By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For George Gelnovatch, the breakthrough came in 2009. In his 14th season as the UVa men’s soccer coach, he won his first NCAA title.
“I knew it would come,” Gelnovatch said during the press conference that followed the championship game in Cary, N.C.
This is Kevin Sauer’s 15th season as the UVa women’s rowing coach, and he’s built one of the nation’s preeminent programs. His alumni include Lindsay Shoop, who won a gold medal for the United States at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Under Sauer, the only coach the Cavaliers have ever had, they’ve finished second at the NCAA championships three times, third twice, fourth thrice, fifth once, sixth twice and seventh once.
Six crews from UVa have won NCAA championships — the Second Varsity Eight in 1998, ’99 and 2005, and the Varsity Four in 2004, ’05 and ’07 — but the team title has eluded the Wahoos so far.
“There’s been times when I thought we overachieved, and there’s been times when I thought we should have had it and we didn’t,” Sauer said. “Would we like to win it? Yes. But as far as obsessing about it, no.
“It’s like what George said. It’s a matter of time, and if we do the right thing and we work hard and we have good kids, we think that we’re going to get it some day. Hopefully this year.”
The NCAA championships are May 28-30 at Rancho Cordova, Calif. Of more immediate concern to the ‘Hoos, however, are the ACC championships, Saturday morning at Clemson.
Six ACC teams offer women’s rowing as a varsity sport: UVa, Clemson, North Carolina, Duke, Boston College and Miami. Virginia had won nine straight ACC titles before finishing second to Clemson last year, and Sauer’s team is favored to return to its customary spot atop the conference this weekend.
“We know it’s going to be tough racing, but we’re going for it,” Sauer said.
The ACCs consist of four races: the Varsity Eight, the Second Varsity Eight, the Varsity Four and the Novice Eight. All races are 2,000 meters.
Here’s the scoring breakdown at the ACC championships:
*Varsity Eight: 24 points for first place, 20 for second, 16 for third, and so on.
*Second Varsity Eight: 18 for first, 15 for second, 12 for third, and so on.
*Varsity Four: 12 for first, 10 for second, 8 for third, and so on.
*Novice Eight: 6 for first, 5 for second, 4 for third, and so on.
At the NCAA championships, for which 16 teams qualify, three events are held. Points are awarded as followed:
*Varsity Eight: 48 for first place, 45 for second, 42 for third, and so on.
*Second Varsity Eight: 32 for first, 30 for second, 28 for third, and so on.
*Varsity Four: 16 for first, 15 for second, 14 for third, and so on.
In general, Sauer said, a program’s eight fastest rowers form the Varsity Eight, with the next-fastest eight making up the Second Varsity Eight, and then the next-fastest four competing in the Varsity Four.
But chemistry is important, too, Sauer said, and some rowers work better with each other than others.
“It’s like in a basketball lineup,” he said. “This guy’s much better than that guy, so how come he’s on the bench? Because he doesn’t mold with the other guys as well. One-on-one he’d tear ’em up, but in a group of five he’s not as effective.”
Each boat has a coxswain, whose role Sauer compared to that of a jockey.
“You’ve got this 2,000-pound animal you’re trying to guide,” he said.
In the racing shells with eight rowers, the coxswain sits in the rear, the only person in the boat facing forward.
A good coxswain has strong leadership skills and is often “a little bit bossy,” Sauer said, and “also somebody that calls [the rowers] to task.”
The Cavaliers train on the Rivanna Reservoir. They have two home courses: the Rivanna Reservoir and, for bigger races, at Lake Monticello.
“We try not to go to Lake Monticello if we can pull it off here,” Sauer said, “because it’s like an away race for us when we do that. We have to pack up everything to move it out there. It’s not overnight stuff, but at least when we have it on the Rivanna, it’s a little more familiar.
“But Lake Monticello’s great, too, because it’s a straight shot, out in front of everybody. Our home course on the Rivanna, in March it’s OK, because you can see through the trees [and easily follow the race]. In May, you can’t see much.”
Sauer had two stints as head coach at Purdue, his alma mater, before coming to UVa in 1988. Back then, rowing was not a varsity sport at the University, and Sauer coached the men’s and women’s club teams.
He competed on the U.S. national team in 1975 and ’77, and his passion is palpable for a sport with which most Americans are unfamiliar.
Sauer compared rowing to the Outward Bound program, which presents obstacles that participants initially aren’t sure they can overcome.
“They take people and they take them on an adventure, basically,” Sauer said. “And they say, ‘OK, you guys are going to climb that mountain and we’re not going to provide anything for you besides just you people and a leader, basically. If you have to eat bugs, you eat bugs, and you find your own water, and you get to the top of that mountain.’
“They look around and go, ‘There ain’t no way in hell I’m going to get to the top of that mountain. I’ve never eaten a bug before, and I don’t plan on it.’ But because of the power of the group, they make it.”
And that, Sauer said, is “in a lot of ways what rowing’s about, I think. Because a lot of times the kid by herself could not do what is required of them. But the power of the group, the synergy of the group, says, ‘Wow, everybody’s doing this, I’m in this thing as well.’ And it tends to work, because you’re in this boat of eight people or four people, and you’re going along and you’re going, ‘I think I’m done. Where’s the eject button?’
“But you’re not going to let that person in front of you or behind you down. And ironically, that person that’s behind you and in front of you is also thinking the same thing. And it’s that synergy that keeps a lot of people going. So it’s an individual sport, but it’s very much a team sport — in some ways the consummate team sport. Because you are in line, following each other, going for one goal: just to reach the finish line as fast as you can. There’s nine people or five people that are trying to make that happen.”
Sauer and associate head coach Steve Pritzker, a former coxswain at Yale, oversee a program that includes about 65 women. Sauer has 20 scholarships to divide among his rowers.
“Not everybody’s on aid,” he said. “There’s a lot of kids that aren’t, and there are some that are on partial and some on full. Some of those kids have fulls when they walk in the door. Some of those kids have zero and ean fulls by the time they graduate.”
A week ago, Sauer’s program ascended to the top spot in the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association poll, becoming the fifth team from UVa to be ranked No. 1 in its sport this academic year.
A few days later, in Princeton, N.J., UVa competed against No. 4 Yale and No. 6 Princeton in the Eisenberg Cup on Lake Carnegie. Virginia won the Varsity Four but finished second in the Varsity Eight and third in the Second Varsity Eight.
“We didn’t have the best race we’ve had,” Sauer said, but the ‘Hoos will have opportunities to redeem themselves this spring.
“It’s better to know now and be able to work on what our weaknesses are,” he said.