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It isn’t quite Lake Carnegie, but the fifth-seeded Princeton heavyweights won’t travel far to compete at this weekend’s IRA national championships. They are hopeful to thrill a Reunions-laden crowd with some Sunday fireworks, though the journey there will be laden with challenges.
Princeton will compete for its fourth IRA national championship this weekend at nearby Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J. The Tigers haven’t medaled at IRAs since their 2006 runner-up finish, and they will need to outperform their fifth seed to find a spot on the medal dock.
The traditional Western powers, Washington and California, bring the top two seeds to Mercer Lake, while the Ivy League will produce the remaining teams in the Top 5. Sprints champion Harvard is the third seed, while runner-up Brown and bronze medalist Princeton take up the next two spots.
Princeton hasn’t seen either Western school yet this year, but it has raced both Ivy programs twice over the last seven weeks. The Tigers split with Brown and lost twice to Harvard, including a narrow defeat on the Charles River during the Compton Cup regatta. Both teams pulled away from Princeton in a tough Sprints showdown, but the Tigers are confident that they came away from the championship event more prepared for nationals.
“We had a good battle for third with Northeastern as we approached the finish and were able to get ourselves onto the medal dock, something that is not easy to do in today's league,” senior Dave Mackasey said. “As a team, we left the Sprints happy, but not satisfied. If anything, we learned that this league is wide open, and there's no reason we can't medal at the IRA this weekend.”
The journey begins Friday morning at 8:45 during the fourth of four heats, where two boats will advance to the Saturday semifinals. Princeton will open in Lane 4 and compete against the Florida Institute of Technology (1), Navy (2), Brown (3), Stanford (5) and Holy Cross (6).
While Brown and Princeton are the top two seeds in the heat, both Navy and Stanford could provide major challenges to either. Princeton defeated Navy by only 1.4 seconds during the regular season, while Stanford is an unknown entity to the rest of the Eastern field.
Regardless, Mackasey believes in the work that Princeton has put into its preparations.
“We've put in a lot of good miles this past week to tune up our racing and speed,” he said. “The boat has been moving well and we're excited to get back to racing, especially to test ourselves against some of the west coast crews that we haven't seen yet. We've set small goals with an aim at the bigger picture, starting with our heat on Friday morning.”
If Princeton finishes in the top two and avoids the afternoon repechage, it will compete in one of the two Saturday semifinals (11:15/11:30). Three boats will advance directly to Sunday’s national championship race, which is slated for 12:45 pm.
A trip to Sunday’s grand final would be Princeton’s second in as many years, a feat unmatched since 2006-07. Between its 1998 national championship and the memorable 2006 showdown with California, Princeton was in six of seven IRA grand finals and medalled four times.
After 2006, Princeton has made three finals (2007, 2011 and 2013) and has never finished better than sixth.
The opportunity to do so this year could come in front of a heavy Princeton crowd, considering both the proximity to campus (about 10 miles) and the fact that Reunions takes place on campus Thursday-Saturday.
“Hearing your fans on the sidelines can really give you an advantage at the end of a hard race to push to the line,” Mackasey said. “For the seniors in the program, it's one final opportunity to line it up for Princeton. Most of our families will be there to watch, as well as a lot of the guys we've raced with in previous years. A medal at the IRA would be a great end to our time here as racers and a good start to graduation week.”
Princeton will send four boats to IRAs, including a varsity four. The second varsity eight completed an undefeated regular season and lost only to Northeastern in the Sprints final. The Tiger 2V will be the fourth seed behind California, Washington and Northeastern, and will open its weekend in a 9:30 am heat Friday. Princeton will be in Lane 3 and will be joined by Holy Cross (1), Columbia (2), Navy (4), Syracuse (5) and Hobart (6).
The third varsity is seeded sixth and will race in Lane 4 at 10:45 against Syracuse (1), Navy (2), Washington (3), Harvard (5) and Hobart (6). The varsity four will race at 11:15 in Lane 3 against Temple (1), Colgate (2), Milwaukee School of Engineering (4), Navy (5) and Boston University (6).