In the end, Cal Poly Humboldt made it simple, and won the schools' third title, and first since 2014, in their return to NCAAs. Fittingly, since the Fours Final came first, Humboldt's run to the title started with the crew that really came alive in the racing here this weekend for the team, the Humboldt Four.
As we covered in Friday's report, the Humboldt Eight was a heavy favorite, but their four came in seeded just third having lost, albeit barely, to Western Washington in the race to take second behind the Central Oklahoma four at the GNAC Championship.
The work that four did with Humboldt assistant coaches Ashley Donnell and Pat Hyland over the past two weeks proved to be the lynchpin of this third D2 title, the school's first since 2014, and the first with Matt Weise who took over the program in 2020.
Without the four improving to at least second place, Humboldt might have ceded the title to Central Oklahoma even with a win by their top-ranked eight, and the four responded all weekend, but especially in the Grand Final: rowing a mature race despite being young, having a novice oarswoman aboard, and the fact that none of the athletes had raced in a high pressure NCAA Grand Final before. After trailing in third, they overtook Western Washington in the middle thousand and then started reeling in Central Oklahoma with 750 meters to go. It was a long, patient march, but once they caught them just before the grand stand, they moved away emphatically.
Humboldt Varsity Four
"The four was enormous," said Weise. "Our two assistant coaches took that four over, and we had a novice in the two seat, Kylie Mosley, who we brought in from the novice group. She was in there at the GNAC and they raised okay there, but those assistants really took it to them the past two weeks, taught them a lot, and the crew gelled and they just really took it to them this weekend. It was amazing.
"I was very worried yesterday because they were down off the start and Western Washington jumped out on them pretty well, but it seemed like when they hit the 1000 meter mark, they just just took off, both yesterday and today, so it was really really nice to see that."
It was still up to Humboldt eight to seal the deal, of course, but that crew took care of business early: after a tight race to the 500 with a determined Central Oklahoma crew, Humboldt walked into the clear--to the delight of the athletes of the four and rest of the team watching on shore.
"In the eight today, coxswain Sonya Scollon did a good job calling them down," said Weise. "They have trouble striding. They like to start and stay at 40 strokes a minute for a long time, and that's what they did at GNACs, they never settled and they were at 39 strokes a minute until the 750. Today the coxswain actually had to call them down three times to get them race cadence and so I though the coxswain did a good job of directing them to get them where they wanted to be."
Humboldt Varsity Eight
Humboldt's return to the top of D2 comes at the end of a long stretch of challenges that the team weathered with their new head coach the past three years, from COVID, with a protocol so strict that they could not leave their remote county without quarantining, to dealing with smoke from California wildfires, to a broken skeg on the way to the start that kept them out of the GNAC race in 2021.
During COVID, Weiss says, they had only seven people on campus, and the team was, in his words, "tiny."
"So we have a lot of walk ons. Ashley Donnell does our novice group and does a fantastic job. She's incredibly patient and she really worked that first semester back. We still only had eight or nine returners, so we rolled all novices into the varsity and made one big squad. That was last year and I think we had six novices in the varsity eight.
"But they just work hard. It's a really fun place to coach. My other assistant, Pat Hyland, is a master at the off the water, one on one stuff. He just really helps all the athletes out, so I've got great assistants and my wife is now helping out, another great assistant. You get all this help around you and you can see it building. We went from seven athletes, then we were at 24 last year and now we're over 30. So it's getting to a place where we can really go fast."
The strength of the GNAC Conference also played a role in preparing the top teams here for the championship, according to the coaches of the top three teams today: Humboldt, Central Oklahoma, and Seattle Pacific. Schools from the GNAC have won all but 5 of the D2 titles over the years thanks in part to Western Washington's long streak of seven wins (plus their 2017 title) and then Central Oklahoma's 3 championships in 2018, 2019, and 2021.
"The GNAC Conference has shown all year that they are the strongest conference by far," said Central Oklahoma head coach Jennifer Gilbert. "We showed that traveling to Florida and FIRA. Both Seattle Pacific and Central Oklahoma went to the Knecht Cup. Then at the WIRA Championships, it was one point that separated the difference between many crews. So to send all four schools here and then securing seven out of eight grand final sports for the GNAC Conference at the national championship level is just an absolute phenomenal thing. I expect the conference to be just as tough and faster than ever next year."
Central Oklahoma finished second overall as a team
"We race in-conference all the time," said Weise, "So to have opponents that are of like speed, you just push each other, so it's really fun. I wish there were more programs out on the west coast but there aren't, so with those are the ones that are there, it's very helpful that everybody's fast. You're always going to get a good race."
"There's a lot of pride in being a part of this conference," added Seattle Pacific head coach Caitlin McClain, "and knowing that we all push each other all year. Historically, it's been the strong conference, and I think this year even more than previous years is really showing that.
"We traveled to other regions and won, so being able to establish ourselves that way, even though it's a burden, and it's a lot to travel, it's worth it. It's worth it to expose the athletes to more racing and then for us on the west coast to be able to race each other a lot and see each other a lot helps. They are just really good coaches and really good athletes, both homegrown athletes and recruited athletes, in this conference.
Seattle-Pacific's Varsity Eight
"Knowing that every year you're, you're going to see strength out of Western Washington, out of Humboldt and, obviously from UCO with their run of national championships, we know to expect that and I think it elevates the athletes from the beginning. COVID put a blip in everything but now we're starting to become normal again and all those friendly rivalries are strong and healthy. It definitely helps athletes set their goals early on to be close to these teams or ahead of these teams throughout the year."
For Central Oklahoma's Gilbert, leading her team back to the podium in her first year coaching at an NCAA program after her years of working with high performance post-collegiate athletes, was a both a gratifying end to the year and a good start.
"I think the girls have done a tremendous effort," Gilbert said. "We lost seven of last year's championship boat members and after this year, we lose one, so we have 13 out of 14 returning for next year and I think that this is a great foundation year.
"A lot of new things in the boathouse from me, a lot of new styles and ways of doing things, some different words that maybe they haven't heard before. It's been a really big cultural shift and change in the way we do things. There's a lot of respect and trust and belief in each other and in the process. They're happy to be there every day and I'm exceptionally proud of the girls. That's all a coach can really ask is that they go out and give it everything they can on the day and they certainly did that.
"It put us into second for both boats and second as a team overall, but full credit to Matt and the women of Humboldt. They've had a tough couple of years with COVID and the [conditions in] California, so for him to bring the program back the way he has is just fantastic."
You can find the complete D2 team points and individual boat placings on the the results page.
Embry-Riddle's Varsity Eight was the lone crew from outside the GNAC to grab a spot in a Grand Final
Notes From the Course
Sister Acts in D2 - In Friday's report we mentioned two pairs of sisters racing here that we had heard about and wondered if we could find any others. Well, Seattle Pacific was quick to message us that they have a pair, in the same boat: bow seat and the coxswain of the SPU four are the Sandahls sisters, Sophie and Lucy respectively. Then the SPU coaches let us know about Central Oklahoma's V8 twins--Faith and Hope Brooks, in the 6 and 5 seats--and that the stroke of the Western Washington Eight, Clarice Ruhlin-Hicks, has a sister in the 7 seat of Gonzaga's D1 V8, Camille Ruhlin-Hicks. You can read a great piece on SPU's Sandahls, by the way, on the school's website: Back to Back--and Shoulder to Shoulder.
Getting Back in Time to Celebrate - the order of the D2 and D3 Finals this year, which ran the D3 2V, then the D2 Fours, then the D3 1V before the D2 Eights final was--with the Petite finals added in--more than enough time for the D2 athletes from the fours to put their boat away up in the boat yard and hoof it over to the finish area to watch the full Grand Final that decided the title. When there is long walk involved at a venue like the Cooper, that doesn't always get to happen, but it was fun to watch the Humboldt four realizing on shore that their teammates in the eight were about to seal up the title they had won together as a team.