, with no lightweight crews coming into the weekend undefeated, this event is always good for some of the most exciting racing.
On the women's Lightweight side, where there are 9 entries in the eight and 6 entries in the four, all crews will be trying to chase down Wisconsin, who swept the Lightweight events at Women's Sprints. Wisconsin's heroics at Sprints were made more memorable for the fact that they were accomplished after the stroke of the V8 was hit by a car the week before the regatta, causing lineup shuffling right down the ranks. If the Badgers are healthy and racing intact, they may be virtually uncatchable.
A new wrinkle at IRAs this year has been the introduction of time trials for the V4 and F4 events. In anticipation of what might make for some derby-style racing, the regatta organizers have allowed for passing lanes on either side of the two time-trial lanes in the middle of the course, whew. Though not universally embraced, the time trial format does have the advantage of allowing all crews in these oversubscribed events at least one trip down the course at Camden.
Finally, row2k covered the potential upheaval and changes afoot for the IRA earlier this year. By press time it seemed that coaches and administrators were still cautiously working towards each other on many of the issues raised, but it's likely that not much will be moved along until after the last trailer has left Camden after this weekend.