So it's going to be a Princeton/Cal dual in the V8 at NCAAs? Not so fast...WSU, USC, Notre Dame and Brown are all still in the building, and they're not alone.
The first NCAA results started rolling into row2k in the first few days of March; now almost three months later, come Friday morning at 8am we'll see three national championships in three divisions play out over three days at the Finn M W Caspersen Rowing Center on Mercer Lake in the Princeton "suburb" of West Windsor, NJ.
On paper and in the polls, the Division I V8 is Princeton all the way - the crew's closest regular season race was a nine-second victory over Yale in a tailwind, with margins stretching out to nearly a half-minute in other races in races against crews from four of the five NCAA regions - and it has been a long while since anyone has seen an length of open water victory at Eastern Sprints. But Cal arrives at yet another NCAA Championship with a goose egg in the losses column, including Pac-10s, and despite a few close races, has been in control of every race they have entered this year, including a number of races out of their region. And two weeks leading up to the NCAA Championships have rarely failed to see sometimes dramatic shifts in racing dynamics in this event - look no further than Brown's almost ludicrous increase in speed just two years ago when they won both the V8 and the team trophy after failing to medal at Eastern Sprints.
But anyone expecting the race to boil down to a Cal-Princeton duel may not want to be off getting a hot dog when the field approaches the line; the WSU crew has been the breakthrough crew of the year, giving the whole field at Pac-10s a great show of their ability, and it's not a one-boat program, either; they took bronze in the 2V and silver in the V4 as well.
Ah, did I say that WSU was the breakthrough crew of the year? Not so fast - Notre Dame easily has an equal claim. Notre Dame taking the gold from NCAA stalwarts Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, et al at the South Central may have been the most powerful statement by an up and coming program all year. Also from the middle of the country, Minnesota makes an arguably overdue appearance at the NCAA's; from the northeast, BU is the fresh face in the crowd. From New England, Brown of all programs has shown they really understand what it takes to peak and race well at Nationals; as one veteran NCAA coach said Wednesday at the racecourse, "if anyone can pick up speed at this time of year, it is Brown." And no one should count out Yale, who very quietly medalled in all three boat classes at Eastern Sprints despite having not had coach Will Porter in the launch for two weeks due to emergency back surgery. Finally, pressed for a potential spoiler, I would tap the at-large invite USC, a crew packed with internationals that may just have some more to show on the racecourse. And, under deadline pressure, I almost hope I left someone out that really has something to show at NCAA's; there's nothing so sweet as getting blindsided by an unexpected great performance at a championship regatta.
In the 2V8, Brown gave a master class in how to pick up speed over the course of a regular season this year, racing tight with several crews in March, and then running away with the Sprints come May by a daunting 11 seconds. Brown's depth is something to behold - at Sprints, they were 2nd in the V8, won the 2V8, won the V4, and then placed 1-2 in the Varsity "B" 4 in their Varsity A and Varsity B boats as well as 2nd in the Novice 8 just for good measure and to hammer the point home; holy smokes. Then again, if the times are to be trusted, Ohio State's 2V would have won the V8 petite final, and Wisco wasn't far behind; similarly, Cal's 2V would have placed fifth in the grand final in the Pac-10's - all indications say these crews should do just fine, and provide some intense racing.
Handicapping the Varsity Fours is a much tougher task, as some crews fold novices into the varsity program right away, with many rowing in the four all year long, while others bring their frosh and novices "up" to race in the Varsity Four only in time for Nationals. Once again, Cal's four brought up the "short" end (referring to boat length) of a Pac-10 sweep this year, with WSU not too far behind. At Eastern Sprints, one crew was unexpectedly missing from the A final - the previously undefeated Princeton crew, who, while leading their morning heat by several lengths, went sideways in their lane due to a crab with 400 to go, and had to settle with a big win (and fastest time of the day) in the petites. In the final, Brown just barely nipped BU - whose four will not appear at the championships, BU having been passed over for a team invite. Similarly, South Central fours champ Virginia will miss the NCAA race-off due to Virginia's failure to earn the team invite, leaving silver medalist Ohio State to lead the Central pack, which also includes Wisco and MSU. From there, Yale, Ohio State, and Wisco all could contend for a slot in the A final.
In Division II, while Dowling makes a first appearance at the championships as an at-large eight, the five other crews in the event are all returnees from last year, with several of the crews now making several consecutive appearances. Coming in as the top seed,Western Washington will look to make a repeat appearance at the gold medal presentation; observers know, however, that over time racing in the DII events has been very volatile, so on the right day at least a couple of these crews could take top honors. Barry has traveled north to coach Paul Mokha's old Philly stomping grounds to win the Dad Vail two years running, while Nova Southeastern has proven their recent Rookie of The Year status was no beginner's luck with yet another appearance at nationals. UC San Diego nabbed the other team invite, while FIT makes another championship, this time in the at-large role.
For fans of DIII crews, a quick heads up: the finals take place on Saturday, and medals are awarded at the end of the racing. Last year I spoke to at least one spectator who wondered where all the DIII crews were on Sunday - by that time the athletes were eating and tanning, if not already on the way to summer jobs and internships from Manhattan to Madagascar.
Williams got the automatic qualifier nod by virtue of their two top two finishes (2nd in the V8, 1st in the 2V) at the National Invitational Collegiate Regatta, but remember that it was Ithaca who took the prize in the V8. The field has the potential to be packed fairly tight behind these two; how close might it get? The NIRC regatta had some fairly serious weather issues, but just two weeks before at the New England champs, Williams, Trinity, Tufts, Smith, and Colby finished in a fairly tight pack with about two lengths separating the field. This weekend returnee Puget Sound and newcomer Lewis & Clark join the dogpile of eastern crews in the NCAA mix.
After finishing second in the eight, but winning the team trophy, this year it looks like Ithaca may be hoping to trade one for the other, with a V8 that is going to take some doing to beat, but without the same depth shown last year, at least to date.
The DIII championship has a somewhat complex format - the team invitees bring both a V8 and a 2V8, but all crews race in the same event, so you may sometimes see two crews from the same school in the same heat, rep, or even final. Correspondingly, two national champions are often crowned, one in the V8, and one for the team trophy. Of course, the two champions could be the same team; this was not the case last year, when Ithaca took the team trophy, Trinity the V8 gold.
The selectors' job was particularly difficult this year, as considerable crossover conspired with quite a bit of tight racing all year long to create a vast pack of crews and teams of very similar apparent speed. Once the selections were announced, grumblings about the selection process were heard in every region save for the West, where all six Pac-10 "A" finalists were selected either as teams or at-large eights. In particular, compelling cases for a full team bid for BU and at-large (or even team) spots for Michigan and/or Radcliffe can and have been made.
|Division I ||Division II ||Division III |
UC San Diego
Pools B and C
At-Large I Eights
Lewis & Clark
All of that said, disputes over selection reflect absolutely not at all on the athletes themselves, and one thing you can count on at the NCAA championship over the years has been the indisputable fact that, once the starting flag goes down, the athletes between the buoy lanes are putting everything they have on the line. All of the crews attending the championships have performed very well at some point during the year, and clearly the best of the best eights and teams are attending the regatta. There will always be someone on the bubble, and getting the very best crews to the national championships is the critical task; when a national champion is crowned, it's pretty certain that it will be the fastest crew, and the deepest team.