By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — UVa coach Kevin Sauer was not sure what to expect from his rowers this season, given all the turnover in a program that won its first NCAA title last year.
To the delight of Sauer, his 16th team at Virginia has upheld the high standards set by its predecessors.
“I don’t know if I’d use the word ‘satisfying,’ ” Sauer said the other day. “I would say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by some of the things we’ve done, because we lost a lot of great kids, and the kids that we have this year have really stepped up to the plate and filled those shoes. Their feet have grown, as I’ve said, and they’ve done a good job with it and just said, ‘OK, we’re going to try to keep this going.’
“People might say it’s a rebuilding year, because we lost so many good seniors, but that word’s not even in my vocabulary. It’s more like, ‘Here’s what we got. Let’s move forward. Let’s go, guys. Let’s see what we can do.’ “
The Wahoos have done plenty. A month ago, UVa swept every race to win the ACC championship for the 11th time in the event’s 12-year history. The ‘Hoos raced well at the Oak Ridge Invitational in Tennessee this month, and they’ll enter this weekend’s NCAA championships ranked third nationally, behind No. 1 Princeton and No. 2 California.
“I have high standards and expectations for them, but sometimes they succeed even more than I think they can, and that’s a good thing,” Sauer said. “The coach keeps the athletes honest, and the athletes keep the coach honest. That’s a good combination.”
Sixteen teams received invitations to the NCAAs, which begin Friday with heats on Lake Natoma in Gold River, Calif. The semifinals are Saturday and the finals Saturday.
To contend for the NCAA title, a team usually must qualify for the Grand Final — made up of the top six boats from the semifinals — in each race: the Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight and Varsity Four.
The Varsity Eight is where the most points are earned. A team gets 48 for first place, 45 for second, 42 for third, all the way down to 3 for 16th.
The scoring for the Second Varsity Eight starts at 32 points and decreases by 2 with each place. In the Varsity Four, the champion gets 16 points, the runner-up 15, the third-place boat 14, and so on.
A year ago, UVa placed second in the Varsity Eight, fourth in the Second Varsity Eight and first in the Varsity Four to total 87 points — five more than runner-up Cal and 11 more than third-place Princeton.
The 2010 ‘Hoos were notable not only for their talent, but for their experience. This team is much younger. UVa’s tentative lineups for the NCAAs include only four seniors: Christine Roper and Claudia Blandford on the Varsity Eight, Lauren Shook on the Second Varsity Eight, and Caroline Sweeny on the Varsity Four.
Moreover, of the rowers on last year’s Varsity Eight, only two returned this year: junior Martha Kuzzy and sophomore Kristine O’Brien. (Coxswain Sidney Thorsten is also back on that boat.)
Given all the personnel changes, it’s no surprise that Sauer and associate head coach Steve Pritzker have experimented with different lineups at times.
“It’s all about trying to get more speed as you go through the year, because obviously you have to bring your A-game at NCAAs,” Sauer said. “It’s funny. Some years it’s like, ‘There it is. That’s it. That’s the lineup.’ It’s kind of like with a basketball coach who has a starting five, and it stays pretty much the same the whole year. And other times, it’s like it changes every week, every game.”
The breakthrough for the ‘Hoos came last season, but they have consistently performed well at the NCAAs during Sauer’s tenure, finishing second three times, third twice, fourth thrice, fifth once, sixth twice and seventh once.
To repeat as NCAA champion, UVa will need a strong performance from its top boat. The competition is daunting.
“There’s some really fast Varsity Eights out there,” Sauer said. “Princeton, Cal, Stanford, Southern Cal have proven themselves to be kind of above everybody else in speed throughout this year. And so it’s just a matter of, ‘Can anybody play with those guys?’ “
Sauer said his approach didn’t change after UVa won the NCAA title last year.
“Realistically, you’re just trying to do the best job you can every day, every week, every year,” he said. “I don’t look at it like, ‘Oh yeah, we know how to win now that we’ve done it.’ I’m more like, ‘OK, how do we just do the best job we can, each and every day?’
“Every year’s different. Every year’s got a new group of kids, a different group of kids, and [the goal is to] create an atmosphere in this program where every year we’re going to be competitive.
“You want to say, ‘OK, we won last year. We want to be competitive this year, too, and next year and the next after. We want to be in the hunt every year.’ “