Strong core of originals lead Gophers into important season

Mike Mullen

Sam Wangsgard is a one-woman recruiting class.

Now a senior, Wangsgard was the lone recruit for the rowing team in 2000, joining a Minnesota squad in only its second year of existence.

“I think that’s one of the things that drew me here: I wanted a chance to be a part of a building program,” Wangsgard, who rowed on club teams while in high school in Virginia, said. “I wanted to be part of the roots.”

Coach Wendy Davis said Wangsgard is among a core of women who have seen the team grow and learn since its infancy.

“This team really started from scratch,” Davis said. “It’s like, if you’ve never tasted an orange, then you have nothing to compare it to – you don’t know what it’s like.

“We’ve kind of spent the last four years saying, ‘So this is what an orange tastes like.’ “

And last season, the team nearly got a taste of the ultimate orange: the NCAA Championships. The Gophers finished eighth at last year’s Central/South Regional Sprints; just missing a trip to the NCAAs.

And it was so close.

“Seconds,” senior Andrea Pierce said, shaking her head. “And not many. I remember thinking at the end of the year, ‘We’re almost there.’ “

And so Pierce, who was named this year’s team captain, took it upon herself to e-mail teammates over the summer to make sure that they were staying in shape.

“I just kind of wanted to keep track of what they were doing,” Pierce said. “And it was also a way to motivate myself.”

Davis said Pierce makes for a strong captain, as some of her most important skills are not evident in the boat.

“She’s a very verbal leader,” Davis said. “She talks to everybody, encourages everybody.”

Pierce and Wangsgard, who said that each year the team has come back more focused and determined – and better – agreed there is an “aura of confidence” around this year’s squad.

“Every year at the first practice of the fall, I kind of go, ‘Oh good, we’re that good,’ ” Davis said. “And this year we’ve got a very dynamic group.”

Minnesota’s season kicks off at home on Oct. 2 with the Head of the Mississippi race.