From the left coast, wearing the Black, Red and Gold unis and sporting an undefeated record, it's USC. And, on the opposite shore, also undefeated and wearing the Blue with White trim, it's Yale. Let the heavyweight bout begin!
The coastal battles at the NCAA are nothing new (see Brown/Princeton vs. Cal, 2006), but this years' NCAA is slightly different not only in that both the players from their respective coasts have changed, but that there's a bevy of crews from in between the coasts that have the goods to spoil someone's party.
But first, the big dogs: USC has been the class of the field on the west coast all season, handing Cal a good sized loss at San Diego to open the season. The other regional players have definitely caught up, however; USC's PAC-10 victory, a one-length win over Stanford, with Cal another 3 seats back, was probably a bit close for comfort. USC is deep; their crews finished first, third and third in the V8, JV8 and V4 at Pac-10s and could factor in all three events.
Cal, the 2006 NCAA Team Champs, qualify as the 2nd placed team from the west, while Stanford also goes into the NCAAs as a team with surprising late season speed, their second place showing at Pac-10s reversing an earlier defeat to 3rd place Cal.
The surprise team bid and heartbreak misses also come from the left coast; Univ. of Washington gets in from the west largely on the strength of their JV (silver) and V4 (Pac-10 champs), with the Varsity 16 seconds adrift of USC in sixth place. 2nd place Stanford and 4th place UCLA both received Varsity 8 "at-large" bids from the west, with unselected Oregon State in 5th ahead of Washington, a mere 1.8 seconds behind UCLA, ouch.
On to the East: Yale ran the table in the east in a year that saw tight, competitive margins in the dual racing up and down the coast, with Yale able to find more speed late, more than doubling their margin on Brown from the dual meet to Sprints, and opening up quite a bit of water on third-place Princeton. If USC has been the standard out west, Yale has been more like a giant roused from a long slumber; Yale's performance at Sprints was the single best team performance by a Yale's women's team in quite some time, and, given the quality of the competition, can probably stand up with that of any of the other teams headed to Tennessee. Most folks likely figured that the Yale V8 was fast, especially by the time that Yale upended Brown in late April, but most observers were probably not convinced that Yale was championship deep until Sprints.
Like their counterparts from Cal, Brown heads to NCAAs as the runners-ups runner-ups: after being just pipped by Cal at the 2006 NCAAs for the team title, Brown lost the 2007 Sprints points to Yale on a tiebreaker in the Varsity eight. Yale heads to NCAAs rightfully seeded #1 out of the east, with Brown right behind. Team-wise, Brown and Yale are stacked fairly tightly, and will likely remain so in Tennessee.
Behind Yale and Brown, Radcliffe and Princeton are the other team bids from the east, with Radcliffe making a welcome return trip after a year away in 2006. Dartmouth, 5th at Sprints, gets an at-large nod in the V8.
(Incidentally, one source that seems to have captured both Yale's rising speed and USC's being slowly reeled in by the pack are the cMax rankings right here on row2k. As of the 5/15 ranking, Yale had cracked USC's stranglehold on the top spot, as had Brown. Then again, computers don't do much rowing.)
In between the coasts, there's been a pretty good battle raging, and the South and Central team bids were once again decided in relentlessly hard racing at the South/Central sprints, held on the NCAA course in Oak Ridge. It's hard to compare times of course, but the 10 second spread from first to sixth place in the V8 final at South/Central was much tighter than either the Pac-10 or the Sprints finals were; as a combined regional, racing is often tight here, and this year was no exception.
Virginia, who also missed out on NCAAs in 2006, didn't put a stroke out of place at the South/Central regatta, sweeping firsts in the V8, JV8 and V4 for a pretty dominant return to the show. How tough was it to do that? Consider that two other teams headed to the NCAAs from this regatta, Notre Dame and Ohio State, didn't even place all three of their NCAA level crews into the Grand Finals.
In another sign of how deep this championship is, you really live and die by the V8: Wisconsin ended up 4th as a team, but will not be headed to the NCAAs, as their V8's 3rd place performance in the petites (9th overall) offsets second and third-place grand final finishes by the Wisco V4 and JV8, respectively. The NCAA selection committee seemed to concur, with the top 5 schools from the V8 final getting team bids (UVa, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Tennesse, Minnesota), while the 6th placed V8, UCF (who shocked UVa earlier this season), getting the championships at-large bid to the NCAA.
Where Notre Dame was the breakout crew of the year from this region last year, Minnesota takes that mantle this time around. After seven years at Varsity status under head coach Wendy Davis, the Gophers have finally made their way into the championship field as a team after a few years of knocking on the door.
V8 crossover results in the house: on the same weekend in late April, Notre Dame beat UVa and Princeton, while Yale beat Brown, both of whom were comfortably ahead of Tennessee. A few weekends earlier, USC made the best of an east coast swing to the Charles River Challenge by knocking all manner of crews silly (two 20+ second margins in separate races on the same day, wow).
Down through the JVs and V4s, it gets harder to call the races as these lineups tend to shift around with coaches tinkering between regional champs and the NCAA. Suffice it to say that many of the usual suspects head to Tennessee with very strong 2Vs on the trailer; Sprints champs and runners-up Brown and Yale, Cal, Washington and USC within a length and a half from the west coast, and UVa and Minnesota with 2 seats between them from the South/Central region are the likeliest finalists here.
Much the same case can be made in the V4, where there are four clear leaders headed into the weekend: Washington and USC are the class from the west, while Yale ran away from the field at Sprints and Virginia pretty much schooled the pack at South/Central. Brown certainly can be counted on to make an impact here, as they will likely dip into their undefeated, sprints champion Novice 8 to give their V4 some extra speed. It's in these two events, the JV and V4, that novices moving up have historically had the greatest impact.
So, are we ready to call this one as going to either Yale or USC? Not quite; by the looks of things, this looks to be one of the tightest fields in a few years, with UVa and Brown lurking and crews like Stanford, Notre Dame and Minnesota showing that they are clearly capable of surprising the one or other bigger, more established program along the way.
On to D2: the D2 format invites 4 teams of an eight and a four, plus two at-large eights. The teams selected were: Dowling, UC San Diego, Nova Southeastern and Western Washington, with Florida Tech and Seattle Pacific going "at-large." All of these crews have seen each other recently (on the same day, in fact), with Dowling winning the DII/DIII Eight at Dad Vails in Philly, with Nova Southeastern 5th and Florida Tech 6th, while Western Washington won the Pacific Coast Rowing Champs in Sacramento ahead of UC San Diego, with Seattle Pacific 4th. WWU and UC San Diego also placed 1-2 in the V4 at PCRCs, so with the full NCAA field selected on one day from two regattas, this has to be the most compact selection process going!
On times alone, the D2 champs would appear to be Dowling's show this year, as they own good margins over their fellow eastern qualifiers; that said, it's virtually impossible to compare times from regattas 3000 miles apart.
As easy as the D2 selections were, the D3 selections were nearly torpedoed by the cancellation of the ECAC Regatta, which would have served as a pretty important final qualifier/seeding race for the team and at-large selections. The only automatic qualifier was Williams, by virtue of their win at the New England Championships, which has become a fairly important result for D3 crews over the past few years. NERC runners-up Trinity are also in as a team, as is 4th place Bates. William Smith, Ithaca and Puget Sound, the only non-east coast school competing at the NCAA D3 Championships this year fill out the team bids, while Coast Guard and Mary Washington (located in Virginia) are the at-large V8s.
Again, the D3 format is this: six teams send a V8 and 2V8, but all 14 eights race together in heats, reps, semis and finals, so it's not entirely unusual to see a team get two eights into the Grand.
The Williams/Trinity battles have tended to define these championships at the D3 level, and with just over a length between these crews at the New England championships, a rematch seems likely.
On to Oak Ridge! The first sign that NCAAs are on Dixie time this year? By the wednesday before the regatta's friday start, neither a schedule nor the seeds and lanes for the regatta had been posted yet, whew. If not lanes, what are coaches supposed to worry about?
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