The first day of the NCAAs is in the books, and after months of anticipation, crews were finally able to face off against one another and start to fight it out for the national championship titles. Ohio State head coach Andy Teitelbaum perfectly summed up many coaches and athletes pre-race jitters.
"It's nice to have the flag drop and have some of the speculation out of the way - to see how you're doing with crews in your heat and how heats compare," he said. "It's nice to finally get this thing underway."
The name of the game this morning was "do whatever you can to avoid racing later in the day." While racing in the repechage is never fun – for energy levels or nerves – the weather is an added factor at Natoma. The morning racing was fairly mild, with the temps topping out in the mid-70s, but the heat increased all day with the afternoon temps reaching a balmy 90 degrees. Coaches who can keep their teams out of the sun for too long are doing just that, and as soon as heats were over this morning, the athletes were loaded onto busses for shade, sleep, and relaxation.
The regatta kicked off with Division III races, the V8 and 2V8 crews getting their racing out of the way while the coolness of the morning still hung in the air. First up were the 2V8 races, where the top boat from each heat would advance directly to the grand final. The regatta was off to a thrilling start when top seeded crew Bates was challenged by Wellesley, with the Wellesley crew leading for much of the race until Bates pushed back to win by less than a second. In heat two, Trinity took the win and will be joining the Bobcats in the grand final.
In the V8 heats the top two crews advanced to the final with the remainder going to the repechage - the V8 field is a bit bigger with the two at-large crews racing. The first heat was a barnburner for second place – Bates led the way down the course while Wellesley (who placed third in the V8 final at last year's NCAA) and Hamilton (who are making their NCAA debut) battled for the second spot in the grand final, with Hamilton taking it in the end.
"We beat [Wellesley] by a bit at ECACs, but the conditions were a little squirrely so I didn’t know what to expect from them today," said Hamilton head coach Robert Weber.
"I think our kids handled the racing really well, not being intimidated by everything that's going on, they kept their focus."
The Division III athletes will be the first to win an NCAA trophy, with the finals taking place Saturday morning.
Division I racing fell in the middle of the morning as temps started to rise and rowing fans packed the shores of Natoma. With 22 teams, there's a LOT of great racing bound to take place, with favorites establishing themselves early at the regatta and some unexpected results causing everyone to chatter.
Who was the cause of most of that chatter today? That would be Texas, who is making their first ever NCAA appearance after head coach Dave O'Neill arrived in Austin ten months ago. In the V8 race, where the top two crews advance to the A/B Semifinals Saturday morning, the 11th seeded Longhorns raced at the top of the pack with number 4 seed Brown and number 5 seed Washington. Coming into the last 500, Washington was leading with Brown in second and Texas closely following, but the Texas crew made an impressive sprint to take the second place spot from Brown. All three crews finished within just about half a second of one another – now that's good racing.
"I try not to talk about Cal too much with the team, but I showed the first eight the 2013 NCAA final where they were a length behind at the 1000 and won it," O'Neill said. "You've just got to believe and not give up and stick to it."
Proving that their good sprint isn't just a strength of the V8, the Texas 2V made their mark on the regatta as well. The crew was trailing behind Washington State and Virginia in the last 500 – a solid three seconds behind second place - when they stepped on the gas pedal and walked through Virginia to secure a second spot in the A/B semifinal.
"We knew based on how we were progressing, getting better and better that we could do well, and we didn't get too focused on beating anybody - just race as hard as we can, said O'Neill. "I told the team 'This is the fittest your bodies have ever been in your life – enjoy that feeling and keep on pushing.'"
The announcer added his thoughts regarding Texas saying, "The NCAA doesn't give an award for most improved, but if they did it would go to Texas."
While the Texas V4 didn't make it straight through to the A/B Semifinal from the heat, there were three programs - Washington, Cal and reigning champions Ohio State - who got their whole fleet through, allowing rest on Friday afternoon without the pressure of racing.
For Ohio State, the pressure is on to win their third straight national championship – and they kept the notion alive with heat wins in the V8 and V4, and a second place finish in the 2V8. But in the 19-year history of the NCAA, a team has never won three consecutive championships.
"Three-peat's a lot, and when you're trying to do it you begin to realize why it hasn't been done before," said Teitelbaum.
"The biggest difference we're dealing with right now is that over half the squad has not raced at the NCAA until today," he added.
Another big difference for Ohio State is the change in location – Natoma is a little farther away from home. Their two wins over the past two years have been raced at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis, which "is definitely like a home course for the team," said Teitelbaum.
"It's neat to be at a venue that none of them have raced at as collegiate rowers so I think it's fun for them to be some place they've never been, and a place that has a lot of NCAA history," he added.
The Division I teams will race semifinals Saturday morning to determine who will line up on Sunday morning to earn the title of NCAA champion.
The morning concluded with the Division II races – with the top crew advancing to Sunday's final in each of the four heats (two each for V8 and V4). After sweeping their respective heats, the crews from Barry and Mercyhurst have the day off on Saturday to recover before their final on Sunday morning.
"We took care of the business today and now we can shift focus to the finals," said Barry head coach Boban Rankovic.
"Being a contender and being here feels great – we don't know what the outcome is going to be, but we know our desires and wants, but until the race is finished we don't know the outcome. We're going to be pushing hard and focusing today and tomorrow to bring it out on Sunday morning," he added.
The crews that didn't make it straight to the finals will be racing in a repechage on Saturday morning with the finals taking place on Sunday.
Friday afternoon was as hot as expected, but crews still raced furiously in the repechages for spots in the Division I A/B semis and the Division III grand finals. The crowds and coaches were a little louder for the reps – the stakes are higher when it's the second and last chance to cinch a spot that'll lead to a win. In the DIII reps Williams 2V8, Tufts' V8 and both Wellesley's crews all grabbed spots in their grand finals tomorrow.
In the DI reps Virginia, Michigan, Washington State, Stanford, Brown, and Texas moved through to join Washington, Ohio State, and Cal as teams who will have all three of their crews racing in the A/B semis on Saturday.
We've got two more days of NCAA racing here at Lake Natoma, so keep checking row2k back for race reports, photos, Instagrams and more!
Notes from Natoma:
The announcer: "The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west and Virginia has a fast four." Coxswain, with regards to wet launching: "I really don't like this part." Though many teams are choosing to cool down their bodies in the lake, there have been some creative cooling techniques; the Stanford women have been hanging out in trashcans, and Texas is doing "everything bigger" with the bed of a truck transformed into an ice bath that fits a whole crew. UCF 2V showed off their double bucket rig. Texas V8 had a spider in the hull by the bow pair on the start line for the heats and had a hell of a time trying to get it out. Spiders aren't the only wildlife of concern at the regatta; in the pre-regatta meeting, participants were warned to stay off dirt trails when temps start to climb, as baby rattlesnakes tend to come out. All four Big 10 schools that qualified for NCAAs – Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana – were in the same heat for the V8. Announcer's launch was sinking badly toward the end of the day…hope they remember the bail bucket tomorrow. Tufts was seen sucking lemons while sitting on the start – keeping cotton-mouth at bay? Humboldt State showed their strength with a little flexing to warm up on the start line.