Western Washington continued their remarkable run atop the DII field in dominant fashion, taking both the eight and four races with open water to spare. In both races, Western used a strong start to distance themselves from what is becoming a tighter pack of DII contenders. Then each Viking boat really opened it up as they charged down the course, leaving no questions, no head scratching and most importantly, no math involved in determining title number seven.
In the first final, the DII Four, Humboldt State gave Western as much chase as they could in this three boat affair, but could only keep contact for 500 meters. Mercyhurst--whose squad doesn’t run much deeper than the number of folks they brought here--trailed in third despite winning their heat on Friday. Humboldt State did look to be the second fastest four on Friday, after all, their heat was against WWU. But in any event, the DII format does not feature a ton of chances to come down the course, so the Jacks’ trip through the reps may well have helped them have a better start here. With heat winners getting a full day off before the final, so they can come in quite rested, but the format puts a real premium on getting it all exactly right just once.
Western’s eight did just that in the Eights Grand Final, of course, getting all they needed in the first 500 meters against Mercyhurst. The final was the first time the crews had lined up against each other since the 2010 NCAAs, where Western fell behind a quick starting Mercyhurst eight who, but for being only an at-large eight (without a four) that year, might have snapped the Viking’s streak.
Today, back atop the eight and the four events, WWU Coach John Fuchs declined to call that result a wake-up call, noting that “it’s not something we focused on, but it may have come out in the racing a little bit.“ He preferred to say to say that his squad “turned the page [this year] and didn‘t focus on it” but admitted his rowers definitely wanted to lead from the start this year.”
Factor or no, the one-off nature of this rematch was intriguing in the run-up to the final. That chance to race the “unknown” is unique to DII, and springs directly from both the format of the DII event and the geographic diversity of DII itself. DII is wide-flung and really only gets its top programs together here at NCAAs. By comparison, fully six of the eight DIII here for in 2011 race each other pretty much weekly, and in DI as many as five bids went to just two conferences (Ivy and PAC-10) fresh off championship regattas of their own, not to mention the DI emphasis on cross-regional racing, and the often massive travel budgets for same.
Mercyhurst coach Adrian Spracklin dismissed any notion that the “unknown” might have been a disadvantage to his crew today: “We use the ‘unknown’ factor and, knowing it’s Western Washington, we know we have to be prepared for the very best.” Both crews actually did much of their preparation against DI and DIII programs during the course of the season: Western against Gonzaga and the Washington 2V out west, and Mercyhurst at the Knecht Cup, SIRAs, and the Vails out east. “As long as you are racing crews faster than yourself,” Spracklin says, “You’re going to maximize your speed.”
“We did have higher expectations,” Spracklin admitted after the race. “But Western is a very good crew, and they showed that today on the course. We didn’t row badly, but we didn’t row our best race and we lost to a good crew.” Spracklin was pragmatic about the way things unfolded: “I knew [Western] would go out hard, because last year they didn’t, and we didn’t counter enough. We were hoping to minimize how much they would take on us in the first five hundred [meters] and then try and attack, but they got too much in the first five, and then it was easy to sit on us and push away.”
Push away Western did, leaving Mercyhurst to take silver over Huboldt State who reeled in Nova Southeastern for third place. Yet if title number seven looked as easy as ever for the Vikings, DII is perhaps the division most in flux at these days, and so even Western‘s “business as usual” was not all that it might seem.
This was the tenth year of the DII Championship, and the division is growing, with new programs being added and a fairly regular rotation of contenders from year to year, considering the size of the DII field. As a percentage, DII sees the most turnover in participating institutions from year to year, and every DII coach row2k spoke with at Natoma talked about how the standard for just how fast completive crews need to be in this division is rapidly rising, both during the regular season and here at the event itself.
“With Western’s consistent speed and everybody coming along, you’re seeing the bar raised every year,” said John Gartin, DII Committee chair, and head coach at Nova Southeastern, whose eight took fourth in the Grand Final today. “Quality is up, across the board. Depth is up, across the board. And we’re seeing new schools adding DII rowing.” This DII field, said Gartin, was ‘one of the best we’ve ever seen, filled from top to bottom with just quality rowing.”
Western’s Fuchs agreed: “The speed just keeps getting faster and faster, and it is really exciting.” Pointing out that DII “has more programs coming in next year,“ he said that, “it’s just a matter of time before we have heats of six eights out there, too, and that’s ultimately what our goal is.”
Being a growing part of the three division NCAA regatta is important to the DII folks. “Its fun to see [DII rowers] come to something this special, and for all the divisions to see the best of rowing,” said Gartin. “You see everybody from every other crew watching all the other boats, looking to see what is going on, and that experience alone is phenomenal for everybody.”
If the bar is indeed being raised with DII‘s growth, then Western Washington’s continued dominance may be all the more remarkable, as coach Fuchs and his squad keep finding ways to stay so far ahead of the DII curve each year. Western works hard to do so, and was praised by many of the DII coaches here not just for their boat speed, but also for the consistency Western brings to DII racing. For Fuchs‘ part, to win again was simply “great for our program: to keep working and finishing on top, it’s just unreal.“
Fuchs talked about the work that went into this title: “We changed a lot from last year in terms of cross training. We gave them more rest this year, believe it or not. We actually trained less, but trained harder. I’m pretty pleased with the way they are rowing and how they are holding themselves in the boat, so we will definitely keep going in that direction.”
That could be bad news for the rest of the DII contenders, but these coaches all see Western’s speed as key to the process of making the whole Division stronger. “It gives you that extra edge we use to get faster,” notes Spracklin, who is after all the only other coach still in DII to have won an NCAA title (back in 2004, before Western started its run).
“We had four more people than we had last year,” Spracklin pointed out, “so we got to the team [bid] which is a step in the right direction for us.” Still, he admitted, “We’ve got to keep working harder.” And that is how spending another year as the unknown contender begins, because the Western Washington Vikings are still very much the one, and only, gold standard in Division II.
Also of note:
It was in fact a monster weekend of sporting success for John Fuchs of Western, who spent the off day his crews earned by winning the heats schooling the DI boatman in the finer points of croquet. Mr. Fuchs is not the first newcomer to take the elusive prize in an inaugural effort--tales are still told of dashing Northerner who triumphed once on the Mercer veldt--but in the only inter-division diversion of the weekend, Fuchs prevailed over many a former champion with the quiet, refined patience of the a true sportsman. On his way to his, and his division’s, first Wakamole Trophy, it was refreshingly observed in the enclosure how the champion eschewed any of the sort of modern gadgetry concocted in the realm of full-time boatman, negotiating the wickets instead with an simple, old-school mallet and the eye of a man who's won a thing, or seven, in his day.