May 15, 2007

Crew takes on Dad Vail in spring finale

For the University’s club rowers, a year of pre-sunrise practices and blistered hands paid off last weekend with the opportunity to post strong competition against hundreds of crews from across the country.

After a spring season stunted by poor weather and cancelled regattas, crew turned in some of its best performances of the year Friday, yet was sunk by stiff competition in early heats at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia. Despite Chicago’s failure to break into medal rounds, the set of narrow misses and mid-pack finishes bodes well for a team competing against opponents that includes fully funded D-I squads.

“Overall, I was pleased with how we rowed,” said head coach Amanda Carson. “We’re a program with a lot of history but not much history on the medal dock, and that’s where we’re working to get. The boats at Vails proved to me that that’s a realistic goal.”

The country’s largest collegiate regatta, the Dad Vail played host to crews from over 100 schools in this weekend’s action on the Schuylkill River’s 2,000-meter sprint course. It serves as a national championship for smaller colleges and less established teams while heavy-hitters such as Harvard, Cornell, and the University of Washington battle it out at the elite IRA championships.

Among the thousands of athletes in the City of Brotherly Love were 16 rowers and four coxswains from the crew team, comprising a four-person boat from each of the men’s and women’s novice and varsity squads.

Kicking off Chicago’s races on the water barely after dawn on Friday morning, the varsity men lined up needing a top-two finish in heat action to head to Saturday’s semi-finals. After sending their boat to the medal rounds at last weekend’s MACRA championship, the squad was desperate for the podium in the last race for their fourth rower, senior captain Karl LaFavre.

Yet Chicago’s strokes couldn’t match eventual bronze medalist Boston College. As the Eagles motored through the pack, the race’s excitement turned to a battle between Chicago and Pitt for the coveted second-place slot. The Maroons couldn’t manage to power past the Panther’s lead, and the South Siders’ first shot at advancing through the weekend slipped away.

Perhaps the team’s best hope at a medal was Chicago’s novice men, who had high expectations after a strong showing at MACRAs. Quick off the start, the boat easily separated itself from the back of the pack, taking an early lead alongside BC and Central Florida. With Florida pulling ahead, Chicago and BC were left to dogfight for second.

Ahead of the Eagles at the 1,100-meter mark, the Maroons lost ground, then desperately picked it up to a dead sprint in the final 300 meters but were unable to stop BC from snagging the last ticket to semi-finals by less than a boat length. Seeing that their time would have allowed them to advance to finals in four of the other eight sets only served to augment Chicago’s disappointment at failing to advance.

Yet the squad still had the satisfaction of posting better times than two time-honored Chicago foes: UAA arch-rival Wash U and cross-town U.S. News nemesis Northwestern.

“That was awesome,” first-year Sean Beyers said. “At the last regatta, we beat Northwestern in heats but lost to them in finals, so knowing that we could do it again feels great. Beating Wash U after they’d destroyed us earlier in the year really validated all the hard work we’ve put in this season.”

On the women’s side, expectations for Vails were lowered after neither squad managed to reach the MACRA finals. After injuries and a shallow roster left them with little choice for boat lineups, Chicago’s novice women seemed unlikely to place far above the bottom of the barrel.

Yet despite only two of their four rowers having more than one regatta under their belt before Friday, the squad surprised the team with its best place finish of the year.

The inexperienced four managed to bury John Carroll right off the starting flag, while gradually pulling past Old Dominion. A sprint in the last 500 meters nearly boosted Chicago past Temple, yet the novices came up short, becoming the third Maroon squad to narrowly suffer elimination.

At the women’s varsity level, Chicago saw its tightest action of the day. A missed stroke at the start put the South Siders in an early hole, yet the squad still managed to leave conference foe Rochester in its wake in the first 500 meters. Northwestern State pulled ahead early to leave Drexel, Chicago, Johns Hopkins, and Georgia Tech in a thick pack, and the day’s closest finish saw a dead tie between Tech and Hopkins as the Maroons fell short of third by mere inches and .16 of a second.

“We had a really solid race and rowed cleanly,” second-year coxswain Chen said. “That said, we didn’t finish nearly as well as we are capable of, so we definitely know that we have work to do for next year.”

With only three seniors leaving between the two squad’s and an unprecedented number of novice men heading up to the varsity level, look for Chicago to boast strong boats in the fall as they head to more national regattas.