Identfiying a clear favorite for the National Championship in the Men's Lightweight Eight simply isn't possible headed into the 108th IRA Regatta. At the very least, after the Princeton Tigers reversed an earlier defeat to Harvard to take the Eastern Sprints on May 16th, knocking the Crimson from the ranks of the undefeated in the process, it's clear that the entire field is very tight.
"7 seconds, or just over two lengths separate the field out there," said Princeton's Marty Crotty. "We know we can't have a bad race and win, that's for sure. We also realize that the field will most likely get faster with three more weeks to prepare."
Certainly being at the front of a tight field is not a bad place to be, and Princeton's win at Sprints was a measure of redemption for Crotty, who is in his first year at the helm of his team. Although the Tigers are nominally defending the title in Camden, NJ on June 5th, simply inheriting a fast crew hasn't been enough to win; Princeton has had to work at improving every race this spring.
"Our race against Cornell, where we had to make a pretty big comeback in the second thousand, showed me these guys were pretty saavy, and could pull out a win, even when things were not going great for them," said Crotty. "The Harvard/Yale/Princeton race was also a big showdown and played out exactly how I thought it would and I thought we were prepared to hold Harvard's charge off. Evidently we needed a couple more weeks."
On momentum, you could probably get away with anointing Princeton as the favorite going into the racing at IRA.
Harvard and Yale would appear to be the closest challengers to Princeton, with both crews just about a length behind the Tigers at Sprints. Both were separated by the proverbial whisker in the Sprints final, but both crews got there in radically different ways. If you consider the finish at the Harvard/Yale/Princeton race on May 1st, where Yale finished a full 12 seconds back of the Crimson, the Eli have gained a staggering amount of speed in the past 3 weeks, and will look to continue this trajectory through the Nationals racing.
Harvard on the other hand has the edge of a previous victory over Princeton in hand from that May 1st contest, but will need to bounce back from the Sprints race, where Princeton was able to hold off every move the Crimson made. A very fast & talented boat, the Crimson will be reckoned with in Camden.
Among the remaining challengers, Dartmouth, who finished fourth at Sprints, could also be a dark-horse candidate for a medal. Dartmouth did not meet with stellar success during the regular season, but close races with several of the top squads indicated that the Green might have the speed to run with the pack at the top end of the field. "We lost to Harvard in mid-April by a little bit of open water," said Dartmouth's Dan Roock. "Losing by open water isn't a cause for celebration, but we kept overlap for much of the race, and the fact that we could go at or near the same speed as a recognized 'top' crew was encouraging. The crew gained confidence with the acknowledgement that we weren't bad."
The remaining crews in the seven-boat field are Navy, Penn and Georgetown, all of whom have raced the top four crews closely. The biggest surprise at Sprints was Penn's performance, as the Quakers surged from the #8 seed to upset fourth-seeded Georgetown in the qualifying heat, enroute to a competitive 6th place finish in the Grand.
The final-only format of the Men's Lightweight Eight at IRAs certainly adds to the intrigue, as crews will have only one shot at the National title. "The one-shot deal motivates us to be very sharp and to be able to adapt to certain scenarios on the fly," said Princeton's Crotty. "A straight final means you may have to row someone down or recover from a bad stretch in a matter of 500m."
If one thing is certain, it's that the quality of competition in US Lightweight Men's collegiate rowing continues to be very good. "The bar has always been high," said Dartmouth's Roock. "The closeness of the competition makes for easy motivation to work harder."