Rowers to NCAA Championships

C.J. Spang

Completely devastated.

That’s how Minnesota’s rowing team felt last year after not getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Championships.

Because of that snub, the team didn’t even want to listen to this year’s conference call that would announce whether the Gophers would make their first NCAA Championship appearance in school history.

But they did listen, and once again there was disappointment, but this time there was excitement to go along with it.

In its sixth year of competition at the varsity level, Minnesota earned an at-large bid and a trip to the 2006 NCAA Championships at Finn Caspersen Rowing Center in West Windsor, N.J., May 26 through May 28. But an at-large bid means that only one boat – the first varsity-eight – will compete.

“Everybody’s thrilled,” coach Wendy Davis said. “They’re 100 percent thrilled, but they’re a bit subdued because we expected the team to go.”

The entire team expected to go because of its performance at the South/Central Regional Sprints in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on May 13 and 14.

The Gophers had two boats race in Grand Finals – the first varsity-eight and first varsity-four both finished fifth – and the second varsity-eight won its Petite Final, finishing seventh overall.

The Regional Sprints featured 21 teams from two regions vying for 10 bids to the NCAA Championships.

“Nowhere else is there that kind of depth,” Davis said. “This is huge – the fact that two regions come together. It’s like putting cats in a bag and seeing which ones come out alive.”

At the Regional, the Gophers finished 3.07 seconds behind Notre Dame – about the length of a boat.

“It was incredibly exciting and for all nine of the athletes – the eight rowers and coxswain,” Davis said. “None of them have ever been in a Grand Final where there were six boats across – it was an exciting race all around.”

The first varsity eight – which consists of coxswain Megan Flannery, team captain Cheryl Wick, Katie Biese, Erika Bartkute, Vilma Stragyte, Laura Jatautaite, Jennifer Barnes, Jillian Casey and Berit Tomten – will have a chance to redeem itself as all four teams that beat it in the Regional will be at the NCAA Championships.

After a strong week of practice, the team is confident in its ability to overcome that small deficit.

“We’ve really been hitting it hard and focusing,” senior Katie Biese said. “We didn’t get the team bid and so we’re pulling for those people too. We just have that much more motivation now going into it so I think we definitely will have the edge when we get there.”

In all, there will be 12 teams along with four at-large bids competing.

Those teams will be competing against a Gophers squad that is not only motivated because of this year’s snub, but last year’s as well.

“We’re not only doing this for ourselves but we’re doing it for the seniors that didn’t make it last year,” senior Jillian Casey said. “We were very close to them and that day when we found out we didn’t make it, it really truly was devastating.

“Every single week there’s been one practice that Wendy (Davis) said, ‘You’re gonna do this for Lida (Storch) and (Andrea) Pierce and Beth (Ratterman) who didn’t get to go last year,’ so it’s a great way to finish off an incredible four years.”