The Princeton second varsity eight, a paragon of consistency throughout the season, was about 10 strokes away from a major disappointment. The Tigers, still fueled from the Ivy Championships, had other plans; their brilliant final sprint put them in the NCAA Championship grand final, along with the varsity eight.
The varsity eight will race for its third NCAA title in the last eight years when it joins Ohio State, Washington, USC, Virginia and California in the grand final Sunday morning at 10:50 a.m. at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis.
The second varsity will also race for NCAA gold; the Tigers will take on Yale, Ohio State, Brown, California and USC at 10:30.
The varsity four nearly made it a perfect morning for Princeton, but its final sprint ended less than a quarter second short of third place in its semifinal. The fours can still score big points for Princeton when it competes in the petite final Sunday at 10 against California, Stanford, Notre Dame, Michigan and Yale.
"It's always nice to get some boats into the finals" said head coach Lori Dauphiny, who has led Princeton to every NCAA Championship regatta since the inaugural event in 1997. "It's super hard to do, and even our four was right there."
Points are awarded for each team's final finish in Sunday's finals. The varsity eight winner earns 48 team points; every other team earns a multiple of three points based on its overall finish. Thus, the second-place team earns 45, the third-place team earns 42, etc. The second-varsity eight uses the same system, only with a multiple of two points, so the winner earns 32, the second-place team earns 30, etc. The varsity four earns one point per spot, with the winning team earning 16 points.
The maximum for a team with all three boats in the grand finals (only Ohio State and USC) is 96 points; Princeton can earn as many as 90 Sunday morning in the final day of the racing season.
The varsity eight, two weeks after winning its 13th Ivy League championship, was Princeton's first qualifier for the finals. The 2006 and 2011 NCAA champion V8 led the second semifinal through the first three splits, though top-ranked Ohio State had closed to within about a seat with 500 meters to go.
At that point, with the final four boats basically battling for one position, both Ohio State and Princeton came home with little pressure. The Buckeyes won in 7:14.41, while Princeton took second in 7:15.30. Washington barely held off a final sprint by Yale to finish third in 7:17.23, less than a half second faster than Yale.
"The varsity had a good race, though they have some mixed feelings from letting Ohio State through," Dauphiny said. "Still, it was a solid performance, and it got them to the next step, which is the most important thing."
"We are happy to be going to the grand final, but we know that we are going to have to handle the conditions better than we did this morning," senior stroke Molly Hamrick said. "They are very challenging conditions, but conditions that everyone is experiencing and that we will need to better overcome them in the final tomorrow."
Princeton will race in Lane 5 during the grand final. Washington (Lane 1), USC (2), Virginia (3), Ohio State (4) and California (6) will also compete for gold.
"We did what we needed to do out there today to qualify for the grand final," said Heidi Robbins, a 2013 von Kienbusch winner as one of the top female student-athletes in the Class of 2013. "It was not a pretty race as conditions were tough—lots of white water and a big headwind—but we did drive through it. It is thrilling. The grand final is where this boat has been training for all year. I look forward to a very exciting final race in tiger stripes."
While the varsity eight could cruise in its final 10 strokes, the second varsity had a far different experience. Brown, Virginia, Princeton and California put on a wild four-boat show in the second semifinal Saturday morning. California was fourth after 1000 meters, but it posted the fastest third split in the field to move from fourth to second with 500 remaining.
At that point, Brown had built a lead and would hold off California for the win, while the Golden Bears managed to keep second. The drama came between the two teams in orange, as Virginia held a half second lead going into the final split. As the finish line neared, Princeton put in the final charge it needed and ended up third in 6:55.26, just ahead of Virginia's bow (6:55.52).
Princeton will see a pair of its Ivy League rivals Sunday morning when it competes in the grand final from Lane 1. The Tigers will be right next to Yale (Lane 2), with Ohio State (3), Brown (4), California (5) and USC (6) in the rest of the field.
"That race was amazing, with leads being exchanged and I think everybody led at one point," Dauphiny said. "It's an inspiring story, because it was a rough day at Ivies, but they were really mature today and just kept pressing. It makes me feel really good."
Amazingly, the fours nearly topped that drama in its semifinal, and if the race was 2100 meters, it probably would have.
USC left the field almost immediately and won by more than five seconds in 7:44.82; the race caller basically stopped mentioning that crew after the 1000-meter mark. Virginia built a comfortable spot behind USC and took second in 7:50.08, but three boats had a fantastic final charge for the last spot.
Princeton came into the final split in the worst spot of the three, holding fifth and more than two seconds behind Washington State. The first task was to pass Notre Dame, which the Tigers managed, and then they put their full focus on Washington State. The lead continued to shrink with each stroke, but the distance to the finish line shrank slightly faster. Washington State held on in 7:52.48, while Princeton finished fourth in 7:52.69.
"It's still surreal that tomorrow is it, my last race with Princeton Crew," said Hamrick, who joined Robbins and junior Kelsey Reelick in the 2011 NCAA champion varsity eight. "There's nowhere I'd rather be than in that grand final, and I am beyond excited for my final opportunity to race as a Tiger against some of the fastest varsity eights in the nation. "There are four seniors in the boat and seven racing in their respective finals tomorrow, and I know we're all proud and excited to be here," Hamrick added. "Rowing has been a huge part of all of our lives for the past four to eight years, and, regardless of the outcome, I expect it to be an emotional morning/afternoon."
VARSITY EIGHT SEMIFINAL B
Ohio State 7:14.41
SECOND VARSITY EIGHT SEMIFINAL B
Notre Dame 7:11.73
VARSITY FOUR SEMIFINAL B
Washington State 7:52.48
Notre Dame 7:55.39