By Jeff White
WEST WINDSOR, N.J. — As the start of racing approached Saturday morning at Mercer Lake, Steve Pritzker assessed UVa’s prospects for winning its second NCAA rowing title in three seasons.
“We’ll know by 9:45 [a.m.] if we have a chance,” said Pritzker, the Cavaliers’ associate head coach.
Two of Virginia’s three boats, the Varsity Eight and the Varsity Four, were virtual locks to advance to Sunday’s grand finals, based on their performances all season and in Friday’s heats.
UVa’s Second Varsity Eight was less of a sure thing. There is no lack of talent on this boat, but not until Friday had the lineup entered for the NCAA championships raced together: coxswain Sarah Jordan and rowers Chandler Lally, Elle Murray, Kaitlin Fanikos, Brandy Herald, Liza Tullis, MacKenzie Leahy, Sarah Borchelt and Morgan Joseph.
“It definitely is a challenge for crews that have a late lineup set,” Jordan said Saturday, “but I think that because the coaches have set us up right, the nine of us have really taken it as an opportunity and not as a challenge, and we’ve made a lot of progress from race to race. The coaches told us this morning that we’re maturing before their eyes.”
In each of the three events, two six-boat semifinals were held Saturday, with the top three finishers in each semifinal advancing to grand finals.
By morning’s end, Virginia had put itself in contention for the NCAA team title. The Wahoos won their Varsity Eight semifinal, placed third in their Second Varsity Eight semifinal and were second in their Varsity Four semifinal.
Only two other schools, Princeton and California, advanced all three boats to grand finals. Michigan failed to qualify in the Varsity Four, but the Wolverines are title contenders in the Varsity Eight and Second Varsity Eight, which carry the most team points.
“Our goal is to get every boat in the final, and we did that,” UVa head coach Kevin Sauer said. “The first step is to get everybody in the semis. The second step is get everybody in the final. We’ve done that, and there are not many crews that have done that.
“Now it’s up to us to take care of business tomorrow, all three boats.”
The starting times for Sunday’s grand finals: 10:25 a.m. for the Varsity Four, 11:15 a.m. for the Second Varsity Eight, and 12:05 p.m. for the Varsity Eight.
The scoring for each race is as follows:
* Varsity Eight — 48 points for first place, 45 for second, 42 for third, 39 for fourth, all the way down to 3 for 16th.
* Second Varsity Eight — 32 points for first, 30 for second, 28 for third and so on, down to 2 for 16th.
* Varsity Four — 16 points for first, 15 for second, 14 for third, and so on, down to 1 for 16th.
“There are a lot of calculations there,” Pritzker said, “but very simply, if each boat does the best they can, that’s all you can ask for.”
In 2010, when the ‘Hoos won the NCAA title, they 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 Second Varsity Eight, traditionally one of UVa’s stronger boats, has been crowned NCAA champion three times, in 1998, 1999 and 2005. So its inconsistency this season has been noteworthy.
“It’s not like they’ve been bad all year,” Sauer said. “It’s just trying to find the right [lineup] that will allow those guys to do the best they can do, and they’re starting to really find their way, so to speak. So that’s the exciting part of this regatta, to see what those guys have done and what they can hopefully accomplish tomorrow. They’ve just done a great job.”
In its semifinal Saturday, UVa’s Second Varsity Eight opened an early lead. Cal and Princeton eventually overtook them, but the ‘Hoos held off Brown to earn a spot in the grand final.
“I think the last 500 meters we were thinking, ‘Just get top three for the team,’ ” Jordan said.
“That was awesome,” said Sidney Thorsten, who’s in her fourth year as coxswain of the Varsity Eight. “I feel like they’ve just had such a tough season so far, and I think after the heat on Friday they just gained so much confidence, and they’re kind of getting into their rhythm.”
The Varsity Eight’s lineup has been set for most of the spring, which “makes a huge difference, racing-wise and every day in practice,” Thorsten said, “just having that [stability]. Whereas I know the 2V didn’t have a lineup until two or three days before we left [for the NCAAs]. So they’re just kind of figuring it out, but they’re really coming together.
“You don’t really get that much of a jump from race to race when you’ve been together for so long, but they’re making huge strides, which is awesome.”
Shortly after noon Saturday, the Cavaliers returned to their hotel in nearby Princeton to rest, rehydrate and start focusing on the challenge that awaits them Sunday.
“We’re going to have a team dinner outside the hotel at a nice place tonight,” Sauer said, “just get everybody together, have some fun and talk about it a little bit. Everybody already knows what we’ve got to do. It’s about keeping them calm but excited, kind of a combination of both, and letting them unleash it tomorrow.”
At an invitational April 14 at Lake Monticello, the rowing team dedicated one of its boats to Craig Littlepage, UVa’s director of athletics. Littlepage, who was in Florida on Friday, made it to Mercer Lake on Saturday morning to cheer on the Cavaliers.
“Craig Littlepage is here?” Thorsten said when she spotted him near the team’s tent. “Awesome.”
Before the rowers headed back to their hotel, Littlepage gave them an impromptu pep talk.
“We didn’t come here just to show up,” he said. “We didn’t come here just to participate. We all came here to compete and win, and that’s the next step in this process.
“You guys have shown all year long that you have what it takes to be champions. Congratulations on a great morning. Let’s go, ‘Hoos!”