Rowers top UCLA, look to Big Ten championships

With a beginning of a new rivalry and a new boat for her athletes, coach Wendy Davis hopes this is the start of a new era for Minnesota’s rowing team.

In their last race before the Big Ten championships, the Gophers’ Varsity Eight squad won its first-ever race against UCLA on Saturday at Lake Phalen in St. Paul.

Minnesota finished the 2000-meter course in 6:40.2, a full 10 seconds ahead of the Bruins (6:50.1).

“Our team is incredibly young,” UCLA coach Amy Fuller said. “We were sort of expecting that margin (of defeat).”

UCLA did manage to win the Novice Eight competition with a time of 7:15.0, good enough to beat Minnesota’s A-boat by two seconds.

Minnesota A won the Varsity Four race in 7:34.4. UCLA did not compete in the race.

Saturday’s race marked the first out-of-state competition for UCLA since becoming a varsity sport in 2002 – something Minnesota’s head coach was proud to be a part of.

“This is the first year of the tradition,” Davis said. “We wanted to get an almost-coastal rivalry going with them and thank God the weather cooperated so they’ll want to come back in two years.”

Fuller was equally enthusiastic about the budding rivalry between the Bruins and Gophers.

“It’s good to have an inter-regional race,” Fuller said. “This was a great learning experience for us and I hope it’s something we can keep doing.”

Minnesota is planning to travel to southern California next year to continue the rivalry.

Saturday’s race was also the second time in as many weeks the Gophers played host to a spring event. Minnesota had never raced in a home meet during the spring season prior to this year.

“I’ve always known Lake Phalen would be a great site,” Davis said. “It’s a really fair course and you can see the whole race start to finish.

“There are only a handful of courses in the country where you can do that.”

Minnesota now turns its attention to the Big Ten championships next weekend at Ohio State with the ultimate goal bneing to qualify for the NCAA championships.

Minnesota’s Varsity Eight boat of coxswain Katherine Nelson, Jackie Gagner, Amber Riopel, Heidi Rose, Melissa Roche, Sam Wangsgard, Jill Peters, Jessi Johnson and Kirsten Kosloske will be seeded fifth out of seven teams in the conference.

“We’re hoping to beat that ranking and snag fourth,” Davis said. “We’re in a really tough conference, but every week we’re improving and gaining confidence.”

Of the four schools ranked ahead of Minnesota, three are consistently among the top programs in the country – Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State – and the other, Iowa, defeated the Gophers in a dual meet April 19.

Still, Minnesota seems poised for a breakout performance.

“Bring it on,” Roche said of the stiff Big Ten competition. “We’ve been overcoming new challenges every week. We just need to swing together and be mentally in it.”

A special vessel

Minnesota celebrated its victory over UCLA by holding a boat dedication ceremony following Saturday’s race.

The Mary Lynn was dedicated in honor of Mary Lynn Wrye, a walk-on rower and former athlete of Wendy Davis at Stanford University in the mid 1980s.

Sweet Emma, dedicated by Rod and Nancy Peterson on Oct. 7, 2000, is the other dedicated boat in the Minnesota fleet.

“It’s just night and day,” Davis said of how far the program has come since then.

“(Wrye) is not a (Minnesota) alumnus, but she knows what we’re doing here and she wants to honor that,” Davis said.