The boulder stuck this time: Davis sees her team avoid another step back

Coach Wendy Davis said she didn’t foresee big things for these Gophers.

Emily Wickstrom

Wendy Davis described her first four years as Minnesota’s rowing coach as pushing a boulder up a mountain.

And every year, she said, the boulder fell back down.

Until this year, that is. This time, the Gophers have gained national recognition somewhat ahead of schedule.

“I didn’t expect this to be the year,” Davis said. “I was depressed last summer.

“And then this year, starting about mid-September, it was like, ‘Wow the boulder’s not falling back down the mountain.’ “

This is the first season Minnesota has ever been nationally ranked, and the team now stands a good shot of sending at least one boat to the NCAA Championships on May 27-29 in Sacramento, Calif.

But coming into this year, Davis said she wasn’t sure where her team stood after graduating a core of strong seniors, including five members of the First Varsity Eight boat.

Approximately three weeks into fall practice, however, Davis said, she thought differently.

“I’d be coaching them and telling them the technical changes they needed to make, and they would do them,” she said. “As a program, everybody now understands how important it is not to just be fit, but to move the boat well. And I don’t think in the years past that was fully understood.”

Minnesota team members said they knew from the beginning they could have a successful season.

“I wasn’t nervous at the beginning,” captain Andrea Pierce said. “I did not for a second doubt what was coming in. I knew it would be a challenge Ö but I had faith in these girls.”

Some of the team’s success can be attributed to the stability of the coaching staff, Davis said, which took awhile to develop because of the turnover in the program’s beginning years.

Now, Davis and assistants John Flynn and Libby Sharrow have worked together long enough to develop a coaching system that benefits all of the rowers.

“Being more established, there’s less junk that I have to do as a coach,” Davis said. “I can spend more time in the office focusing on coaching than ever before.”

Whatever the reason, the 15th-ranked Gophers have definitely had a breakout season, defeating a top-15 team in UCLA and coming within a second of beating No. 3 Michigan.

Minnesota will have another chance to compete against some of the top teams in the nation when it travels to the regional sprints May 14-15 in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Davis said she would like the First Varsity Eight to finish in the top five and the Second Varsity Eight and the First Varsity Four to finish in the top six at regionals.

If that happens, she said, there would be a chance the whole team would be invited to the NCAA Championships.

But if the entire team doesn’t get invited, the First Varsity Eight should get an individual bid, ending a season that started with doubts on a milestone.

Bringing the whole team would just be another accomplishment.

“I don’t think that we’re going to look back,” junior Vilma Stragyte said. “Wendy’s the biggest motivator.

“I know that other coaches and athletes are recognizing us.”