From there, Princeton put together 500 meters it won’t ever forget.
With the fastest final split in the field, the Tigers turned a thrilling race into a thrill for the Orange and Black fans, as Princeton sprinted past Stanford and earned a spot in Sunday’s 12:20 pm (Pacific) grand final.
Washington, the reigning national champion, led after every split and finished with a comfortable victory in 5:40.74. Conference rival California put itself comfortably in second place during the third split and qualified for the final in 5:42.32.
That left sixth-seeded Stanford and seventh-seeded Princeton to battle for one last spot.
After the first split, Stanford led. After the second, it was Princeton.
The third went to Stanford, which held third by less than half a second with 500 meters remaining, but those would belong fully to the Tigers. Princeton topped Stanford by more than four seconds in that final surge and qualified in 5:44.06.
"We really didn't do anything too differently this morning," junior stroke Will Gillis said. "I think our biggest strength was sticking to our plan and executing it in the last 1000 when we were under pressure. The crew showed a lot of composure today and I was really proud of the way we raced down the course."
"Honestly, that was just some gutsy racing," said head coach Greg Hughes, who has Princeton back in the national final for the second time in three years. "They kept themselves in position for the second half of the race, and they got it done."
It was an especially sweet finish for Princeton, which was passed in the final few strokes of the 2012 IRA semifinal and finished its season in the petite final. This time, the Tigers were the ones making the final pass, and their reward will be one more chance at the best boats in the country.
"Last year's semifinal was a big motivating force going into this race," senior captain Michael Evans said. "When you lose by a foot you tend not to forget about it easily. We are all looking forward to tomorrow very much, as I'm sure it'll be yet another thrilling IRA final."
Much of the credit for the finish goes to a team-wide dedication to even harder work in the offseason, and Hughes felt like all that work paid off Saturday.
"The goal was to get fitter and stronger both mentally and physically," he said. "That kind of race embodied what we were trying to do."
Princeton will race in Lane 1 Sunday, with California (2), Washington (3), Harvard (4), Northeastern (5) and Brown (6) across the line.
"Today was certainly exciting for all of us, but we are focused now on getting ready to deliver what we hope will be our best race of the year in the final tomorrow," Gillis said.
The second varsity eight, which went undefeated during the regular season but was edged by Brown at the Eastern Sprints, will also race for the national championship Sunday. The 2V held second position throughout their semifinal and, despite late charges by both Northeastern and Wisconsin, never gave the position up.
Washington led by more than three seconds after 500 meters and was never really challenged the rest of the way. Princeton built on its lead over Northeastern during each of the first three splits, but then had to deal with both Northeastern and Wisconsin battling it out for the crucial third spot.
While both boats made up ground, Princeton held off the charge and took second in 5:52.40, while Northeastern stayed in front of Wisconsin in 5:53.33.
"Washington got out in front early off the start and showed that they are a talented crew with good speed," said junior Dave Mackasey. "It was encouraging to see that we could hang with them and hold off pushes from two strong crews in Northeastern and Wisconsin. We executed our race plan like we had discussed, and got the job done. Tomorrow will be an exciting test for the 2V as we get our shot at the national championship."
Princeton will be in Lane 5 for the final, and it will be joined by Brown (Lane 1), Boston University (2), Washington (3), California (4) and Northeastern (6).
"I think as a group of guys we know that we are capable of big things," Mackasey said. "We had a great season, going undefeated in our duals. At Sprints, Brown came back and edged us in the last 500 to take home the championship. While a silver medal at the Sprints is impressive in itself, we all left disappointed, and that loss fueled two weeks of focused and intense training. Qualifying for the final at the IRA is a step towards the final goal. We're all excited to have the opportunity to bang heads with the country's best talent in tomorrow's final."
The second varsity grand final will be held at 11:20 am Pacific time.
The freshman eight placed fourth in its semifinal, and it will race in the petite final at 10:40 am, while the varsity four will race in the third-level final at 8:50 am.
VARSITY EIGHT SEMIFINAL #1
SECOND VARSITY EIGHT SEMIFINAL #1
FRESHMAN EIGHT SEMIFINAL #2
George Washington 6:14.27
VARSITY FOUR C/D SEMIFINAL #1
Oregon State 6:51.19
George Washington 6:54.30