April 30, 2014
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CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The UVa rowing team's top boat entered the spring season touted as an NCAA title contender. And so the Varsity Eight's performance at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, April 19 near Ann Arbor, Mich., dismayed the boat's nine members.
First, Virginia lost to Michigan, though by less than two seconds. Then UVa lost by more than four seconds to Ohio State. If the Cavaliers are to win their third NCAA team title in five seasons next month in Indianapolis, they'll need more from the Varsity Eight than the boat delivered on Belleville Lake.
"I think it was a really humbling experience," said coxswain Sarah Jordan, a senior from Flourtown, Pa., "because we know we have a good amount of speed, but we realize that there's a lot more we can be doing and a lot more we should be doing. I think it just really brought everyone back down a little bit and then we reset the mission we're on."
UVa coach Kevin Sauer's reaction to the April 19 results?
"It wasn't a wakeup call for me, because I knew it was potentially going to happen," Sauer said this week.
"I think the rowers, and they'll admit this, looked past Michigan, because Ohio State was ranked [higher]. Not that we disrespected Michigan in any way, shape or form. I didn't talk about Ohio State at all. I was talking to them about Michigan the whole time, because they were the first race we had, and then we used the next few hours to talk about Ohio State.
"But I think it's human nature to look to the higher-ranked team, as stupid as it sounds. So I think we looked past [the Wolverines] a little bit and they got us. We had to work really hard to row our way back into that race, and then Ohio State was waiting for us."
Michigan beat the Wahoos "fair and square," Sauer said, but "if we had approached that a little bit differently team-wise, we might have had a different result. And I think we might have been even better prepared for Ohio State. I don't think we were going to beat Ohio State that day, no matter what, but I think we could have been even more competitive with them."
Fiona Schlesinger, who's from Surrey in England, is a four-year member of the Varsity Eight. Most of UVa's other boats raced well on Belleville Lake, Schlesinger noted, and they should be proud of their performances. But the Varsity Eight is "meant to be leading the program," she said, "and so that's never a result that we're going to walk away satisfied with. The race against Michigan -- how do I say it? -- it happened. It was just one of those races that you wish you could re-race."
Virginia's No. 2 boat, the Second Varsity Eight, had mixed results at the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. UVa defeated Michigan by three seconds but lost to Ohio State by 10.
"So that was a wakeup call for coaches, athletes, everybody," Sauer said, "and we changed the next week. We kind of mixed it up and changed a lot, and so the 2V's a lot better, I think, than they were."
A week after their trip to Michigan, the `Hoos hosted the UVa Invitational at Lake Monticello. On a sparkling spring morning, a revamped Second Varsity Eight defeated its counterparts from Michigan State and Syracuse, as did the Varsity Eight, whose members Sauer rearranged in the boat between races Saturday.
"Every year's different," Sauer said. "Sometimes you don't tinker at all. Sometimes you tinker a lot. It just kind of depends. You try to figure out what's the best chemistry, the best lineup.
"No lineup is set. The Varsity Eight lineup is not set. You've got to have the ability as a coach to tweak these things."
Sauer smiled and pointed across the street to John Paul Jones Arena, home of UVa's basketball teams.
"It's kind of like, if you're not playing defense for Tony [Bennett], I don't care how much you're doing," Sauer said, "you're not going to be in the game for long."
Schlesinger said: "We never sit back. We're never comfortable with what we've been doing. So that's what we've been working on: taking ourselves out of our comfort zone, which has been great for us, and we definitely learn from it.
"We have some time until ACCs. This is part of the process."
Final exams begin Thursday at UVa. The Cavaliers return to competition at the ACC championships, May 16 and 17 at Clemson. Then comes the 22-team NCAA championships, May 30 to June 1 in Indianapolis.
UVa, which has two won NCAA team titles (2010 and '12), placed fifth last season. That marked the seventh straight finish in the top six for the `Hoos.
At the NCAA championships, the scoring breaks down as follows:
* Varsity Eight -- 66 points for first place, 63 for second, 60 for third, 57 for fourth and so on, down to 3 for 22nd.
* Second Varsity Eight -- 44 points for first, 42 for second, 40 for third, 38 for fourth and so on, down to 2 for 22nd.
* Varsity Four -- 22 points for first, 21 for second, 20 for third, 19 for fourth and so on, down to 1 for 22nd.
Sauer came into this academic year believing his program could contend for another NCAA championship in May, and his opinion hasn't changed.
"We've shown a lot of depth all year, from all the way back in the fall," he said, and his rowers are in outstanding physical condition.
"I think the only thing that's kept us from maybe being undefeated across the board is just finding the right combination of people," Sauer said. "I think we have the pieces. It's just trying to put `em on the board in the right place.
"Not to take anything away from anybody who beat us. I'm just saying we still have the potential."
Only once have the Cavaliers failed to win the ACC title in rowing, in 2009, when they finished second to Clemson. The Tigers defeated the `Hoos in the Varsity Eight race that day. Five weeks later, though, UVa placed second at the NCAA championships in the Varsity Eight, "and Clemson wasn't even in the final," Sauer said.
It's difficult for a boat to compete at the highest level all season, Sauer acknowledged. "You're going to have some bumps. It's human nature. How do you stay up all the time?"
In 2012, Sauer recalled, UVa's Varsity Eight lost at a regatta in San Diego. Back in Charlottesville, he fine-tuned his No. 1 boat's lineup, and "then nobody touched us the rest of the year, all the way through," he said. "But that's fairly rare that that can happen."
In the Varsity Eight grand final at the NCAAs last year, California won, and Virginia finished fourth. For Cal, that was its Varsity Eight's best performance of the season, Sauer said.
"That's when you want to do it, right?" he said. "And that was probably one of our worst races, the final in the NCAA. And that's not when you want to do it.
"It just depends on the year. Cal's coach said finally they put the race together they had in them. That's the kind of thing that happens. You keep battling, and hopefully you pop one off that makes a difference at the right time."
After the races were completed Saturday at Lake Monticello, Sauer recognized his 15 seniors and graduate students: Jordan, Schlesinger, Claire Cundiff, Constanze Duell, Brandy Herald, Maddie Hilbrant, Ashley Hendrickson, Kaity McCullough, Sarah McGovern, Catherine Multari, Elle Murray, Mary Nilan, Emily Pik, Ella van der Haar and Paige Terry.
"Four years or one year," Sauer told the assembled crowd, "the impact that people have on a program is immense."