Wellesley spent most of the year atop the rankings, and prevailed today to win their second NCAA Championship.
A season full of close racing and a regatta where fully six schools had a shot at the title served up a fair bit of drama all the way, all the way through to the finish of the 1V Grand Final, where a walk-away win by WPI and third place finish by Bates had folks doing quick math in their head and wondering "who won the team?" since Bates had won the 2V.
The answer was where it had been most likely to be all along: with steady and deep Wellesley which had checked all the boxes with really strong second place finishes by both of Coach Tessa Spillane's eights, and the title was their--by one point over Bates.
For long-time D3 watchers, this really looked like the first Championship Saturday in many years that the eventual outcome was not clear, largely due to all the close racing this year and the fact that this was the first time in D3 Championship history that 6 schools had both of their crews in the Grand Final. (In 2020, the field was smaller due to COVID and in 2019 and 2018--the only other years with a full 6 boat Grand for the D3 2V Eights--only 5 schools had both Eights in those Grands.)
"It really felt like this year, more than any other, it really could be anyone's year," said Wellesley's Spillane afterwards. "It could be anyone's race day and that is how it played out all spring. It was pretty amazing to see that happen."
Wellesley did not even have a competitive season last year said Spillane: "We were in small boats on our lake, rowing three days a week. It was it was just a totally different world then where everyone else was." She thinks that the different experiences of each program last year contributed to this year's reality that any team could win on a given day.
Her own 1V crew traded wins back and forth with Bates, then won New Englands, only to watch--along with Bates, Williams, WPI, and Tufts--as Ithaca won the NIRC regatta a week later, and then today was WPI's turn on the front.
Here is how it unfolded today, amongst these crews that had been within seats of each other all year.
D3 2V Eights - Grand Final
By the time D3 had racing started, the variable cross wind had prompted the entire regatta to redraw the lanes, shifting into lanes 2-7, with the top seeds in Lanes 2 and 3. But as the races came down, so did the wind, and in conditions largely fair across the course, it really just came down to the racing.
For all the uncertainty, the 2V results seemed to clarify what might happen in the end, and even give it a familiar shape, as the Bates 2V took the win over Wellesley. Ithaca took third, after catching then passing Williams, with WPI in 5th and Tufts in 6th.
Bates 2V with the win
With the 2V win, it looked like the Bobcats were setting themselves up to repeat for a 5th straight time as champions-or were at least locking themselves into a duel with Wellesley for the title. After all, between Wellesley's 2016 title and Bates' first win in 2015, the two schools have the been the only D3 champions since 2014.
That second place for Wellesley 2V--which would prove key to the team win--was itself an accomplishment: the Blue had been as much as 7 seconds off Bates earlier in the season and had lost to Williams the last time they raced before NCAAs--at the NIRC--before beating the Ephs here to win their heat.
"I felt with our 2V we made up a lot of speed," said Spillane. "We were excited by how they performed in the heat, and we knew that we had made some really productive changes. It was exciting to see that come to fruition: those changes played out the way we had hoped, and that made the 2V result really fun to see."
D3 1V Eights - Grand Final
The 1V Eight Final delivered everything the coaches expected from this season of tight racing: a peaking-at-the-right-time WPI eight stormed out to win the race wire-to-wire, while Bates ran in fourth for a bit before rallying to get through Ithaca for third, who were themselves being chased by Williams.
On WPI's win, Head Coach Jason Steele was anything but wholly surprised: "Our trajectory has been in that direction," he said, calling his 1V a very consistent crew.
"In the big picture, we had a very aggressive race schedule, end of April into May. With our lake thawing late, we were just racing all the time. We did double races throughout April and once you go into New England's and NIRC, it dovetails so much with our finals. I don't think in retrospect we we've actually had a race where we've been well rested at all. That's the case for everybody, but as it related to us, I could really see after the NIRC that the boat speed was there and we also made a couple lineup tweaks, so I think that that had something to do with it."
"We did some stuff last weekend that really got me excited and got them excited. They've had a lot of capacity all year and they've known that. It's a real seasoned bunch in there, and they just needed to to a place where they really believed that they could do it. And we started to see some of that last week in terms of boat speed."
WPI 1V takes it
"They had a very clear picture of what Wellesley and Bates were going to do in their race, and now having had a couple races with Ithaca, they had a real clear picture of them, too--and they just put it all together."
"They just felt we gotta get far enough ahead and just hope to heck that we've got enough gas left to get it done. And I think that's where that rested aspect really came through. Their coxswain [Logan Rinaldi] is one of, if not the best I've had in my 20 something years at WPI. She is a talent. And I knew, after the 1000, there's no way Logan's gonna let that group of women who are by nature very strong willed and very determined, give away the hard-fought lead that they had."
In the middle, literally, of WPI’s dash to glory and all the other jockeying for position was Wellesley, unfazed by WPI’s dash to glory and making sure they took care of the important business of keeping as many crews behind them as they could.
"It all unfolded not exactly the way that the team wanted it to," said Spillane, "but I think it's a perfect example of what this what our team has done all spring: really rely on each other and rely on the fact that we have a good bit of depth. We needed every single person to do exactly what they did today to squeak out that one point win over some really amazing competitors that we've been going back and forth with all spring."
"It was exactly enough by one point. Exactly enough."
Spillane also pointed out that, for all the coaches and pundits who might be counting points and tracking who finishes where, none of the student-athletes on the water know any of that as they race: "What was amazing is that the 1V had no idea [we had won]. The way the racing plays out, the varsity eights have no idea how the second varsities do. So when they came into the dock, they were they were looking real low. We were all standing there waiting for them, and as I pulled them in, I said, "Do you all know what just happened?" And they all kind of looked at me and I said: 'You became national champions today!'"
"It was an unbelievable opportunity to give them that gift. It just felt like the perfect ending."
"It was an awesome championship and just great competition," said Spillane.
"In the D3 world, we all get along pretty well and it's really fun to see the kids celebrate each other's successes."
Notes from the Course Races Matter to the Racers: and to their moms -- "Olympian on the Beach" Megan Kalmoe had a nice man on the street moment in her Instagram Story about a mom from St. Mary's (MD), there to watch her daughter race in the school's first-ever NCAA Championship. Every moment at an even like this is special to these student-athletes, even if it is "just" a two boat race for 7th and 8th place. Give us a Wave the teams waiting in the shade of the tower for the awards ceremony got the Wave going, much to the delight of the photogs in the media pool and their Instagram story followers. ...But the Pool is Closed apparently post-race celebratory swimming is, um, not permitted here at these championships so that means we will all be left without our fill of traditional coxswain tosses, and photos. Champs for the Champ: in the middle of their own NCAA Awards ceremony, the Wellesley folks took a minute to watch a schoolmate run the NCAA D3 5k final--and win it--on someone's phone.