By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The congratulatory e-mails have poured in all week, from New Zealand and Australia and England and Canada and across the United States.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Kevin Sauer, the head coach of the UVa women’s rowing team since its inception in 1995.
There have been untold phone calls, too, including the one Sauer took in California on Sunday from a guy whose office is a couple doors down from his in the McCue Center, George Gelnovatch.
In 2009, his 14th season as men’s soccer coach at UVa, Gelnovatch won his first NCAA title, after which he told reporters, “I knew it would come.”
That comment stuck with Sauer this year as he headed into his 15th season with the Cavaliers. During his tenure, UVa had finished second at the NCAA championships three times, third twice, fourth thrice, fifth once, sixth twice and seventh once, but never first.
The breakthrough came last weekend in Gold River, Calif. At the Sacramento State Aquatic Center, UVa placed second in the Varsity Eight, fourth in the Second Varsity Eight and first in the Varsity Four to finish the NCAAs with 87 points — five more than runner-up California and 11 more than third-place Princeton.
“I remembered that quote that George had,” Sauer said Wednesday at University Hall, “and I thought, ‘Yeah, I feel the same way.’ I knew it was going to come. We were doing the right things.
“Somebody asked me before we left, ‘What’s it going to take?’ I said, ‘You know, we’ve done the work. We’ve worked hard, the kids are great, but you need a little bit of luck. You do. The stars have got to line up.’ “
To his rowers, Sauer’s message was this: “Somebody’s gotta win it. Why not us?”
The Wahoos headed west ranked No. 1 nationally as a team, but only one of their crews, the Varsity Four, was considered the favorite in its event.
The Varsity Eight was ranked No. 3 nationally, Sauer said, and the Second Varsity Eight was No. 6.
At the NCAAs, the Varsity Eight champion gets 48 points, the Second Varsity Eight winner 32 and the Varsity Four champion 16. The ‘Hoos, then, couldn’t just show up and expect to win.
Had the Varsity Eight finished third and the Second Varsity Eight sixth, Sauer said, “We don’t win.”
The Varsity Four race was held first, and UVa’s crew, under the direction of associate head coach Steve Pritzer, did not disappoint. Then came the Second Varsity Eight.
In previous NCAA championships, UVa’s Varsity Eight would already be on the water, warming up, when the Second Varsity Eight finished. Which meant the Varsity Eight would start its race unaware of the updated team standings.
“So they may see the 2V8 race go by, at 500 meters in or 1,000 meters in, while they’re warming up on the outside of the course, but they don’t know what happens,” Sauer said. “They don’t know who finished where, they don’t know what they need to do. So I made a decision before this race. I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to stop you guys. I’m not going to let you push off until the 2V goes by and you know what you need to do.’ “
The Varsity Eight comprised coxswain Sidney Thorsten and rowers Jennifer Cromwell, Katrin Reinert, Desiree Burns, Kristine O’Brien, Martha Kuzzy, Helen Tompkins, Nora Phillips and Summers Nelson. The crew looked shocked, Sauer said, when he unveiled his new strategy.
“I said, ‘Look at it this way, you guys: If you’re a basketball player, do you want the ball with 10 seconds to go? If you’re a track runner, do you want the baton on the last leg? A swimmer, do you want that anchor leg? If you’re that type of person, which I think you guys are, I wanted you to know what you gotta do,’ ” Sauer recalled. “And then they understood.”
What the ‘Hoos had to do in the Varsity Eight was finish ahead of Cal and Stanford and, if possible, Princeton. If the Tigers had won the Varsity Eight and Virginia, Cal and Stanford had finished 4-5-6, Princeton would have captured the team title.
Not to worry. UVa (6 minutes, 25.75 seconds) finished ahead of all three and, had the race been 50 meters longer, might well would have overtaken the winner, Yale (6:24.76).
“We were charging like crazy,” Sauer said.
The NCAA crown, Sauer hopes, will help his rowers and his program get the respect they deserve, on Grounds and off. It should make the Cavaliers more attractive to recruits, too. Virginia was already considered a national power, but this “just puts a stamp on, ‘OK, they’re the best,’ ” Sauer said.
Moreover, he said, Virginia is “the first program that’s won [the NCAAs] without having a men’s varsity team. We’re also the first Title IX program to win. Everybody else has had a men’s varsity team for a hundred years or so, and then they’ve been in women’s rowing since the ’60 and ’70s.
“We’re the first one added in the ’90s to actually win. That’s a big deal, too, to not have that history that the other programs that have won have had, either from the men that have been there a long time before or from they themselves being there for 40 years.”
And in 2011?
“We’re losing six rowers out of the Varsity Eight, we lost three kids out of the 2V, and one out of the Four,” Sauer said. “So we lose a lot of good kids, but we got a lot of depth behind them, too … We got a good freshman class coming in and a good Novice Eight that did well [this season], and that’ll help us. We’ve got to rebuild a little bit, but if those kids step in and work hard over the summer, we’ll be OK.”