Normally, you would start a preview of a championship race with a nod at the defending champions; in 2010, Cal upended both the predictions and a season of frustration against Washington with a perfectly executed 2000 meters to upset the Huskies and claim the national championship. This season has seen a very similar storyline, with UW having the measure of Cal at every point, although the margins have been steadily shrinking; the Cal-UW dual on the Montlake Cut went to Washington by almost a length, but that margin was only 4 seats three weeks later at the Pac-10 championships. If anything, the margins between these two teams have been much tighter this year; UW won the Pac-10s by open water in 2010.
Washington is a justified favorite heading into the 2011 IRA, and surely the Huskies will have learned something from the past 12 months.
Both Cal and UW were a over length of open water ahead of the field in the IRA Grand Final last year, but racing in the east has tightened up this year and while it's hard to see a crew other than Washington or Cal winning the event, you might see any of a handful of crews challenging the west coast teams for medals and placings.
The eastern pack is led by Harvard who have displayed as dominant a team season as anyone; the Crimson are a 2nd place in the 3V at Sprints removed from perfect seasons in their heavyweight eights, all five of them. The Harvard Varsity has weathered all challenges this season, but it has not been a cakewalk; close races to Brown and Princeton during the regular season and a 6-seat win at Sprints actually say less about Harvard's speed than the overall quality of crews in the east this year.
A rejuvenated Princeton squad will look to mix it up; if the Tigers can pick up a little more speed they could also crack the medals. Ditto for Wisconsin, a close third at Sprints, and Brown, just a second behind the Badgers in Worcester.
The opening heats at IRA have Washington/Brown in heat 1, Cal/Wisconsin in heat 2 and Harvard/Princeton in heat 3 as the seeded pairings in the middle of the course, with two to progress to the semi in each heat. We've seen upsets here in the past, and the crews to watch are a strong unit from Syracuse in the UW/Brown race, BU, who stumbled at Sprints after a very strong regular season and will look to regroup, in the Cal/Wisconsin race, and Yale, making progress under new head coach Steve Gladstone, with Harvard/Princeton. The Harvard-Yale rematch takes place just 5 days after Harvard took the annual 4-mile contest between the schools by 14 seconds.
The JV eight also sees Washington at the top of the field, and deep teams make for fantastic speed in this event, as witnessed last year when the UW and Brown JVs annihilated the course record in their final. This year, Washington is probably head and shoulders above the field, as the Huskies won Pac-10s by a full 11 seconds ahead of Cal, in a time that would have placed them 3rd in the Varsity Eight final.
The stiffest challenge to the Huskies will come from an undefeated Harvard 2V, one-length winners over Wisconsin at Sprints. Wisconsin, Cal, surprise Eastern Sprints medalists Syracuse and Princeton make up the remainder of the seeded crews; as with the Varsity, the top two crews in each of three heats move directly on to the semi.
Three outstanding crews make up the leaders in the Men's Freshman Eight, with Pac-10 champs Cal, Eastern Sprints champs Harvard and Washington seeded at the top. Princeton, Navy and Cornell make up the other seeded crews in the event. (Absent from the field are the frosh from Northeastern, bronze medalists at Sprints; frosh entries at the IRA are contingent upon the V8 qualifying, which the NU V8 did not do.)
In the Men's Open and Varsity Fours, deep teams make up the likely contenders, with Harvard, Washington, Cal and Wisconsin having traditionally had the greatest success in the smaller boats.
Happily, the IRA is seeing some good growth in the lightweight events this year, with the addition of the Men's Lightweight Four and fuller entries in the Men's & Women's Lightweight eights.
The Men's Lightweight Eight sees Harvard roaring into the IRA after a perfect season and a win at Sprints. Surprise Sprints runners-up Dartmouth, Yale and defending champs Princeton are in the mix, but this seems to be Harvard's battle to lose.
Cornell, Harvard, Princeton, Navy and Yale will contest the inaugural Light Men's Four. Given the depth of all four teams, expect excellent racing here as well.
The Women's Lightweight Eight has a new look this year, with both the defending champs from Stanford and the standard-setting lightweights from Wisconsin looking up at top-ranked Princeton this year. All of these crews have raced each other during the year, with the Princeton lights owning solid victories over each of their challengers. That said, the IRA is where the upsets happen (witness Bucknell's win in 2007 or Stanford's victory last year), and this event is likely to come down to the last half of the final to determine the 2011 champions.
In the Light Women's Four, surprise champs Loyola/Maryland are making a return trip to Camden, along with entries from Tulsa, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, Wisconsin and Radcliffe.