Before the 2018 NCAA Women's Rowing Championships even began, the pre-regatta Division I hype centered on the University of Washington and whether they could pull off a repeat of their sweep performance from last year and win consecutive National Championships.
The way their season had gone left little room to doubt the depth and strength of the team. The college polls and the pre-regatta seeding all had them at the top. Even the D1 coaches talked about them as the team to beat.
The asterisk to that assumption pointed to one variation to that narrative. The University of California was the only team that had beaten Washington in the dual racing season. But Washington evened the score and swept the Pac-12 Conference Championship, fanning the 'can they do it again at the NCAAs' talk.
Even Cal coach Al Acosta pointed to Washington and the Pac-12 performance when asked earlier in the week how they measured up to their rivals on the West Coast. But while Washington advanced all of its crews directly into the semifinals from the Friday heats and appeared ready for a return to the top of the podium, Cal was flexing its own muscles, also advancing everything from the heats.
The drama might have played out an extra day if not for the interference run by Tropical Storm Alberto, which forced regatta officials to condense two days of racing into one. But by the time the Saturday morning semis had been run, followed by the afternoon finals, the question of a repeat champion was answered. It did not happen.
The University of California women went race for race with Washington and took the 2018 title of the top team in NCAA rowing. Cal's first eight won the title-bout first varsity race, Washington won the second varsity eight, and Cal won the varsity four in a nail bitter to lock up the team trophy with 130 points to Washington's 128.
Cal won the varsity eight
The University of Texas took third with 115 points, followed by Stanford University. Stanford and the University of Virginia tied with 104 points each, but Stanford won the tie breaker based on the Virginia first varsity not making the A final.
"It was a good day," Acosta said when the celebration finally settled down in the boat yard. "Every boat needed to perform to their capacity. The varsity had a great race. They were down but stuck to their guns and then backed each other up and came through.
"And the JVs, man that was a really tight race. They knew they needed to get second if we were going to do this and that was putting a lot of pressure on them. They responded with probably the best race of their year, even though it was a second place finish. And then the four, they might have had the best race of the day."
Cal's four win decided the championship in their favor
As for the pre-regatta narrative, both Acosta and Washington head coach Yasmin Farooq said they paid little to no attention to it.
"Look, Washington is really, really good," Acosta said. "And if you spend too much time thinking about that, you're just going to tie yourself up in knots. So we just focus on our team and hope that we have our best race as our last race, and I think we did in all three boats," he said.
Farooq said she was also happy with her team's performance and the level of the racing, and added that she did not pay attention to the hype. "I feel like maybe all of those conversations happened and I wasn't present," she said. And her reaction to the actual racing?
Washington won the second varsity eight
"Oh, man, what a race," she said of the first varsity battle that saw Washington push into the lead and hold it through the first half, and Cal take over in the third 500. Both crews battled through the second half, but Cal held ground and won in 6:14.85 to Washington's 6:16.53.
"We knew that it was going to take throwing the kitchen sink at that thing to get our bow ball out there and just fight all the way to the end, and I just thought it was an outstanding race. Credit to Cal. I mean what a great push in the third 500. We fought them as best we could all the way down and they earned it.
"I think everyone is really proud of the races they threw down today. That final race, the four race, with Cal literally side-by-side with us for 2000 meters, I think every women in both of those boats will remember it as an epic race for the rest of their lives. I mean, that's why we all do this, right?
"So, I'm super proud of all of them, I really am. I feel like we put our best performances out there today and congratulations to Cal."
One other part of the pre-race hype was the question of whether one woman can impact the fate of an entire team. In the win over Washington in the dual season, Cal's lineup included junior Dana Moffat, among Cal's most experienced and tough racers. Moffat suffered a concussion when she was accidentally struck on the head while putting a boat into the water during a practice.
The injury happened just before the Pac-12 championship, and Moffat was unavailable because she was placed on concussion protocol by the university medical staff. Cal had to reshuffle their entire lineup and Washington swept the regatta.
While it is undoubtedly unfair, or at least questionable, to hang a loss or a win on a single athlete in something as complex as a regatta won on points earned in three different boat classes, there is no argument that Moffat is an impactful athlete.
"Yeah, she's really good," Acosta said. "It helps to have Dana Moffat back in the boat and it helps that throughout all the lineup changes (after Moffat's return), everybody kind of settled in over the week and got focused in the right direction."
From Moffat's perspective, she was more than happy to have made it back into the crew in time for the national championships.
"I got a concussion during practice just before Pac-12," Moffat said. "As we were putting the boat in the water, it came down on my head, so I was out for the rest of the week. But I came back feeling great and so happy that we came here and did what we were planning to do, and I'm feeling so grateful to be back with my team," she said.
"We knew the other crews, especially Washington and Stanford, were going to have a very fast first 500 hundred, so our plan was to absorb that punch and really lay it down in our base pace and have a lot of trust in our fitness.
"So we steadily crept up on all the crews and gradually increased the margins. I was really excited to come down this course knowing that it was the NCAA's and the grand final."
Following the racing, there was a delay of about 90 minutes before the varsity eight race was declared official due to a request by regatta officials to weight the Texas eight. Because the scales had already been closed, it took more than an hour to get to have a technician come and calibrate the equipment to weigh the boat.
When it was completed, the Texas boat was determined to be within proper range and the race became official, much to the relief and delight of the Texas athletes and coaches.
"I could not be happier with the team," said Texas coach Dave O'Neill, whose squad finished fourth last year in the team standings. "Last year we got on the podium and that was a big deal, and we were super, super close.
"I feel like now getting that first eight in the top three, and all boats into the final, that we're here," he said. "Now we have some work to do to keep on going."
Texas with the thrid place trophy