The smell of BBQ will once again waft across the shores of Lake Mercer as rowing fans and alumni watch some of the best rowers in the country chase an IRA Championship title – one that could prove to be one of the closest in recent years, as this year’s champion is truly anyone’s guess.
After one of the harshest winters in recent memory, the east coast programs faced an uphill battle this spring. Bodies of water that were typically rowable by late February or early March were frozen well into April. As a result, winter training ran much deeper into the spring season and definitely provided a significant advantage to the west coast programs early on. Now that some time has passed and everyone has been back on the water for a while, will that extra time on land lead to extra speed on the water, or will the east coast teams yet again fall behind one of the Pac-12 powers?
Going into EARC Sprints, Yale was the hands down favorite. Coming down the course in the V8, Yale did not disappoint, and their results this year were not entirely unexpected. Steven Gladstone took over the Yale program in 2010 and has show steady progress over the last 5 years. Coming home with a victory at Sprints - Yale's first since 1982 - typically lists a team as a favorite going into the IRA.
Over the last decade however the IRA Champ for the most part has come from the west coast. For most of those years, that champ has been the University of Washington. The difference this year is if there is one coach that has experience beating Washington, it’s Gladstone. During his second tenure as the head coach of Cal, Cal won 7 Pac-10 Championships in the V8 and won 4 straight IRA championships.
While Yale had a great showing at Sprints, they didn’t exactly blow away the field. While it was the first time since 2008 that someone other than Harvard or Brown has won Sprints, its not as though they were far behind. Northeastern had their best finish at Sprints since 1995 coming in second, however if they had been .5 seconds slower they would have found themselves in 5th place. The margin for error will be very small this year, and the IRA will be quite a fun race to watch. With rumors of various shake-ups to multiple team’s line-ups since Sprints, the order of finish at IRAs could be very different.
One might look at all of the really close margins this season on the east coast and think, this might be an IRA grand final for the ages, however there is still a rather large elephant in the room. For most of this season Cal and Washington have been performing at a completely different level from the rest of the country. The bigger of two elephants over the last few years has of course been Washington. If Washington wins the IRA in the V8 again this year, that will be the first time in the history of the IRA that a team has been the V8 champ five years in a row.
With six V8 titles in the last decade, love a dynasty or hate a dynasty, it’s hard not to pick the Huskies. It won't be easy, as history is not on their side – three other times in the 113 year history of the IRA has a team won four V8 titles in a row, and none of these teams reached 5 in a row (Last time someone won 4 in a row was Cal 2002 with head coach Steve Gladstone).
Unlike the last few years going into the IRA, Washington has come into the regatta with a blemish from another collegiate team on their record. This year the Cal Bears finally put a loss on Washington’s regular season record during their annual dual race. This apparently did not sit very well with the Huskies after the race, and Washington put two new rowers into the eight following their first meeting with Cal and basically changed the seats for the other 6 rowers, save for stroke seat Alexander Perkins.
Going into round two against Washington at the Pac-12 Championships, Cal on the other hand kept the same 8 rowers in their V8 from the dual and finished 4 seconds behind the Huskies this time. Does Cal have another card to play, or did they show their hand too early in the year? On the other hand, did Washington show their final hand for Pac-12s? Or, even if Washington showed their best hand, can anyone do anything about it? We know Cal is capable of defeating Washington. We also know when they face off at Mercer, win or lose Cal will probably jump out to an early lead during the start of the race. The question is, will they be able to hold on or will they fade in the second thousand if they are pressed early – and who from the east will be right alongside.
As always, Eastern Sprints is a little preview for the lightweights before the IRA grand final. However unlike the heavyweights at this year’s sprints, the lightweights finished in the exact order that was expected of them going into the regatta. While a huge shake up is not expected for the lightweight men’s 8s at this year’s IRA, if a moment that will shock the rowing world will take place during the 2015 IRA, more than likely it will be in the lightweight 8.
Cornell comes into the IRA as a solid favorite, with hopes of coming home with consecutive IRA titles for the first time since 2008. Their rivals from the Ivy League will not be far behind however. Columbia last won Sprints in 2000 and has not cracked the top 3 since 2003. After a really strong second place finish at Sprints, Columbia could definitely challenge for the top spot on Sunday.
On the other hand, a dark horse could always come out of nowhere to take the crown. Harvard and Yale not making the top three at Sprints is unusual, yet Harvard finished 5th last year at Sprints (same at this year) and came in 2nd at IRAs. Rowing a few miles away from their home course, maybe Princeton will make that final jump to front this year before this regatta heads back to the west coast in 2016.
It looks to be another battle between Stanford and Radcliffe for the lightweight women’s title again at this years IRA. Lightweight rowing can produce some of the closest races and some of the most exciting finishes at a regatta. However with the exception of last year’s IRA grand final when Stanford badly faltered in the last 250 and lost to Radcliffe, Stanford has been the dominant force in the world of women’s lightweight rowing over the past five years.
During that time period however, Al Acosta was running Stanford’s program. This year Derek Byrnes is in his first season with the Stanford women. While there may be a new man at the helm for Stanford, Byrnes took over a very talented team that was highly motivated after that tough final at last year’s IRA. And Lou Berl is in her second year at Radcliffe, so there is a lot of new blood in the coaching launches in the lightweight ranks.
So far this season the Cardinal appear to be just as fast as they were last year. Stanford won the first head to head race against Harvard earlier this year, but that was over a month ago and the ice only broke up on the Charles two weeks earlier. With only two weeks on the water, Harvard could be a very different team come this weekend. Of course you can never rule out the underdog. Last year, Bucknell came out of nowhere in the final to nearly take silver from Stanford. Could BU or Wisco create that type of chaos in this year’s final?
The 2015 IRA is now only a day away. At the end of the season, it’s not your accomplishments throughout the year or even what you did last year that you will be remembered for. It’s what you do at this regatta. You will either write your name into history or your will leave yearning for what could have been. Thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of meters on the erg and the water come down to just one 2k. See you in Jersey!