By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — No one will be surprised if the University of Virginia rowing team repeats as ACC champion Saturday morning on Lake Hartwell in Clemson, S.C. UVa, after all, is seeded No. 1 in all four races.

Repeating as NCAA champion next month is likely to be a greater challenge for Kevin Sauer’s Cavaliers.

To say that Sauer, the only head coach in the program’s history, faced a major rebuilding project this season would be an understatement. Of the eight rowers who in 2010 were on the Wahoos’ top boat, the Varsity Eight, only two returned this year: junior Martha Kuzzy and sophomore Kristine O’Brien.

The only seniors on the Varsity Eight are Christine Roper and Claudia Blandford, who were on the Second Varsity Eight in 2010.

“It’s been interesting,” Kuzzy said this week. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but it makes it exciting, you know? And I think our saving grace really is that we have so many first-years [in the program], and they’ve really added a lot to the team.

“The whole season has been about keeping our heads focused and doing what we always do and not thinking about the outcome. You’ve just got to do the everyday stuff.”

Of the 23 women on the top three boats, including the coxswains, only four are seniors, said Sauer, who’s in his 16th season as the Cavaliers’ coach.

All that turnover hasn’t kept Virginia from putting together another stellar season. The ‘Hoos are ranked fifth nationally heading into the ACC championships, and each of their top three boats has a winning record. The Varsity Eight is 4-3, the Second Varsity Eight is 6-1, and the Varsity Four is 5-2.

“When you’re replacing people that have done a pretty good job,” Sauer said, “it’s always like, ‘OK, how is this going to work?’ People are growing. Their feet are growing, filling the shoes.”

The ‘Hoos have long been a national power in this sport. The NCAA title they won last year was their first, but they’ve finished second three times, third twice, fourth thrice, fifth once, sixth twice and seventh once.

At last year’s NCAAs, UVa won the Varsity Four, finished second in the Varsity Eight and placed fourth in the Second Varsity Eight. In all, the Cavaliers totaled 87 points, five more than runner-up California.

In a final tuneup for the ACCs, UVa’s top boats raced Southern California, Michigan State and UCLA at Lake Monticello last weekend. In the latest coaches’ poll, USC is ranked No. 3 nationally, Michigan State is No. 7 and UCLA is No. 17. Also in town were No. 13 Texas and No. 14 Clemson.

The results were mixed for the ‘Hoos. Against Michigan State last Friday night, UVa won four races, including the Varsity Eight and Varsity Four, but was beaten handily in the Second Varsity Eight.

Against UCLA on Saturday night, however, UVa swept the Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight and Varsity Four.

“I thought the 2V, especially, responded really, really well from getting beat on Friday night,” Sauer said late Sunday morning after a ceremony in which he recognized the program’s eight seniors.

That boat just wasn’t “ready to race on Friday,” Sauer said, “and before the race on Saturday, I gave the shortest pre-race speech I ever had. I said, ‘Are you ready to race?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ Then I said, ‘Go do it,’ and I walked away. And they did, and they followed it up again today with a really, really good race. They were very aggressive, very on it and ready to race, and I think they learned a lot from that.”

Sunday dawned clear but windy, and Sauer called the conditions on the water “very, very challenging.” The opponent was an even greater obstacle for the ‘Hoos.

Against USC, Virginia won only the Second Varsity Eight. The Trojans beat the Cavaliers by about nine seconds in the Varsity Eight and by about eight in the Varsity Four.

“It was definitely humbling,” Kuzzy said.

It irritated the Cavaliers, too.

“USC was cheering afterwards as if they had won NCAAs,” Kuzzy said, “and it’s one of those things where you don’t see that often. And it definitely got a spark going. It turns it a little more personal.”

The outcome didn’t dishearten Sauer. USC’s Varsity Eight is “unbelievable,” he said. And he pointed out that his Varsity Eight lost to Princeton last April, as did his Second Varsity Eight.

At the NCAAs, though, the ‘Hoos beat the Tigers in both races.

“That’s what we’re hopeful for, that we can make some turnarounds,” Sauer said. “We just try to figure it out, you know? Maybe we get our eyes opened a little bit as coaches. It’s like, ‘Wow, what do we gotta do?’

“These kids, they respond to that pretty well. The coaches are going, ‘Hey, we gotta do a better job as coaches, and you guys gotta do a better job as rowers. We’re in this together. Let’s go.’ ”

Six ACC schools compete in this sport: UVa, Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Miami and North Carolina. The inaugural ACC rowing championships were held in 2000, and UVa collected the first of its 10 conference titles that year. (Clemson won in 2009.)

The championships consist of four 2,000-meter races: the Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight, Varsity Four and Novice Eight. The scoring breakdown:

* Varsity Eight: 24 points for first place, 20 for second, 16 for third, 12 for fourth, 8 for fifth, 4 for sixth.

* Second Varsity Eight: 18 points for first, 15 for second, 12 for third, 9 for fourth, 6 for fifth, 3 for sixth.

* Varsity Four: 12 points for first, 10 for second, 8 for third, 6 for fourth, 4 for fifth, 2 for sixth.

* Novice Eight: 6 points for first, 5 for second, 4 for third, 3 for fourth, 2 for fifth, 1 for sixth.

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