The unspoken (or not spoken very loudly) word on Sunday morning at NCAAs was threepeat. Could Ohio State pull of their third consecutive win and make history, or would another team rise to the occasion and go home with the title? It wouldn't be long before we all found out, as the critical racing kicked off early in the morning after a schedule change to race all the grand and petite DI/DII finals first thing in the morning.
Because there were only two programs who put all three of their crews in the grand finals – Ohio State and Washington – every point really counted, every finishing place mattered – not just gold, not even just top three. Coaches from the top programs were seen with pieces of scrap paper furiously calculating points after each petite and grand final – waiting for the next race to come down the course to see if their additional points would bring them to (or near) the top.
At this level of racing, tight margins are expected, and as racing went underway on Sunday, the varsity four grand final proved immediately that the margins would be miniscule.
Virigina, Yale, Brown, Ohio State, Washington and Princeton lined up for the first grand final of the day and early on in the race, lanes 1-3 Virginia, Yale, and Brown led the field. At the 500, Virginia was leading by a slight margin over Yale with Brown in third, but Brown began to charge as they approached the second half of the race, taking the second place spot from Yale and duking it out with Virginia who continued to lead.
The three crews all entered the last 500 and the announcer commented that they all still had a shot at the gold, though Virginia had the slightest edge, and Yale was still definitely in third. As the crews rowed past the crowds in the last 250, the Yale crew picked up the pace and sprinted past Brown, but they couldn't quite catch Virginia who captured the gold. With that, it was clear that there wouldn't be a sweep at the NCAA – Virginia did not have a 2V8 entered in the grand final.
"In the last 500 it was just a battle," said Virginia 3-seat, Marijane Brennan. "Yale moved up a bit and had an awesome sprint. We started our sprint little earlier than usual, and it was just stroke for stroke for the last 250, which was really stressful but a lot of fun."
Virginia finished with a time of 7:12.760 followed so closely by Yale (7:12.920), then Brown (7:13.070) – three crews within three tenths, a close race indeed! Washington and Ohio State, whose supporters all had been watching the racing outside the medals closely, finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
The petite final, which preceded the grand was another important race for the points, mainly because one of the heavy favorites, Cal, had their V4 racing in the petite – like Ohio State at last year's NCAA, the petite final wasn't a death sentence, but after the Cal crew finished second behind Washington State, there would have to be some big results from the varsity and 2V to grab the team title.
Second Varsity Eight
With the second varsity eight offering even more points on the line than with the V4, the tension was growing. Ohio State, Brown, Washington, Yale, Cal and Washington State lined up six across ready to race, and without crews in the V8 grand, Brown, Yale and Washington State were going to fight for those points to elevate their standing, while Ohio State, Washington and Cal were aiming to grab those points and many more in the next race.
Brown took an early lead and didn't let go. By the 500-meter mark, Bruno led Ohio State by three seconds, and try as they might, Ohio State could not quite get them. Brown, who notoriously races at a high stroke rate, commanded the field to finish first with a time of 6:25.990, followed by Ohio State (6:27.110), and Washington (6:32.050). Yale came in fourth place, with Cal, then Washington State following.
"It was a really exciting race," said Brown bow seat Lucia Petty. "I think Ohio and everyone out there did a great job, it was close to the end, so it was a great race to win."
It all comes down to this – the prestige Varsity 8 event, which also carries the most points in the team championship. The rowers sat on the starting line with no knowledge of how their teammates had fared, or at least without knowing how their 2V8s had done, so each of the crews had one goal: win.
Though technically Brown had the highest number of points from their V4 and 2V8, of the teams with a crew in the V8 grand, Ohio State had the highest points standing at 60, with Washington following with 59 points, and Cal with 51. It was anyone's game, but on the math if Ohio State placed in the top three, they would take home the national title for the third consecutive year and make NCAA history.
Ohio State lined up against Cal, Stanford, Virginia, Washington, and Texas, all ready for the race of their lives. Cal and Ohio State both raced undefeated seasons in the V8, and although Cal was ranked above Ohio State in the pre-championship seedings, the two crews had not raced all season, including in the heats or semis this weekend – so there was no knowing how this would play out.
Ohio State and Cal shot out together as if ignoring the rest of the field they'd left behind. Cal took an early, slight lead 100 meters in, their bow just barely ahead of Ohio State's, but the Buckeyes hit the 500 first just a hair ahead of Cal, and with that, they continued to open.
"Traditionally – and I'm sure everyone has figured this out by now – Ohio State tends not to have one of the fastest starts compared to the other crews," said Ohio State coxswain Sami Jurofsky. "So we were down on Cal during the start, but I reminded them to just stick to the race plan, to find the next gear, to go for it."
The two crews raced bowball-to-bowball down much of the course, and when the jumbotron screen went black for a split second during the third 500, the spectators screamed like the zombie apocalypse was nigh.
When the video returned, the dogfight was still on, and though Ohio was moving, Cal was not letting up – until the first bow crossed the finish line, there was no clear winner. Even in the last strokes, the crowd roared with a sort of desperation in their voices, until Ohio State crossed the finish line first in 6:18.144, and Cal coming in just a half second later at 6:18.608. Virginia followed in third (6:28.348), and Texas, in their NCAA team debut came fourth (06:27.165), with Stanford (6:28.018) and Washington (6:28.528) closing out the pack.
"Cal forced us to be the best we've ever been," said Ohio State 4-seat Stephanie Williams. "There's not a point in that race where we could settle – not that we ever do. It was Cal pushing us to our absolute limit. I think we've wondered all season what's our absolute limit, and Cal forced us to find it today."
Although they were outrageous with excitement over their win, Ohio State was on a hunt for the third consecutive national title, and because they didn't know how they fared with points (and even if they had some idea of the breakdown, mental math after a 2k…not always possible). As they rowed back to the beach, they heard the parents chanting "Threepeat! Threepeat!" and that's when they lost it.
"The first day of training, we all got together and said we're going to do this – threepeat history, it's right there for us to take it," Williams said. "I think during the year we realized why people hadn't done it. Things got tough and I mean there were times where – we never said we wouldn't do it – but there were tough times. I couldn’t think of a better group of girls."
As has been tradition with Ohio State the past two years, their teammates greeted them by running into the water– splashing, hugging and crying together.
Ohio State set a new record with their threepeat as the first DI school to ever accomplish the feat. Ohio head coach Andy Teitelbaum mentioned after the heats that during training over the past year he realized why the threepeat hadn't been done before – because it was a huge challenge.
"To that I say, challenge accepted," he said ( as did the tshirts seen at the course). This was really, really hard, and in some ways this was the hardest of the three because over half the kids who were racing had never done this before, so we didn’t really know what to expect.
"The young kids really set us up, so by the time we got to the varsity eight we were looking really good," he added. "The varsity eight had their own agenda with their showdown with Cal – both of those boats laid down an extraordinary grand final."
Cal finished as the team points runner-up, as even without their V4 in the grand final the squad raked up enough points to finish in second place, just ahead of Brown who finished 3rd overall, and Washington who came in 4th.
"People rowed really hard – if any boat would have finished one spot lower we wouldn't have been in second," said Cal head coach Al Acosta. "The team did a really great job. We really needed some chips to fall in our favor – and they did – just good hard racing."
With a fire in their bellies, everyone is going to try to overtake Ohio State next year to reclaim the title, but will Ohio State be able to pull off number four in 2016?
"It’s going to be really, really, really difficult, but everyone in the country is definitely going to get our best shot," said Teitelbaum, with a smile.
Notes from Natoma:
One of the most impressive team performances came from Texas, who in their first ever NCAA appearance finished fourth in the grand final, and 7th overall after entering the regatta as the number 11 seed…keep your eye on the Longhorns, they're going to do big things.
"This was bigger than I ever could have imagined. It's pretty emotional for me – I'm just so happy and I am so, so proud of my teammates. I can't put it into words," said Texas senior captain, Casey Redman, with tears in her eyes.
Washington head coach Bob Ernst told us that there are SIX sets of sisters on the UW team, including two sets of twins – one set of the twins sit in the four and five seat of the varsity, and the other twins row in the Varsity Four, and the other two sisters sit in bow of the JV and Varsity – Ernst calls it the "Sister Act." Lake Natoma went down at least 12-18" during the morning racing, creating odd bubbling brooks of run-off on the beach. Two junior Ohio State super fans (possibly younger siblings of one of the rowers/coxswains) built this shrine/offering before racing started Sunday – praying to the threepeat gods? The younger of the two that built the shrine was thrown in after the cox toss – he seemed to be the team mascot for the day. The awards stage was blasting pop music and had a bubbly machine that was pouring out bubbles as the trophy winners took to the stage. Between the bubbles, cheering, and emotions, it was kind of like a Taylor Swift concert. Most fun and best-run awards ceremony ever.