By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the history of NCAA women’s rowing, only three schools have won back-to-back team titles: Washington in 1997 and ’98, Brown in 1999 and 2000, California in 2005 and ’06, and Brown again in 2007 and ’08.
UVa has an opportunity this spring to join that group, but Kevin Sauer doesn’t want his rowers to be obsessed with that goal.
“If you think about it as, `Oh, we gotta repeat, we gotta repeat,’ you’re cooked,” said Sauer, who’s in his 18th season as the Cavaliers’ head coach.
“It’s pretty tough to repeat. But we don’t really talk about repeating. We talk about, let’s strive for excellence every day. If we do that, it is what it is. Let’s just worry about what we can do. We can’t control anybody else. If we do the right things, we have a shot.”
On Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J., the Cavaliers clinched the NCAA team title last May by winning the regatta’s last race, the grand final of the Varsity Eight. Earlier that day, Virginia had placed fifth in the Second Varsity Eight and second in the Varsity Four.
Of the 16 rowers on UVa’s top two boats that day — the Varsity Eight and the Second Varsity Eight — nine are competing this spring: sophomores Hemingway Benton, Kaitlin Fanikos and Chandler Lally, juniors Brandy Herald, Elle Murray and Fiona Schlesinger, seniors Susanne Grainger and Kristine O’Brien, and graduate student Sarah Cowburn.
Other rowers back include sophomores Veronica Jones, Lizzy Youngling and Maggie Bowman-Jones, juniors Kaity McCullough, Catherine Multari and Emily Pik, and senior Betsy Nilan. Among the Cavaliers’ most promising first-years are Chelsea Adams, Tessa Dikkers, Hannah Solis-Cohen and Nina Vascotto.
Youngling and Bowman-Jones missed last year’s NCAAs because of injuries. Healthy again, Youngling rowed on the Varsity Eight and Bowman-Jones on the Second Varsity Eight when UVa opened the spring season at the recent Oak Ridge Cardinal Invitational in Tennessee.
“They were good, talented kids that just weren’t available last year,” Sauer said, “and they’re in the thick of things [this season].”
Moreover, three other gifted rowers transferred to UVa after the 2011-12 academic year: junior Constanze Duell, from Technical University of Munich in Germany; sophomore Maddie Hilbrant, from Northeastern University in Boston; and sophomore Kristen Hickman, from the University of Alabama.
Duell has been rowing on UVa’s Varsity Eight; Hilbrant and Hickman, on the Second Varsity Eight. Another transfer from Northeastern, junior Sarah McGovern, is the Varsity Four’s coxswain.
“Those kind of things — a couple transfers coming in, a couple kids that weren’t players last year — help the speed of the program,” said Sauer, whose team was ranked No. 1 last week in the first Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association/USRowing coaches’ poll.
Senior Molly Frear has taken over for Sidney Thorsten as coxswain in the Varsity Eight, and Sarah Jordan, a junior, is again coxing the Second Varsity Eight. Thorsten coxed the Varsity Eight for four years.
In their first 14 seasons under Sauer, the `Hoos placed second at the NCAAs three times, third twice, fourth three times, fifth once, sixth two and seventh once.
The breakthrough came in 2010, when Virginia won its first NCAA title. A year later, the Cavaliers placed sixth at the NCAAs.
“We had a large, great graduating class in 2010, and it affected us in ’11,” Sauer said. “And then we came back in 2012 and [lost] another unbelievably large graduating class. But losing a lot of good kids doesn’t mean that you’re just gonna self-destruct. You gotta keep at it and realize that those guys are important, but there are a lot of kids in our program that can step in and do the job. And we have more of a nucleus left from ’12 than we did from ’10.”
Sauer also lost associate head coach Steve Pritzker after the 2012 season. Pritzker left UVa to become head coach at Iowa. To fill the vacancy on his staff, Sauer lured Brett Sickler away from her alma mater, Michigan. He also promoted Joshua Gautreau from graduate assistant to full-time assistant.
Sickler, a four-time member of USRowing’s senior national team, won gold medals with the women’s Eight at the 2006 and 2007 world championships. She was an alternate for the U.S. team that competed at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
“Obviously Steve was here for a long time and did a great job,” Sauer said, “but it’s kind of like with athletes: You graduate a class, you gotta keep rolling. And, yeah, it’s a loss, but you gotta keep rolling. It’s a great staff still.”
The Cavaliers totaled 87 points to win the NCAA title last year. (Runner-up Michigan finished with 82 points, and Cal was third with 78). Virginia earned 48 in the Varsity Eight, 24 in the Second Varsity Eight and 15 in the Varsity Four.
This year’s NCAA championships begin May 31 and run through June 2 in Indianapolis. Because of the scoring system used by the NCAA, the school with the nation’s top Varsity Eight is likely to contend for the overall title, too.
The Cavaliers’ top boat this spring is “pretty good,” Sauer said, “but there’s a lot of programs out there that had some kids training for their country’s Olympic team [in 2012] that are now back, like Cal and Southern Cal.
“That makes a huge difference when they come back into that situation. Washington’s got a couple kids, too. Princeton’s going to be fast, and Ohio State. There’s a lot of fast crews out there, so hopefully we’ll be competitive.”
Next on UVa’s racing calendar is the San Diego Crew Classic, April 6 and 7 in California.