Yale and Mercyhurst won the DI and DII Varsity Eights titles, and Virginia and Western Washington the team titles, on a NCAA finals Sunday in which a couple of streaks fell - Western's long nearly unchallenged run atop the DII V8 field, and Virginia's run as bridesmaid in the DI team championship.
DI Varsity Eight
In the early going, it looked like the semi winners Yale and Princeton were going to run away from the field, with Yale in particular blasting out to a big lead that would shrink a bit but never disappear down the 2k course. Virginia, however, refused to let the NCAA Championships become a replay of the two-boat Sprints dogfight, and fought their way back up on terms with the leaders in the third 500, eventually finishing strong to grab both the silver medal and the team championship. Princeton held off a late California surge to take the bronze.
The points trophy was especially poignant for Virginia coach Kevin Sauer, whose crews have placed second three times in the past 10 years - two of them in a statistical tie at the end of racing that was decided by the finish of the V8, neither of which went in Virginia's favor (in 1999 and 2007). A large number of colleagues and observers were glad to see Virginia get the second-place monkey off their backs, and be the bride this time, to mix metaphors somewhat egregiously. Read more about their team victory below.
Yale made no bones about their intention to win the V8, though, running even with Princeton for about 500 meters before pushing out to almost a 10-seat lead. Although Yale had stumbled a bit in the heats, allowing Stanford to sprint through in the final strokes, Yale coach Will Porter was confident come finals day.
"It's an incredibly strong group, and with all due respect to the other crews I thought we could win by more," he said after the racing. "This is the fastest crew I have ever coached, and I have seen them produce incredible boat speed."
Of the crew's heat and subsequent course record-setting semi, Porter said "It's hard to do this three days in a row at the NCAA. I think we underestimated Stanford in that first race, and we kind of got away from what we do. With this group of seniors, they have won so much, they have won three national championships and three Eastern Sprints in four years, so I did think they could do it.
Of the crew's slow start this season, Porter said that conditions in the Northeast contributed. "A lot of it was weather driven, and it just took a little time sorting my people out," he said. "We had wind, we had cold weather, and it's hard to get going fast early. That might be a blessing in disguise because it allows us to hold back a little and then press harder at the close of the season."
Coming into the championship, Virginia was well aware of their points trophy drought - they had placed second three times before in 1999, 2004, and 2007, two of them by the V8 tiebreaker - although Sauer said he did not dwell on it.
"We didn't overdo it, we knew that we had a shot," he said after the racing. "Coming in the number one ranked team was a little scary, actually. I thought oh geez, not the Sports Illustrated cover jinx. But we talked about it and said you know, that means people are respectful of what we are doing, and it doesn't mean squat on the water, we gotta go out and do it. We knew our four was strong, we knew that. And the 2V hasn't had the greatest year, but they did really well at the South Central regionals, and they kind of turned it around in the heat and started believing a little bit. They just really rallied from the middle of the year. And then in the varsity we said gosh, you gotta beat Cal and Stanford, you got to, that's the only way you can win this thing.
"We sat down and said you know what, it's gonna be somebody's time, why not our time."
Virginia had lost to Princeton in the same race that Yale had done so back in April, so had a similar revelation mid-season. "Earlier on, I thought we were doing okay and then we went to Princeton and the 2V got beat and the varsity got beat, and then it was okay, now we know," Sauer said. "Princeton is really fast, and we gotta respond to that. Then they turned it around the next week, had a good week at the ACCs, and then did a good job against Penn, and kind of got the ball rolling again a little bit. They did a really nice job at South Centrals. There are quite a few seniors in there, a lot of great character, and those things I knew would bode us well down the road."
The three days of blistering racing that the NCAA championship demands, and in particular the really rough semi the previous day, did not worry the squad too much.
"They're fit, and they weren't worried about it and I wasn't worried about it," Sauer said. "I showed them a video of the race and I said look at the difference the last 50 meters, it was a deck and a seat. That was all it was. And they didn't feel they rowed that well in the semi, so I said just row the way you are capable of. You're tough, you row well, go to your strengths. And they did."
For his part, Sauer had clearly done the math before he got on his bike to watch the V8 grand final.
"I was on the bike - I couldn't stand not biking it - so I biked the whole thing, and you can't see it for that 500 meters on the trail, so when I came through here and he is calling Virginia in second I said 'woah,' because we were barely in third when I left them half way down. So when he called that I said holy crap, and I biked through here, got through the security guard, and saw we got second, I thought we might even catch Yale. We didn't but they were moving on them. So yeah - it was cool."
Sauer was tearing up heavily when he first saw his team on the landing beach, but quickly shifted gears by wading into the water up to his neck to greet them.
The Cal Bears raced Sunday's finals in their "Team Jill" tanks in support of senior Varsity 8 coxswain Jill Costello. Jill has been battling lung cancer since NCAA's last year. The tanks are green for her favorite color and have a script "Jill" along the side instead of "Cal". The chest logo is also enhanced with the words "Cancer Killers."
DI Second Varsity Eight
Brown's second varsity led the race from start to finish, and did it in the most dramatic fashion possible, hardly settling off the start to a punishing 38-39 strokes per minute - and then held it there all the way to the finish line. Coach John Murphy said that the crew's determination in this regard was apparent back home as well.
"Since we didn't do as well as we would have hoped at the Sprints, we tried to shake it up a little bit, and no matter how I switched it the JV just wouldn't be denied," he said. "We would switch something one day and get a little lead (in the Varsity eight), and the next day they are even and the next day…"
Of the crew's high-rating tactics, Murphy is philosophical.
"I feel a little uncomfortable actually, I would rather they row a little lower and a little longer, but sometimes you have to go with what works," he said. "I hoped they can hold it together, and they did."
The pace was so punishing, six-seat vomited following the race, see photo gallery here.
DI Varsity Four
As reported yesterday, the Virginia varsity four has looked unbeatable all weekend, and even before this weekend, and the final only bore out this impression. For the third day in a row, Virginia won by open water rowing away, followed in the medals spots by Cal and Wisconsin. The win in the Varsity four gave Virginia a critical lead in the points trophy chase.
The crew came in ranked first, and after three days of almost easy wins, could have rested on their laurels (and their history - Virginia has won four of the last seven Fours titles). Virginia fours coach Steve Pritzker said the crew stayed focused on their abilities so not to think racing would get too easy.
"We just talked about what we were capable of," he said of his discussions with the crew before the final. "I certainly thought that someone might try to put together a fast first 500 to try to shake us early, and we had been working on improving the start a little bit to be ready for that, but we were pretty fortunate to have some decent base speed."
Of the all-sophomore crew (the coxswain is a senior) Pritzker said "I think these were the right kids for a four. The stroke was a freshman in the boat last year, and she has really matured a lot. These kids just kind of fit, and I think they have grown up a lot. We just have a lot of depth as a team, and there are a lot of people who aren't here who could have been here and done pretty darn well too."
Western Washington's extended to six years their run atop the D2 as the team champion, although this time they had to do so without winning the Varsity Eight, which went to at-large V8 invitee Mercyhurst.
With a truly commanding win in the Varsity Four, because no other squad had a crew in both the V4 and V8, Western Washington had statistically sewed up the team championship. But when the Varsity came down the course, it was Mercyhurst in the lead, which they held on to for the V8 win. Western Washington coach John Fuchs and his team took some consolation from winning the team championship, but the sting of the silver in the V remained.
"I thought it was a really good race," Fuchs said. "I think we did just about everything we possibly could to beat them, and Mercyhurst put together a really good performance, and they deserved to be national champions in that event.
"But I think they were upset and disappointed," he continued. "They're really competitive, and I think the team championship was bittersweet. When they got handed the trophy, and they got into that situation I think they were really happy, but deep down I know they really wanted to win after they trained all year for that event. For everyone in that varsity eight it was the first time they had lost to a D2 opponent. We hadn't lost since 2004 at the national championship in the varsity, so they hadn't really experienced any kind of loss except for crews in DI. So they were upset, but at the same time, they went over and congratulated Mercyhurst; it was really good.
Fuchs assigns little import to the streak in both the eight and team championship.
"I'm not the kind that buys into streaks, it just happens to work out that way, but you still won the national championship," he said. Of Mercyhurst's win, he said "I think it is good for Division 2 rowing in general. We're pushing for a change to the championship; we'd like to see eight eights instead of six eights and two fours. Mercyhurst should be standing there with a team trophy as well, so things could change a bit I think."
After winning the Dad Vail a few weeks back, Mercyhurst coach Adrian Spracklen noted that his crew was headed into finals, and was hoping merely not to lose speed leading up to NCAAs. It turned out that the finals were the least of their concerns; injury and illness added to the challenge.
"It was difficult, there were some days where we had some sickness and some injuries, so we actually had to take even more time off," Mercyhurst head coach Adrian Spracklen said after his crew won the V8 final. "It ended up being a very long taper.
Not really the way we wanted to prepare, so we tried just to focus on what you're given, and made the most of the time we had. It was hard with exams and finals, and the sickness on top of that; it just made things very difficult."
Asked if he was surprised his crew could pull it off in the end, Spracklen said "Western Washington is a great champion, they're phenomenal. They've always something up their sleeve, they're a consistent crew. I knew we had a chance. Someone asked me last night, and I said we have about a 40% chance. Not quite 50% because I knew what Western can do; you're not a champion by fluke. I knew that if we rowed well, and if we rowed with nothing to lose - because we didn't since we could not qualify for the team - it was either we win and we get something, or nothing. So I said we have nothing to lose. In our team meeting we compared it to a poker match - we've got a good hand, but we've got to bet everything we've got on it. That was the attitude: that we have nothing to lose, except to leave it on the water and walk away and say we did our best."
Spracklen's crew played their hand aggressively and early, blasting out to an early lead that Western could not overcome down the stretch. Spracklen was as surprised as anyone in the early going.
"I didn't expect to get out to that lead that quickly," he said. "Last year, we pushed out to a lead, and we paid the price the second 500. So we tried to back off a little bit that first 500 so it would set us up for the middle 1000, which we have always worked on. And so to be up when we didn't focus on it, that surprised me. I thought Barry would be ahead; they've always been ahead, and I expected Western Washington to be with us, because they are a very consistent crew. So when we were up that early, part of me was saying I hope they didn't get too nervous and just put it all into the first 500. They didn't, so going through 500 I thought, okay, it's a bonus. The second 500 I knew would be the place that if we executed, I knew we had a shot, because our third 500 we're very confident in. We have a very solid third 500, so if we could get there with positive boat speed, not being drawn on, I thought we had a good chance. So when we got through the 1000 into the third 500, we had good boat speed and I had confidence that we would be solid in the third 500. The last 500 I wasn't so sure about, but the third 500 I had confidence in."
Spracklen said it was "bittersweet that we didn't have the four to go for the team championship, but it takes nothing away from the eight girls that got through the program. It's exciting and tremendous, and they really rowed their best race. They peaked at the right time despite - maybe we need to have more sickness and more exams before a major race. I don't want it that way, but they timed it well."
Fuchs' mention of possible changes to the DII format indirectly brings up the point that in both divisions, different squads split the V8 and team championships. 2010 was very nearly the first year that the NCAA chose not to give out awards to individual crews, awarding only the team trophies; oof. Pray let's keep giving out awards so that we keep recognizing the fastest crew in the country in their respective events; please let's agree that this is a part of rowing that has always been so, and should never, ever go away, no matter what any other sport or other governing body says otherwise.
As his crew headed home for the summer, Fuchs said that he did not push them to start thinking about next year at all. "I think it will take them a little while for the whole thing to settle down," he said. He did ask a few of the athletes what they are going to do for the summer; "Most of them said 'Train,'" Fuchs laughed
As one coach noted the moment the last team had left the medals ceremony platform: "And now it's all about next year." See you there.