An undefeated Princeton boat, coming off its first Eastern Sprints championship since 2001, was locked in an East v. West showdown against California during the final 500 meters of the 2006 IRA national final. It was a thrilling competition on Cooper River, but the Golden Bears were two seconds faster and earned the title.
Since that race, the national championship has yet to return East.
It made it halfway across the country in 2008, when Wisconsin took the title. Other than that, either Washington or California has gotten its bow across the line first in the biggest race of the season.
The challenge is daunting, but Princeton has made it to Lake Natoma in Sacramento with hopes of shocking boats on both coasts and bringing that championship back to the Shea Rowing Center.
The Tigers are coming off a fourth-place finish at the 2013 Eastern Sprints on May 19, and they are seeded just outside the top six this year. Thus, to return to the IRA grand final, Princeton will have to push past at least one higher-seeded boat.
While the Tigers missed out on the medal stand, head coach Greg Hughes believes the experience of the day will be helpful for the three-day IRA Championships.
“That was our first six-boat race of the season, so you adjust your race plan and how you act with the five other boats,” Hughes said. “You really have to stay internal, because there is so much going on.”
The three boats seeded ahead of Princeton were Harvard, Brown and Northeastern, and that was the ultimate trio that kept the Tigers off the medal stand. Based on the results of a hard-fought semifinal, Princeton was sent to the Lane 6 on Lake Quinsigamond and seemed a mile away from the three-team showdown going down on the other side of the course.
This year, especially after being edged out in the 2012 IRA semifinal, Princeton would happily take any of the six lanes for the grand final.
The Tigers will open competition Friday morning at 8:15 am (all times in this story will be Pacific times) in the second heat. They join second-ranked Harvard, as well as Oregon State, Navy, Georgetown and UCSD in the race for two berths in the Saturday semifinals.
Saturday’s varsity eight semifinals will be held at 11:30 and 11:45 am, and the top three in each of the main semifinals will return to Lake Natoma for the grand final Sunday at 12:20 pm.
The second varsity earned a silver medal at the Eastern Sprints, and it is currently seeded fourth behind Washington, Brown and California. Princeton hasn’t won a 2V gold since 1998, but it will begin that chase Friday morning at 9:30 in a four-boat opening heat. The Tigers should feel at home, as they will have Penn on one side and Harvard on the other, with 13th-seeded Stanford on the outside.
Semifinals are scheduled for 11 and 11:15 am on Saturday, with the grand final slated for 11:20 am on Sunday.
The new rule that allowed freshmen to compete in varsity boats aided the Tigers all season, and several will be making their IRA debuts this weekend. However, that has left Princeton without a top freshman boat for much of the season. The Tigers will send a boat comprised of four heavyweight freshmen and four lightweight freshmen to compete this weekend, and that boat will open racing Friday morning at 10:15.
Princeton will also send a varsity four, and that will begin competition at 10:45.
While the Tigers have a sense of where they stand, and where they need to make up ground, with their Eastern rivals, there is very little knowledge of the speed and talent out West.
“There has been very little crossover this season, and most of it came early,” Hughes said. “That’s the exciting thing about these races. That’s why you compete, why you race. Our boats are going well right now, and we’re looking forward to competing with the best teams in the country.”