It might come as a surprise to some, but today marks Yale's first national championship and undefeated season since the famous "These are the bodies..." crew led by Chris Ernst achieved the feat in 1979 - almost 30 years ago. An incredibly tight field reliably produced one of the best, closest grand finals in NCAA history today, with Yale emerging from the fray to take the V8 national championship, Ohio State pushing them all the way to take silver, and USC countering a fierce Brown sprint to take the bronze. Meanwhile, just out of the medals, Brown and Virginia fought it out for the team trophy, with Brown edging Virginia by just under two seconds to edge them by four points for the team championship.
The V8 grand unfolded in dramatic fashion; Yale took the lead from the get, but only barely, if confidently, and the field crackled and popped behind them all the way down the course. Crossing the 1000, there was less than a length separating the entire field, and just when it looked like the crews might start to separate, the field got even tighter 20 strokes later. The back of the field, where Virginia and Princeton were lurking, surged several seats into the lead chevron to the point where there may have been only about 10 seats from first to sixth as the 750 to go mark approached.
I'm not sure this field is the "best" NCAA field ever - there may have been too many small stumbles and sidetracks during the regular and qualifying seasons - but it certainly was the deepest, and in some ways the most competent, if that is a strong enough word - there were very few outright "mistakes" made this weekend. When the back of the field surged forward in that third 500, not one crew seemed to be taken off-guard; the entire field responded almost instantaneously and without hesitation. It really was something to witness.
At the very end of the third 500, the Princeton crew fell of the pace - the trip through the reps, as well as problems that put the spares into action on the first day of racing (not to mention the almost all-eastern semifinal brawl reported yesterday, whew) - seemed to have exacted a cost by the final 500 of the final, and they could not stay in the hunt. Just ahead of them in fourth and fifth, of points championship contenders Brown and Virginia, the Brown crew seemed the more hellbent of the two - they were in a full sprint by 400 to go, and even pulled into third briefly for a good 15 strokes before USC burst through at the finish to take the bronze. When it was over, a mere 2.5 second separated the top four crews, and less than two lengths separated the field.
Yale coach Will Porter said his crew wasn't feeling the pressure coming into the regatta, but after their dominant performance in the semis, come Saturday night things had changed.
"I wouldn't say we didn't feel any pressure, but coming into the regatta, we felt like we were the second seed behind USC, and didn't really feel like the favorites," he said after the finals. " But by last night (after the semi), it was a little different. We just tried to stick with what we have been doing- push for the lead and force the other crews to have to respond, then race it from there. When we came into the last 500 in the lead, I felt pretty good about our chances, as our sprint has been pretty good this year. We haven't had to use it too much, mainly against Princeton and Brown in the regular season, but it is something the crew does well."
Did Porter invoke the memory of the 1979 crew in preparing this team? "We really never did, but we're really excited that these kids were able to pull it off."
In 2006, the Brown crew was on the wrong side of a really harsh points tally; if you don't recall this one, check out last year's report at http://www.row2k.com/ncaa/features.cfm?ID=212. The crux of it is that Cal's three second places beat Brown's two firsts and a third by virtue of the finish in the V8, which came down to 0.2 seconds; it was unquestionably the tightest team championship chase ever. Add to that that Brown tied Yale for the points trophy at Eastern Sprints two weeks ago, which said tiebreaker goes to the better finish in the V8, and you have a couple more close calls than any program likes to endure.
This year, Brown won the team championship with a fourth, a ; it came down to the V8 against Virginia this time, and Brown kept themselves on the right side of the finish line flag. Brown coach John Murphy was happy to be on the upside when all the math was done.
"We thought about it a little bit during the year, but last year it was all fair and square, so it wasn't like we were out for revenge this year," he said. "But then we lost the points trophy in the tiebreaker at Sprints, and I thought "Geez, not again!', so it was nice to be able to do it here."
In placing second, the Ohio State Buckeyes won their first V8 medal in program history, winning a third place team medal as well, also a program-best. During the regatta, OSU coach Andy Teitlebaum recognized that his crew had the ability to make an impression with their pushes, and tried to work on how to approach the interstices between tactical moves.
"After the semis, I told the crew that it was clear we can move," he said; "when we took our moves, it really made a difference. So it became a matter of how we dealt with the emotional and speed swings during the race, how to get through that. I didn't know how it would go in the final, but when I saw them in good position at the halfway point, I thought they could pull it off."
A few worthy mentions:
The V8 petite lived up to the billing row2k would have expected in this field, with only one length separating the field at 500 to go. With a field this deep, it is worth having a good look at the petites; no surprise that it looked a lot like the grand final. In their first trip to the NCAA's in some time, Dartmouth set the pace almost all the way down the course, and in the end nabbed eighth behind a determined Minnesota crew; Tennessee, Stanford, Harvard and Notre Dame were fractions of seconds behind the entire way. the Minnesota folks have been fighting the good fight for several years now, and in the first year that they actually have a proper boathouse, they came up big all year.
The Minnesota program for winning the 2V grand final in implacable, unflappable style; as a half-dozen race plans went off to the port side of their spot in Lane 6, the crew just gradually chugged away during the middle of the race with almost no drama, explosive maneuvers, flutters, or flurries. By the end of the race, they showed that good, solid rowing can get you to the finish line first; nothing revolutionary, but something perhaps more interesting: a truism.
In the same race, Brown looked to be in real trouble late, but rowing very close with Virginia, it seemed like the 2V knew exactly what was on the line, nothing short of the national championship, and wound it up with pure desire that you'll sometimes see in a feisty, hungry 2V. They were in a full sprint with over 400 to go, and it turned out to be the real thing. They couldn't catch Minnesota, but that final 500 played a big part in Brown's national championship.
Petite fury: USC won both the 2V and V4 petite finals, and seemed to be racing with the fury of a crew denied. Sometimes you will see such a crew race in the petites without passion and with a lackluster approach; other times they are all piss and vinegar, and race like caged, angry animals. You guess which one is more satisfying, and more admirable; kudos to the USC crews for throwing down in the petites. (Maybe it has something to do with the RV's that were driving around with USC colors and the slogan "We are BALLIN!" on the back window; whew.)
V4: holy smokes, talk about a second 1000; Virginia and Brown had overlap at 1000 down, and it even looked for a bit like Brown had momentum on their side; then Virginia gained the slightest advantage and proceeded to run it up like it was a flag, woah, and won it by about six lengths. The crew included bow person , who was in a very serious accident in March; it would seem her recovery is complete about now, whew.
Cheering section of the year: Dartmouth stroke Anne Kennedy's older sister is literally a sister - as in a Catholic nun, stationed in Oak Ridge. She and three of her fellow sisters attended all three days of the racing, watching the racing from the 1000 meter mark in full garb, chatting on cellphones to get the results of the racing, and graciously waving to passing media photographers.
It was Western Washington all the way today; in the Fours race, WWU had open water before the end of the racing start segment, and won by what people used to call "curvature of the earth;" in the V8 the win was slightly less overwhelming, but was also probably never really in doubt. After the top three finishers raced almost dead even for 500 meters, with only Nova SE off the pace, it was a good thing for WWU that they could put a bit of water between them and UCSD and Dowling, as those two crews raced side by side the whole way - they must have switched positions four or five times during the race, and there were long stretches of two and three-hundred meters where the coxswains were in deadlock. UCSD gathered themselves to get away by the finish to take silver, and the Dowling oarswomen were in a heap across the line; they had really given it up, but came up short.
In the offing, Western Washington became the first-ever crew in any division to win three straight national championship titles.
Western Washington has been the favorite almost since they packed up their boats at last year's championships; coach John Fuchs said he spent the entire summer working on ways to tweak the approach to keep things interesting for the athletes and to keep improving.
"For example, we did not lifting this year, and did more aerobic work than ever, both on and off the water" he said. As for coming into the championships as a virtual lock to take top honors, Fuchs said he tries to stay focused on sticking to plan. "I try to get them to do what they know how to do," he said. "To do that, and not to add anything, is the ticket."
Division I Quotes
Brown -- 2007 Division I National Team Champion
Brown Head Coach John Murphy
On winning the program's fifth NCAA Division I National Championship:
"It's great. What can I say? It's just so special. The whole setting here is just outstanding. Tennessee is very fortunate to get to row here. It's a great pleasure to win. The competition gets tougher and tougher every year and that is evident in all of
the close fi nishes that we had this weekend. We hope to be back here again in the future."
On winning the national championship without winning a race:
"We have been very fortunate to have good depth. As you can see, on a team like this it takes every single person and we are very proud of them."
Brown Co-Captain Elizabeth Fuson
On winning the NCAA Division I National Championship:
"We are really proud of everyone on the team. We are such a cohesive team. Fourth place in the Varsity Eight has never felt so good. It was a hard weekend and it just feels great."
On what made them successful this season:
"We work extremely hard all year. It's always our main goal to win the team title and we work toward that from day one."
On Head Coach John Murphy:
"He always knows what to say to inspire us. He just told us to go for it, give it our all and that this was our last 2,000 of the year. He just said that we knew what we needed to do and to go do it."
Brown Co-Captain Rachel Dearborn
On racing Virginia for the national championship in the Varsity Eight Grand Final:
"We had our eye on them the whole time. We knew they were the other team competing (for the championship). But Ohio State, Yale and USC raced really hard and deserve congratulations."
Yale -- First Eights National Champion
Yale Head Coach Will Porter
On winning the Division I Eights:
"I was very proud of our women today. The National Championships are always tough, and this was a very hard-fought victory. We raced to our plan today and took on all challengers. I am just really proud of our team. We concentrated on rowing our race. We were steady in the middle and finished hard. We concentrated on what we wanted to do. We showed great concentration. It was a tight race."
Yale Team Captain Rachel Jeffers
On winning the Division I Eights:
"It was a great race. We've been looking forward to this all year. Our team was unrelenting. All year long, we've been saying, 'It's our boat. It's all about us.'"
Yale Coxswain Emily Cleveland
On winning the Division I Eights:
"It may not have been our best executed race of the year, but it was defi nitely our hardest fought and gutsiest race. We were unrelenting, line to line. It was definitely our most collective race, bow to stern. All eight heads were in the boat. This is how we wanted to go out."
Division II Quotes
Western Washington Head Coach John Fuchs
On winning three consecutive Division II National Championship:
"It's pretty amazing that we have been able to put up that kind of success. When you work hard, good things happen. We really don't go into the season thinking about winning three in a row. We look at each season individually, take it race by
race and just try to do the best we can with the athletes we have. I'm really proud of the hard work this team has put forth all year. It's a really great group and they should be very proud of themselves. They have a lot to be proud of."
Western Washington Captain Lindsay Mann-King
On winning three consecutive national championships:
"It's really cool. It was a really great accomplishment for us. We were very aware that we were making history, but there's definitely more to reach for."
On being captain of the team:
"It was a really cool position to lead these eight amazing women and for them to allow me to lead them."
Western Washington Assistant Captain Metta Gilbert
On winning the Division II National Championship:
"Everything today was a good representation of all the work that we have put in since September. We've got a great team, and our chemistry is amazing. Every practice, we give it all that we have. There is no girl (on this team) who ever leaves practice that feels like she has never given it her all. Our team is amazing. Our coaches are amazing. We are very self-motivated. It is a euphoric feeling to win again. I've still got a year left. It's a huge benefit for us to be able to go against Division I schools, like Gonzaga, each year."
Minnesota -- Second Eights National Champion
Minnesota Head Coach Wendy Davis
On the overall success this weekend: "To have the whole team here is such a big deal and has been just wonderful. To be part of the top 12 in the country is huge, and I?m just really pleased with how things went today and how we performed as a team."
On the Second Eights winning the National Championship: "We?ve known all year that they have been fast and since September 5, our first practice, we have done really well. A lot of people in the second eights belong in the first varsity eight boat, but there are only eight seats. Luckily that is because everybody is good; it is a good problem to have. With this group, we have stuck to the same race plan to get out early at the start and just stay at the front. They just row really well, sometimes even better than our first varsity eights crew."
On what to look forward to next year: "You hope you can build on this. We graduate a lot of people, but most of the second varsity eight will be coming back. We should have a good top end to our program and will be something good to build off of."
Senior Catherine Casey On winning the Second Eights National Championship: "It was the last race in my college career and it was just unbelievable. I can?t even put it into words. This boat has been working so hard and has a sense of heart and will. To push beyond what we even thought was just unbelievable."
On the strategy going into the final race: "We used the first two races to make adjustments. The first race we were trying to even out our splits over the whole race. Yesterday we were working on our third 500 because, two weeks ago, that?s when Virginia was ahead of us. Going into the race today, we knew we could dominate in that area of the course."
Virginia -- Fours National Champion
Virginia Head Coach Kevin Sauer
On winning the NCAA Championship in the Fours? "This was an amazing eff ort by these girls. I have never seen anything like that in an NCAA championship, to win a race by that much and to dominate. They?ve shown so much all year and this was a fitting end to what they?ve done all year, that they were able to win a national championship."
Virginia Rower Rebecca Ryall
On winning the NCAA Championship in the Fours? "We worked really hard all season long. This was a team effort and I?m glad that all of our hard work all year paid off today and that we were able to bring home the goods."
And so ends the 11th NCAA Championships; row2k has been to them all, having passed our 10th anniversary a few weeks ago; I hope you have enjoyed our coverage.