The No. 2 Virginia women’s rowing team is back on the water and is already in the midst of the spring season. In the next few weeks the Cavaliers will see 15 of the other 19 top-20 crews leading into the ACC and NCAA championships.
In their first regatta of the spring season, the Oak Ridge Cardinal Invitational from March 14-15, the Cavaliers won 14 of their 15 races against crews including No. 9 Yale, No. 12 Notre Dame and No. 18 Louisville.
The spring season races consist of 2000-meter sprints, while the fall races are longer endurance pieces.
Following three decisive race wins in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Varsity Eight was named ACC Crew of the Week. The boat featured four seniors, Hemingway Benton, Maddie Keating, Lizzy Youngling and coxswain Hayley LaFleche, along with juniors Sam Casto and Mackenzi Sherman, sophomores Erin Briggs and Georgia Ratcliff and freshman Eliza Spilsbury.
“I think it’s awesome that we’re being recognized for that,” Briggs said, who rowed in the two seat. “But it’s important that we’re not too confident about it because success isn’t guaranteed and we need to continue to work hard.”
Although the Oak Ridge Invitational was an excellent start to the season for the Cavaliers, the team will be facing consistently tough competition all season long, including the defending national champions, No. 1 Ohio State.
The Cavaliers scrimmaged against Ohio State this past weekend, which proved to be a great learning experience for both teams.
“Just having a connection with other teams has been really cool and I think it kind of changed our perspective for the rest of the season,” sophomore Jo Gurman said, who participated in the Second Varsity Eight at Oak Ridge. “The comparison was on such a close level and it definitely showed us where we should continue to focus.”
This weekend, the Cavaliers will travel to Redwood Shores, California for the Pac-12 Challenge. No. 4 California and No. 5 Stanford will be among the crews at the regatta.
“We know the West Coast is going to be fast, and it’ll be a challenge,” coach Kevin Sauer said. “That’s why we’re going out there.”
The Cavaliers were very successful at last year’s Pac-12 Challenge, winning three of four races against both Stanford and USC and sweeping all four against Oregon State.
Traveling to the West Coast also provides a challenge from an equipment standpoint. Logistically, the teams work together to find the easiest way to transport the expensive boats. The Cavaliers loaded their boats onto University of Oklahoma’s trailer while they were in Oak Ridge, as both teams will be at the Pac-12 Challenge. Oklahoma will return Virginia’s boats to the East Coast when the teams meet up again at the Clemson Invite in mid-April.
Looking ahead, Virginia will host the ACC/Big Ten Challenge April 4 at Lake Monticello. Ohio State will return to Charlottesville, along with No. 6 Michigan from the Big Ten and Clemson from the ACC.
Virginia will then travel to Princeton to take on Ivy League crews No. 8 Princeton, No. 12 Harvard and No. 20 Cornell, followed by a trip to South Carolina for the Clemson Invite, which features some of the top crews from all across the country.
“Just looking at our schedule gives the rowers motivation,” Sauer said. “You’ve just got to look at what’s coming up, strive for excellence and be as good as we can be.”
This will all lead up to the ACC Championships at Clemson and the NCAA Championships in Gold River, California.
The Cavaliers have won the ACC Championship for five consecutive years, and 14 of 15 ACC Rowing Championships. Virginia has also finished in the top six at the NCAA Championships for the last eight years.
“Each day in practice if we give it our best shot, then we’ll be able to improve as the year goes on,” Sauer said. “Our goal is to be at the top and win the NCAA title.”
Holding each other accountable, never taking success for granted and senior leadership will bolster the Cavaliers mentally and physically.
“Coach Sauer holds us accountable for every aspect of our lives and supports us when we do that well, and when we don’t, we just become disappointed in ourselves,” Gurman said.
The four seniors in the Varsity Eight, Benton, Keating, Youngling and LaFleche, along with Lexie Katz in the Second Varsity Eight and coxswains Julia Roithmayr and Chloe Sykes, have taken on significant leadership roles and claim extensive collegiate experience, valuable as races get more and more competitive.
Sauer and the team leaders stressed being intentional and always finding a job for yourself to do, which in turn will bring the team closer together and provide even more motivation.
“You can always do more, there’s never a point where you’re done,” Briggs said.