Sunday, April 30, 2006

Demons Exorcised

When the Princeton crew arrived at their boathouse Saturday morning, they could not have been heartened by the sight of the Princeton holiday flag flapping in the stiff breeze, at times gusting straight out from the flagpole. This was Windermere weather. This was Georgetown weather without the rain. This was not Princeton weather, it was Radcliffe weather. If the eight heard any results at all from the men’s racing taking place before the lightweight’s, the mood could only have darkened. Boat after boat fell to Brown and the day began with a decidedly anti-Princeton cast. By the time the Radcliffe and Princeton lightweight freshmen lined up, however, the home crowd mood had brightened as the Princeton heavy men’s V8 had handled Brown.

The Princeton lightweight freshmen turned in their usual dominating performance, beating Radcliffe by open water. The row wasn’t always pretty, but it was fast, and that’s all that counts.

As the freshmen rowed back up the course and the varsity eights locked onto the stakeboats, the wind picked up, mocking the crews waiting to race, daring them to row fast and clean. Radcliffe had to have been confident, and they deserved to be, having beaten Princeton twice before, and seeing the Tigers stumble last week against Georgetown. Princeton, while perhaps not confident, was certainly determined.

At the start of the race, Princeton executed a fast, clean start and jumped out a seat or two on the Black and White. By the time both crews’ starting sequences were done, Princeton had four seats on Radcliffe. This margin held fairly steady as both boats moved into the second 500.

When you try to forecast a future event, the only thing you know is that it won’t work out the way you say it will. This race wasn’t about the third 500, it was about the second. With hindsight we know this, but at the time no one, including the two crews, knew it. In the second 500, Radcliffe took a move. That move bought them a seat or two. What it didn’t do, was buy them what they needed, which was four or five. It was enough to bring a sinking feeling to the stomachs of the Princeton partisans in the crowd, but not enough to pull them even. It would be Radcliffe’s high-water mark.

Princeton didn’t so much respond to Radcliffe’s push, as ignore it. They accepted the loss of two seats, gathered themselves, and then once more began the job of moving away. This wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t quick; they were, after all, racing Radcliffe. As the boats crossed the 1000 meter mark, Princeton was up by six seats. Radcliffe was as tenacious as you would expect the number one boat in the country to be, but the Tigers gradually pulled away. The head wind hit in the third 500, as it had so many times before, but now it was Princeton doing the mocking. They had learned to row into the wind. In the last quarter of the race both boats went into their sprints, with the exertion of rowing from behind making Radcliffe look perhaps slightly less clean. Nonetheless, the Black and White found a bit of speed there, picking up maybe a seat, but at the finish it was Princeton by a little less than a length. For possibly the first time this season, Princeton had rowed a complete race – a fast start, a strong body, and an effective sprint – and it brought them the number one ranking in the country. Princeton had been haunted all season long by demons in the form of wind and waves, and Saturday those demons were exorcised. The Class of 1999 Cup remains on the shores of Lake Carnegie.

Radcliffe, meanwhile, rowed a valiant race. They rowed a race that left nine Princeton women wishing they didn’t have to see the Black and White two more times this season. They rowed back up the course with the look of a home run hitter who just struck out in the second, but who saw every pitch the pitcher has to throw. “Now that I know what you have, I’ll be ready the next time.”

Princeton’s Rule of Four continued in the V4, as the Tigers won a four boat race, followed by Radcliffe, Princeton, Radcliffe. This race began with the Black and White jumping out to a lead and Princeton moving through them in the second 500. That lead held up and expanded as Princeton won by open water. The winning Princeton boat looked strong as they pushed away from Radcliffe with every stroke. Radcliffe and the second Princeton boat were in a tight finish as Princeton put on a charge at the end to draw within half a length.

The races today continue to write a compelling storyline for the championship season to come. Princeton seems to have discovered their true potential and Radcliffe, while beaten on Saturday, is hardly defeated. Wisconsin, with a big win over Georgetown, has shown that, once again, they are picking up a lot of speed as the season matures and Georgetown, while maybe a bit further behind Wisconsin than they would have liked, is still clearly a dangerous crew. Finishing 6 seconds behind Georgetown, Ohio State has shown more speed than I thought they had and will slip under no one’s radar at ECACs. UCF waits in the wings, having already shown some of their speed, Stanford has yet to visit the east, and somewhere in central Pennsylvania, Bucknell has a surprise waiting for everyone. And then there’s Dayton, URI, and Buffalo. So strap on your helmet and buckle your seatbelt because… huh…oh, yeah…your mom says don’t forget to study for finals.

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