June 3, 2006
CHERRY HILL, N.J. - They came a long way in a year. If you don't believe it, then check the video.
Friday night, just hours before their appearance in the grand finals of the men's Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) regatta, the Washington freshman eight crew met. They were preparing for a run at the national championship on the Cooper River in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Rather than spend the entire meeting looking ahead, freshman coach Michael Callahan showed a video of the team's first practice in the fall. Many of the rowers were novices who had never before picked up an oar.
Needless to say, the video didn't portray any text-book rowing technique.
"All of those guys are novices and they were just laughing their heads off," Callahan described. "They couldn't believe how far we had actually come in one year."
The Huskies improved dramatically throughout the year, narrowing the gap on two-time defending champion California. The consensus in the Washington camp is that the Pac-10 regatta was the turning point for the freshman men's crew. The introduction of a novice into the lineup gave the boat a boost.
"Our program is really built on novices," explained Callahan. "We finally put Lowell Neal, a novice, in the boat and he was really coming along. The guys didn't know what to expect, but they really gained a lot of confidence in him. As he was progressing, the boat was progressing also."
Three weeks after suffering a boat-length loss at California, the re-configured lineup battled the Bears to a near standoff at the Pac-10 championships.
"The Pac-10s was a good race," said Trevor Mollenkopf, the No. 3 seat in the frosh crew. "We changed the boat lineup a lot right before that race and we really didn't click until two, maybe three days before the race. So to come that close to them with a boat that hadn't really meshed together was a great feeling."
Washington turned the tables on the rival Bears in their third matchup. The Huskies defeated Cal Saturday in the grand final of IRA regatta en route to the freshman eight national championship.
UW's first-year oarsmen, who finished third at last year's IRA regatta, halted Cal's run of dominance in the freshman eights. The Golden Bears were undefeated in the last three seasons. They won the 2004 and 2005 freshman titles and had a perfect record in races this season.
"California, we respect them and they set the bar for what we want to achieve," Callahan said. "They are our best rivals. They have a very good coach and a very good group of athletes and they bring out the best in us every day. We were thinking about them all the time and that's what got us closer and closer."
Beginning with the video session Friday, the Huskies forgot about Cal and directed their focus inward.
"Today, before we went out we didn't talk about beating them," Callahan remarked. "We just talked about achieving our best race and reaching our optimum potential. And, I think we did it."
Saturday marked the third meeting this year between the West Coast rivals' first-year crews. The Bears defeated UW by over four seconds, April 22 in their dual meet. That margin was trimmed to two-tenths of a second, May 14 at the conference regatta.
Washington won when it mattered most, taking home the Stewards Cup for the first time since winning back-to-back freshman championships in 2001 and 2002. The Huskies broke quickly off the starting line and went wire-to-wire. They made a decisive move 650 meters into the race to gain freedom from the field. Cal followed, but never seriously threatened UW's lead.
The winning time of 5:38.80 gave the Huskies a three-seat triumph over Cal, which finished in 5:39.98. Penn placed a distant third in 5:44.37.
"We worked hard for this," said UW freshman Max Lang. "Today we just concentrated on our boat, executed the race plan and were smooth all the way through. This was my dream."
The freshman crew gave a preview of their prowess during the Mar. 19 Class Day Races. They defeated the sophomore, junior and senior crews, becoming the first freshman boat to win at Class Day since 1947.
"This is an incredible group of guys. To come out here and finish the season like this is amazing," Callahan concluded. "They pretty much set every record that we have for freshmen, individually and as a group. After that Pac-10 race, they gained some confidence and they knew that they could come through and win this race."