June 2, 2005
CHERRY HILL, N.J. - Their aim of an undefeated season was extinguished Thursday. Their ultimate goal of a repeat national championship is very much alive.
The Washington men's junior varsity eight crew saw its string of 18 consecutive race victories come to an halt during the first day of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) Championships on the Cooper River. That was also the site of the Huskies' previous loss, on May 31, 2003 on the final day of the IRA regatta.
Since that 2003 setback, when they placed second to Harvard in the championship race, the Huskies went two calendar years without an opponent reaching the finish line before them. UW collected two Pac-10 titles and one national championship during that span.
Undefeated streaks are nice fodder for the record books. But they aren't recognized with any hardware. The higher priority for the Huskies is to reclaim the 107-year-old Kennedy Challenge Cup that is presented to the junior varsity champion. They captured the Cup last year for the 19th time.
Top-seeded UW is still in contention for the Cup despite being stunned by Wisconsin, which made a strong move midway through their heat en route to a one-seat win.
"It's just like any other sport. Undefeated basketball teams will lose their last game of the season and then win the national championship," explained senior coxswain Greg King. "It's exactly like that. And if we are going to lose any race it's good that it's this heat."
In each of the last two years an NCAA basketball team had a perfect season spoiled with a loss in the last game of the regular season. Illinois lost this year at Ohio State and Washington dealt Stanford its first loss in 2004. King probably doesn't want to be reminded that neither of those teams went on to win the national title.
Wisconsin broke away from the pack with an impressive move at the 500-meter mark, leaving everyone but Washington far behind. A furious race to the finish line ensued as the Huskies closed the gap, but their strong closing sprint came up just short at the line. Navy, Michigan and St. Joseph's couldn't keep pace as they all finished over 18 seconds behind the leaders.
The Badgers clocked a time of 5-minutes, 59.49-seconds over the 2,000-meter course and UW finished in 6:00.14. The times were over seven seconds superior to those posted by every other crew in the junior varsity field.
Washington competes in the semifinal race Saturday seeking to finish among the top three teams in its race and advance into Sunday's six-boat grand final.
"We had a big target on our backs coming in because we were seeded No. 1," said senior rower Scott Schmidt. "We know now that we can be defeated and I think that's actually good for us. It's opened up a lot of guys' eyes and we're getting pretty fired up now. I think actually it's going to be helpful for motivation."
Preliminary round racing is intriguing because the competitive instinct to win coincides with the goal of advancing to the next round. When the top-two finishers in a race both qualify for the next round, as was the case Thursday, a crew doesn't need to win the race to remain in national championship contention.
"If we are going to lose any race it's good that it's this heat," senior coxswain Greg King said. "We went out and did what we needed to do which was to get into the semis. We know we have a whole other gear ready to go."
While the athletes were deeply disappointed to see their perfect season sullied, they managed to find a silver lining in the setback. Their coach discerns no such positives.
"Wisco was selling the store to win that heat, which they should have done," Husky head coach Bob Ernst emphatically exclaimed. "There is always a value in winning your heat or winning your semifinal. There always is.
"Now, if it comes up really windy tomorrow it could be a big problem. It could be a big problem all the way through the finals. I never suggest to the guys that they finish anywhere but first."
The heat winners receive the preferred lanes for the semifinals, often those paths are more protected from the elements. Rain and stronger winds are projected for the New Jersey area.
The Huskies plan to put Thursday's loss behind them and the notion of an undefeated season with it.
"It's important to move on, it's like one step. That's the nice thing about having heats. It's a free race to test your speed," Schmidt said. "The crews that will succeed the best will have to get faster throughout the regatta. That's the nice thing about IRAs, you get a couple races to tune up to be your fastest. There's definitely going to be some great racing Friday and Saturday."