As was the case last year, the women's collegiate racing over the past 3 months has only borne out the fact that the quality of competition in the women's game has never been higher. That makes handicapping the NCAAs all the more difficult for press types, but means only one thing for the participants and spectators at this years' championship at Lake Natoma: a great regatta.
Going into the championships, Dave O'Neill's Cal women must be considered the early favorites. As the only major undefeated crew on the year, Cal ran the table out west, winning San Diego, Windermere and Pac-10s, ending a 14-year title drought at the latter. Eleanor McIlvane at Washington has had to endure the inevitable comparisons with Jan Harville after replacing Harville this past summer, but in the grand scheme of things, the Huskies still haven't missed a beat, and must be seen as contenders again in Sacramento. Washington has done some lineup shuffling, moving several rowers from the UW novice eight, until then the class of the west, into the varsity ranks.
In the east, Princeton took care of business on the year, their lone loss coming to Ohio State in late March, with wins over Brown, Yale, defending NCAA champs Radcliffe, and a competent, if close, win at Sprints. Radcliffe seemed to have found their championship season gear by Sprints, and will likely also be ready to go in Sacramento. Brown, who have switched at stroke seat, and Yale will also look to make an impact; given Brown's storied history at NCAAs, one would be hard pressed to count them out.
The midwest has been the round-robin region this year, with seemingly every crew owning a win over somebody now headed to the championships. Ohio State paced the region early, putting in the miles as it raced in the midwest, east and south, but Michigan pulled off the stunner with their wins in the Varsity and JV eights at the Big-10 championships. Michigan State has also earned their trip to Sacramento, defeating Michigan the week before Big-10s and posting solid results at the South/Central sprints.
Virginia, out of the south region, will also arrive in Sacramento ready to make some noise. Natoma has been kind to the 'Hoos, as they recorded their best NCAA result at this venue in 1999.
In contrast to the IRA regatta, selections are a lot tighter for the NCAAs than for the men's championship, and this inevitably causes controversy; arguing over the selections could almost become a parlor game, like the NCAA bball tournament. On the whole, the best and the fastest are here; nationally, BU may have a just claim on having been unjustly left out of the championships due to regionally-based selection process, as crews came out of the petite finals of the Central/South region championships, and they beat at least one crew that was selected to the championships. Getting down to the final field is tough, and all of the crews making the trip to Natoma have shown something this year; it simply goes to show the difficulty of fairly seeding a national championship with little regional overlap. Are the petite finals of one championship faster than the finals of another? No easy answers there.
All of this just takes into account the Varsity eights, of course. For the DI squads, the JV and V4 collect valuable points along the way, and deep teams like Washington, Brown and Cal have the team title in their sights. There are also full competitions at the DII/DIII level slated for Natoma, with Western Washington looming as a threat, and Mercyhurst the Eastern unknown. In the DIII, Smith looks to complete a tremendous season with the DIII title. It won't be easy; at the ECAC regatta, only 1.5 second separated Smith in first place from Coast Guard in fourth, and UPS comes in as the western dark horse.