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By Jeff White
jwhite@virginia.edu

CHARLOTTESVILLE — By about 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Eastern time, UVa’s rowing team will know if it has a legitimate chance to win its first NCAA title Sunday in Gold River, Calif.

To contend for the NCAA crown, a team typically needs to qualify for the Grand Final in each race: the Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight and Varsity Four. The heats are Friday and the semifinals Saturday.

Sixteen teams qualified for the Division I championships at Sacramento State Aquatic Center, and each will compete in all three events. The top six boats in each event will advance to Sunday’s Grand Finals, the next six to the Petite Finals and the last four to the Third Finals.

“Basically we look at it like, ‘OK, we’re in the heats. Let’s get to the semi. Now we’re in the semi, let’s get to the Grand Final,’ ” Virginia coach Kevin Sauer said Monday at University Hall. “You don’t want to get ahead of yourself. Obviously, we know we’ve got to be in the Grand Final [to contend for the NCAA title], but we just take it one step at a time.”

Of the three races, the Varsity Eight offers the most valuable prizes. The winner earns 48 points, the runner-up 45, the third-place boat 42, all the way down to 3.

The scoring for the Second Varsity Eight starts at 32 and decreases by 2 points with each place. The Varsity Four champion gets 16 points, the runner-up 15, the third-place boat 14, and so on.

To win the overall NCAA title, Sauer noted, all three crews must perform well.

“Last year our Varsity Eight was second,” he said, “but our 2V was sixth and our Four was sixth, and we finished fourth as a team.”

Few teams at the NCAAs have 2010 credentials that compare with those of Virginia, the ACC champion. At the South/Central Regional in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the Wahoos swept the Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight and Varsity Four titles.

“There’s teams coming in that know they don’t have a prayer of winning the thing,” Sauer said, “and they just want to compete as well as they can. But there’s probably five or six teams that have a shot, is my guess, and we would be one of those.

“But then you can get surprised. You never know. Like look at Notre Dame lacrosse. They’re unseeded, and they’re in the final four.”

Under Sauer, the only head coach they’ve ever had, the ‘Hoos have finished second at the NCAA championships three times, third twice, fourth thrice, fifth once, sixth twice and seventh once.

Six UVa boats have won NCAA titles — the Second Varsity Eight in 1998, ’99 and 2005, and the Varsity Four in 2004, ’05 and ’07.

Jennifer Cromwell, a four-year member of the Varsity Eight, graduated Sunday, and she’ll try out for the under-23 national team next month. She helped the Cavaliers finish second at the NCAAs in 2007, fifth in 2008 and fourth last year.

“I’ve always dreamed of getting a national championship and bringing it back to Virginia,” said Cromwell, who’s from Bellevue, Wash. “I made a commitment to do everything I can to help us win, and this is my last chance to do it.”

In 2009, the NCAA championships were held in Cherry Hill, N.J., on the Cooper River. In the Grand Final, UVa’s Varsity Eight finished second to Stanford by about a half-second.

“That was the best collegiate women’s rowing race I have seen, and I’ve been doing this for awhile,” Sauer said afterward.

Cromwell hasn’t been involved with the sport as long as her coach, of course, but she speaks with some authority on the qualities of this UVa team.

“The work ethic, commitment and sense of teamwork we’ve had is unlike the other years,” Cromwell said. “I think we have a really special group this year, which is why we’re so capable of [winning it all].”

Five members of the Varsity Eight crew that finished second at last year’s NCAAs were in the Varsity Eight boat that won at the South/Central Regional on May 16: Cromwell, Helen Tompkins, Desiree Burns, Nora Phillips and coxswain Sidney Thorsten.

Before a race, Sauer said, he discusses strategy with Thorsten, a sophomore from Atlanta, more than with the Varsity Eight rowers.

“I don’t like to overdo it,” he said. “We’ll talk for a few minutes, like, ‘OK, here’s the approach.’ But I don’t want to burden her with too much stuff. I want her to be a jockey.

“Do you think Calvin Borel really knew exactly what he was going to do on that horse [in the Kentucky Derby]? No. He had some ideas that he wanted to ride the rail, but he had to look for an opening. Same thing with these guys. You have a general plan, but you’ve got to be able to be malleable with that plan and call some things and do some things that may not be to the plan, and the crew needs to be able to respond to that. And the coxswain needs to have a little freedom.”

Once the race begins, rowing coaches become spectactors. This is not football or basketball.

“You’re just done for the next hour,” Sauer said. “You’re done. Talk about a nerve-wracking experience, because you can’t call timeouts. It’s totally up to [the crew], so that coxswain becomes really important.”

The Cavaliers are ranked No. 1 nationally, but that reflects their collective strength in the three events. Only his Varsity Four, Sauer said, is ranked No. 1. The Varsity Eight is “third or fourth,” he said, and the Second Varsity Eight is sixth.

“Like I told the crew,” Sauer said, ” ‘Yeah, we’re ranked No. 1 as a team going in, but we’re still an underdog, because our Varsity Eight is not ranked No. 1, and our 2V isn’t ranked No. 1. So we can come in and know people respect us as a team, but we’re still a little bit of an underdog. So be humble and hungry.’ “

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