Headed into the NCAA Championships starting on May 29th, handicapping the DI teams and V8s is a thing of near impossibility. There is so much speed at the top of the pile in all regions that, legitimately, there are half a dozen teams that could claim the top spot on finals day. The latest couple of CRCA/USRowing collegiate polls seem to bear this out; check out the shuffles that happened in just one week of polling, between May 13th and May 20th.
This is also the first year that the NCAA has adopted a single-track for invites to NCAA; only full teams were considered (as opposed to years past, where several "at large" Varsity Eights were invited in addition to the full team bids), which means that all 16 teams invited have an equal shot at the team title.
Going region by region, the EAWRC (which includes the New England and Mid-Atlantic region for NCAA purposes) saw some of its most exciting racing in years with only 6 seconds separating first place Yale from fifth-place Dartmouth. The Yale V8, bouncing back from a slim 0.1 defeat to Brown two weeks prior, claimed the V8 crown ahead of a surging Radcliffe crew, Princeton, Brown and Dartmouth. Those five teams received team bids to NCAAs this year, with Yale and Brown once again playing nip and tuck for the EAWRC points trophy, ultimately claimed by Yale.
In the South/Central regions, UVa once again emerged as the team peaking at the right time, taking first in the V8 and 2V8, and a close second in the V4. After a regular season that saw them lose to Clemson, the Cavs bounced back to claim their second consecutive SoCentral title. The South/Central regions, which runs their championships as a single regatta, has seen its fair share of results reversals; San Diego Crew Classic Champs Univ. of Michigan were second behind UVa, ahead of Michigan State, who'd beaten Michigan at the Big 10 Champs three weeks earlier. Also headed to NCAAs from the south are perennials Ohio State, Wisconsin, and a Clemson team that seems on the rise, probably most marked by becoming the only team in the 10-year history of the ACC Rowing Champs to beat UVa. The South/Central region sends the largest contingent of teams (six) to NCAAs this year, with UVa and Clemson representing the "South" and Michigan, MSU, Wisconsin and Ohio State representing "Central."
Possibly the fastest teams (and also the widest spread between invited teams) come from the Pac-10, where Stanford clearly is the class of the field. The Cardinal shook off a somewhat lopsided loss to Cal in mid-April to have the Bears number both at the Cal/Stanford dual and at Pac-10s, winning there by almost a solid length, with Oregon State, a surprise bronze medallist ahead of Washington and USC, back another near full-length of open water. These five teams make up the West/Pac-10 contingent.
Regatta observers would seem to be looking in vain for a clear top dog or early favorite...there are none! Stanford's V8 has lost to Cal, Yale has lost to Brown, UVa to Clemson, Michigan to Michigan State, and a few weeks later, Michigan State to Michigan. That said, you have to acknowledge the firepower in Stanford's V8; with two Olympians on board, and a ton of late-season momentum, the Cardinal is a crew that most folks might tap as the crew to beat.
Brown is the defending NCAA team champion, and always seems to manage the right mix of bodies and black magic to seize the team title at NCAAs (Brown has won the team trophy 6 times overall, and has won the last two). Of all the wins at NCAAs, this one might be the toughest for Bruno to repeat, as Yale, Cal, and Virginia on paper all seem to look a little bit stronger than this years' Brown contingent. In addition, the math of the team title becomes a little more straightforward with the absence of the "at-large" V8s, which were always good for a spoiler or two.
At the DII level, six teams are contesting the championship: Mercyhurst, Nova Southeastern, Philadelphia University and Western Washington, Dowling and Seattle Pacific. At the D2 level, four teams compete in an eight and a four, with Dowling and SPU being selected as additional "at-large" selections in the V8. The main storyline for this years DII championships are that Western Washington are going for an astonishing "five-peat," having taken the last 4 NCAA DII team titles, while Mercyhurst, Dad Vail Div II/III champs, are ranked ahead of WWU in the national poll. The team competition would seem to also be tighter, as Mercyhurst's V4 just missed a spot in the Vails final, which would seem to indicate that Mercyhurst has some depth to their squad.
The Vails Div II/III women's V8 final reads like a virtual audition for the NCAAs, with four of the six invited V8s racing: Mercyhurst won, with Seattle-Pacific fourth, Dowling 5th and Philadelphia U. 6th. The spread from first to 6th at Vails was 11 seconds, a harbinger of good racing in Camden.
The DIII field reads familiarly, with Williams, Trinity and Ithaca all returning; these crews have served up some of the most memorable racing at the NCAA DIII levels in recent years. Seven teams and two "at-large" eights make up the field: Williams, Bates, Ithaca, Puget Sound, St. Lawrence, Smith and Trinity get the team nods, with Washingon U. of Maryland and Williamette earning the at-large bids. Williams won the team title last year, but the field has closed somewhat: at the New England Rowing Championships on May 2nd, Williams eked out a closed water victory over a Bates team that could yet surprise at these Championships, and Trinity. Ithaca dominated the New York State Collegiate Championships, winning both the V8 and 2V going away, and will also challenge these three crews. With a paucity of racing results outside of the Northeast, it becomes harder to handicap the racing, but suffice it to say that the DIII racing at NCAAs has often provided some of the closest and most memorable competition.
On to Camden!