The tailwind tightened up the fields...
IRA Friday served up plenty of the kind of hot racing that the last semis of the year can inspire, stoked here by another day of raging tailwind that pushed the V8 times into the 5:20s and eventually prompted a shift in the seeded lanes just before the Varsity Eights locked on. Half the field racing today was going to be out of the medals, so it was all about going the gears smartly, and giving most, but not all, in the hopes of saving some gas for the hardware run on Saturday.
The lane shift, right before the V8, led to a bit of confusion on both ends of the course, with the starter clearing the course of the V8s entering their original lane before bringing them back in the new order, and parents and spectators at the finish left wondering which lane their crew was actually in; having two orange-clad crews in semi 1, Princeton and Syracuse, did not help clear things up.
Once the V8s got their new lanes sorted out, it was right back to business as usual for Cal, with the Golden Bears throwing down hard off the line to take control of the field. This is the book on Cal, that they will storm off the line and never look back. It has a lot to with Cal coach Mike Teti, of course, because everyone remembers his 2004 USA eight winning Olympic gold out front, and certainly that was how Teti’s first IRA win unfolded last year, but his crews win in all sorts of ways, and this one certainly has marched through their half of the draw pretty handily.
Princeton ran in second for a long time in this one, hanging with Cal on one side and working to hold off both Brown and Cornell on the other. The Tigers used some impressive base speed this year to nearly run the regular season table and were only found wanting in some close finishes with Harvard so far this year. It took all of that base power to hang with Cal early in this one, and that left the Tigers a bit defenseless when Brown on their port side took an explosive move in the third 500. That put Brown in second and, with what announcer Fred Schoch likes to call a "Cornell creep" underway in lane 2, Princeton really had to bear down to stay clear of the Big Red and get into the Grand.
Brown looked pretty solid storming into second here, and has come a long way from losing a few duels this season. They are poised to get right into the medals with a good run in the Grand and the move Bruno unleashed on the Tigers suggests they might be the crew in this mix with the kind of peaking, “Saturday speed” a crew needs to shake things up in the final.
In semi #2, Washington and their mission to "finish" here in 2011 ran smack into Harvard’s strong aversion to coming in anywhere other than first. The Huskies faced the "other favorite" in last year’s semi, too, when they famously out-dueled Cal only to have the tables turned on them in the final. This year, with the seeds tabbing Cal just ahead of Harvard, Washington again faced a semi against the crew that could take it all, and this time in a match of unbeaten eights that came perhaps one round too early. As much as Washington tried to put the race away early and get back to focusing on their west coast rival, Harvard was able to shut them down and, at the line, close out the Huskies for yet another Crimson win.
Harvard is nothing, apart from unbeaten, if not patient and very disciplined. The Crimson just kept driving the pace until they pressed right through the Huskies. That relentless speed drove Harvard all the way to the 5:25 mark, with the Huskies just 2 seconds back and perhaps, in the late stages, not willing to gamble any further on the outcome. That puts both just up on Cal’s time of 5:29, but it is still an open question who will have the spot-on execution tomorrow to close out their season "perfectly" by winning IRA gold.
Wisconsin completed its own journey here by coming third and getting all the way back into the Grand after a surprising trip to the third-level final last year after a badly paced Thursday. The Badgers never got too far out of the race up front and had all the horsepower they need to hold off a late charge from Stanford, but never threatened to lead either. They will line-up tomorrow as a bit of an underdog but more than ready to scrap for a medal.
The racing, then, saw all six seeds advance to the final, which is certainly not unheard of, but in a year that looked two days ago to promise a lot of parity behind the big three favorites (Washington, Cal, and Harvard), the hope was for some great racing and perhaps a surprise finalist, or three, but none emerged. A factor, perhaps, might have been the cross wind: all but one 8 moving on from the semis today rowed in lanes three through five, which became the seeded lanes for the V8 semis.
Switching lanes to favor the seeded crews and heat winners is not controversial, of course, and was wisely done to benefit crews whose seasons, and heat races here, warranted consideration – although a few coaches made it clear they were not happy with the change. With the wind favoring 3-4-5 pretty clearly, that seemed to be enough to blow open huge margins between the crews who advanced to priority lanes from the heats and those that worked in through the reps. Stanford, the 12 seed, was the only crew outside of lanes 3-4-5 able to make a real attempt at bridging the gap to those lanes in the closing strokes, coming from lane 2 of the Harvard semi. The lane switch had put them in there instead of lane 5, so the Cardinal fought from a bit of a disadvantage to come within a deck of both Wisconsin and the Grand Final--and they were the only eight of the day to make much of anything happen in the last 500 meters of lane 2.
The Second Eight semis were the last races before the lanes were reassigned, and in the first semi, Washington and Cal went right after each other. Much has been written about the pedigree of the Husky 2V and the incredible depth of Coach Mike Callahan’s program, but Cal seems to be ignoring all of that in favor of just racing UW really hard. There were only three seats in the Huskies’ lead at the thousand and it was as much Cornell as Cal driving the field up onto the UW stern. The Huskies were able to hold the line at a few seats for the win over Cal, but the Big Red kept it all close--this after a trip through the reps, something of a not-quite-loved tradition with Cornell’s better IRA crews over the years, but it certainly worked for this crew. The Big Red rallied here to stall Sprints bronze medalist Syracuse, and the Orange could not close the full distance with Cornell despite a strong final sprint.
Harvard won semi two, which would make it three semi-final wins for the indomitable trio of Harvard eights, ahead of a field so tight it apparently flummoxed the photo finish camera: no times or margins were posted, apart from the winning time. The order of the tight finish was officially Harvard, Wisconsin, Princeton, with lane 2 Brown and lane 0 Yale close behind.
Semi 2 was the seven boat spectacular created by Yale’s log-troubles on Thursday and successful protest, and it was a great race. At one point, the race announcer proclaimed it was “anybody’s ballgame” and that was when the field was still jammed together at the 1000 meter mark. The one time posted, Harvard’s 5:41, was just shy of UW and Cal, so for all the hard-charging in this one, the winner may well have been in the other semi.
The freshmen eight, just off the times, might be a three boat race, with Cal, Harvard, and Washington all posting up in 5:39. Then again, maybe not: Harvard and Washington battled all the way to the line, with Harvard just ahead, to break 5:40, while Cal did it pretty easily, with a clear lead throughout. Princeton was just a length off Cal’s pace and the Tigers can close, there will be some fierce frosh racing tomorrow. Making it more interesting will be the two frosh crews that made the Grand the hard way, not only coming through the rep but beating the crew that sent them there: BU getting the better of Cornell in the Harvard semi and Brown turning the table on Navy in the Cal semi. Both Brown and BU have clearly been making strides both since Sprints and since racing started in Camden, so maybe that learning curve will put them in the hunt as well.
The Varsity Four provide two great "heaters" to get the semi-finals started this morning. Semi one saw Drexel make good on its promising speed from the heat and, while the Dragons could not match Washington’s base, they gave Wisconsin all they could handle, and punched ahead of the Badgers for good in the third 500. Wisco, who had taken this one in hand for the first 700 meters or so, actually found themselves dropped back into third, and then nearly fourth as the Georgetown four started to charge in the sprint. Wisconsin just barely held off the Hoyas who, as a crew of slick lightweights clearly enjoying the light facts tailwind conditions, nearly took that sprint right into the Grand.
Semi two was even tighter: with five crews with in a deck for at least 1250 meters, and there was not much more in it after that. Navy’s four actually got the win, by just 7 thousandths (yep: 0.007!) over Stanford, with Brown’s four in third, despite starting the IRA with a monster row in their heat. Northeastern’s fourth was not even a full second out of first, and even GW still had overlap at the line. This may well have been the race of the regatta, so far, especially when you add in five different leaders, including a gutsy Holy Cross squad who went for it all off the start, and more than a handful of lead changes right to the line. Whew!
The Open Fours raced their two reps this morning, with Wisconsin smoking the field in the first rep to get right back in the medal hunt we saw previewed in the Badger’s heat race against UW. Yale’s four found some good speed here, too, distancing both Penn and a Cal four that never seemed to find its rhythm here on the east coast. Cornell and Navy advanced from the three boat semi #2 with patient rows that out-paced Brown. Cornell rowed a bit lower and moved out on Navy throughout, but this final, apart from heat winners UW and Harvard, remains as hard to handicap as ever, especially now that the Badger boat is back.
Lightweight Women’s Eights and Fours
The lightweight women kicked off their National Championship in the LW8 this morning with heats, followed by reps in the afternoon, to set the field. There was not much drama here, with crews qualifying comfortably in each round. This is not a huge field, after all, but as with all things lightweight, don’t let size issues fool you: this will be a battle royale once the medals are on the line.
Princeton showed its top seed form in the first heat , moving away pretty smoothly to what first thousand announcer Bob Jaugstetter likes to term a ‘splash of open.’ They were pushed a bit early by Radcliffe, but that was more to do with the Black and White making certain to lock up their spot in the final over Georgetown.
Stanford very much had the measure of Wisconsin in the second heat: even in the early going, where the crews might have bid for the win, Stanford’s rhythm looked a lot longer than the Badgers’ and Wisco never made up any ground before the two cruised it out for the line. Clearly, there were not a lot of cards played here by either crew, nor by Princeton and Radcliffe, though Stanford did post the best time. Take that as you will, we’ll look for the final to be a bit of an open game to sort out the medals, and won’t be counting out a Tiger crew very much primed to win a title.
That final was rounded out by the afternoon’s rep, where Georgetown and Bucknell got out early on MIT, and then away from each other as the Hoyas took the rep with a length to spare over the Bison. With just seven crews in this National Championship, the rep essentially eliminated the MIT eight.
The Lightweight Women’s Four is an exhibition event here at the championships, rather than part of the national title, and crews can enter without brining an eight. This leaves the field a bit more open, and gave Loyola College, Maryland a chance to win this event last year despite being perhaps the smallest squad represented at the IRA. Loyola made good on their return here, moving on in the morning just a length behind Stanford. Wisconsin and Radcliffe took the top spots in the other heat, with the Badgers setting a smoking time that served as a reminder that they are still very much the deepest lightweight squad around. Princeton came up short in that heat, but went on to win the rep in the afternoon, well out on Tulsa, who advanced as well. MIT, once again, trailed and saw their regatta ended in a single day, since there is no petite for the seven boat field.
Also of Note:
Race fans in the now fully fenced enclosure were treated to a NASCAR-style pit stop by the Harvard 1V and their support staff. Apparently, the Crimson shell and its skeg parted ways somewhere between the launch dock and the medals dock, so the crew put in there--right in front of the grand stand--to let their coaches and boatmen have a look. No need for new tires or more fuel, of course, but the quick addition of a new skeg sent the Harvard 1V on their way. The undefeated Crimson have stayed untouched so far this year, but not, apparently, unscathed.