Division 2 has a new champion, for the first time in eight years: Humboldt State. The Jacks made good on their mid-April upset of Western Washington--and avenged the WIRA reversal that Western Washington managed just a week later--to take the title with wins in both the eight and the four.
A bit of perspective here: if "first new champ in eight years" is not remarkable enough, there is also the fact that only three schools have ever won in the 11 year history of the D2 Championship, and one of those--UC Davis--isn't even in D2 anymore (the program moved to D1 after winning the first two D2 titles, and then was cut altogether, and is currently a club program). Both of the other two schools to win it, Mercyhurst and of course Western Washington, were here in the 2012 V8 Grand Finals--so Humboldt made their history in full view of the division's former champions.
The Jacks four got the changing of the guard started with a clear statement of speed in the four. As in the heat, the Jacks leapt ahead right at the start, and came home nearly nine seconds ahead of Nova Southeastern. Western Washington was third--setting up a tough ask for the Vikings V8 if there was going to be a successful defense of the WWU streak.
Say this for Western Washington: their V8 did not go quietly here today, after struggling in the heats and even being pressed in the reps, the Vikings went out hard in the final, and the led the race at every split, until the one at the end that really counts. Their bid for first in the V8 was not just about pride: with the way the points are weighted in D2, a first place finish in the eight could still win them their eighth title, if Humboldt State went third or fourth.
Things were tense at the line, with a false start even to keep the crews--and the crowd--waiting just a few minutes longer to see how things would unfold.
Once things got restarted, Western Washington jumped ahead, but the field was packed behind them. For a good portion of the race, both Nova Southeastern--who also had a shot to win it all if the placings fell right--and Mercyhurst held on to the pace, and it actually looked like the Vikings might actually escape with a title, but when Humboldt State took over second place for good from the Sharks and the Lakers in the middle of the race, the title run was clearly going to over for the Vikings.
All that remained was the chance for Humboldt State to win the title from the front, and they spent the last 500 meters pulling their way back through WWU, getting ahead for good by dropping the hammer with 300 meters to go. In all, a tremendous boat race by all four crews, but maybe especially by the Sharks of Nova SE, who raced with a spare in each crew after a last minute substitution this morning.
Afterwards, Humboldt coach Robin Meiggs talked about getting the win here over Western Washington: "It was an honor to beat Western Washington today. Seven time National Champions; they practically owned it." She went on to credit the whole field with taking the level of racing up a notch this year: "Just to see how much the level has risen for Division II within a year has been really exciting to see."
Humboldt was not a surprise here--they did after all beat Western Washington once in April and took over the top spot in the polls for a week before Western got them back at the WIRA Championships to regain the top spot--but they were a revelation, signaling that the level of competition had risen high enough in Division II to could create another champion altogether..
Meiggs knew winning here would not be easy, even as she watched the final being with WWU out in front: "There was Western Washington, changing their race plan right in the middle of Nationals, and I have to take my hat off to John Fuchs for showing the adaptability and the willingness to be nimble in racing." Still, Meiggs believed in her boat: "I felt really confident in our team and our ability through that 2000 meters," she said. "We had the opportunity to practice out of the Villanova boathouse this week and, in their boathouse, it talked about inches--and we knew it was going to come down to inches. It was vindication, in the sense of watching them, inch by inch to get bow ball to bow ball, and coming into the final fifteen strokes, they just shifted into a different gear."
The win was, according to Meiggs, "fruition for that dream and that goal they set a year ago at the national championships in Sacramento."
Western Washington's Fuchs was proud of his team, and being able to take the runner-up spot in what has become a tougher field. Six of his seniors this year won their first title as freshmen, so the result here today was not because his squad was young or inexperienced: the V8 had eight seniors and a junior in it, with something like 26 NCAA titles between them. "This year's senior class were the freshmen sensation in 2009," he noted, going undefeated, so the results here tell him that "Division II is definitely picking up."
"I told my team at the end of the year that the days of just going to nationals and winning by ten seconds are over," said Fuchs. "It's just not going to happen anymore, and that's really great for rowing in general, but it's [also] good for Division II," he said, adding, "It's exciting and it's good for everybody."
Humboldt's win just may be proof of a new era in DII, and if so, then all six teams could go home this year just a bit more sure that a good year and a strong team effort could indeed win them a championship of their own.
Unless, of course, this win is just the start of another streak by your new NCAA DII champions...