By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia’s student body includes dozens of women with the potential to excel in rowing, Erin Neppel believes, even if they’ve never been in a boat. It’s her job to identify them and then persuade them to try the sport.
“On a campus this size, you have enough kids,” Neppel said. “You just have to go out and find them.”
In late July, UVA head coach Kevin Sauer hired Neppel, a former North Carolina rower, as an assistant. Among her responsibilities: reviving the Cavaliers’ novice program, through which such rowers as Lindsay Shoop have come.
Shoop, who played volleyball and basketball at the Covenant School in Charlottesville, joined the novice program at UVA in January 2002, midway through her third year. She was new to the sport, but Shoop learned quickly.
She earned All-America honors in 2003 and ’04 and won an Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008.
“There are a lot of stories like that [in rowing],” Sauer said. Which is why he’s determined to fortify the Wahoos’ novice program.
“We had a couple years there where it kind of waned a little bit. It wasn’t that it was bad, it just wasn’t as good as it could have been,” Sauer said. “So we decided, OK, we’ve got to bring this back.
“It’s too important to our success. We can’t depend just on recruits, not in this sport. So we needed to really be intentional about it and aggressive about it on Grounds, and that’s what I charged Erin with: Go do it.”
At the start of the fall semester, the team set up a table at the activities fair for UVA students, and the Cavaliers placed one of their boats on the grass outside University Hall, where first-years coming out of an event at John Paul Jones Arena would see it.
Elsewhere on Grounds, when Neppel and the other coaches spot tall young women who look like they might be athletically inclined, they talk to them about trying the sport.
Sauer has 20 scholarships — the maximum allowed by the NCAA — to divide among his rowers each academic year. Neppel said last week that about 30 newcomers — all walk-ons at this point — have been practicing in the novice program.
“They’re excited, there are a lot of really good athletes in the bunch, and I look forward to getting them race-ready by the Rivanna Romp in November,” Neppel said. “I don’t want five or six kids that stick it out all year. I want a novice team, so I would love to get 20, 25 kids that we can teach to row and get them excited about rowing and just kind of get them hooked in, so they want to continue and they want to get better. Kind of like Allie Nicholson.”
Nicholson, a graduate of nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, had never rowed before enrolling at the University in 2013. She started in the novice program, then overseen by assistant coach Josh Gautreau, who’s now at the University of Washington.
As Nicholson gained more experience, she was promoted to the Third Varsity Eight, to the Second Varsity Eight and finally, last season, to the Varsity Eight, the Cavaliers’ top boat.
“Kevin was the one who helped me realize my potential, but really it was Josh who took the reins and actually taught me how to row,” said Nicholson, who graduated from the University in May.
“Everyone likes to peg me as some sort of success story that comes out of UVA rowing. Some of that might have to do with me, but I think a lot more of it has to do with the program. Because I’m not an anomaly. There are girls every year who are identified by the novice program who end up contributing in some way to Virginia rowing.”
Neppel had a similar experience at UNC. She played soccer and tennis in high school and had never rowed before arriving in Chapel Hill. She entered the Tar Heels’ rowing program as walk-on. She exited as a three-time All-ACC selection.
“I was totally fresh, just like these [novices at UVA], so I get it,” Neppel recalled. “I get that their experience is totally different than a recruited student-athlete’s, and so we kind of have to start real slow and get them loving it, get them used to holding the equipment in their hands, get them used to training on the rowing machine, get them to become friends, so that they want to stay.
“Because we are going to ask more of them ultimately than everybody else, but they’re going to get more out of it than everybody else, too. So the sooner we get that culture started, the better. And obviously, in my role as their coach, I want some of these kids that we found on campus to be good enough at some point to move up this year.”
Nicholson said she’s delighted to learn the novice program is “being kick-started again. I think it’s kind of a secret weapon we can utilize.”