The first two months of the season are critical for any collegiate crew team. Novice rowers must go from knowing nothing about rowing to commanding a boat. Recruited rowers must integrate into a new system with new teammates. Returning varsity rowers must improve their times and skills from the previous season while stepping into leadership roles. For this to happen, rowers must take advantage of each and every day of practice, and coach Dan Gehn thinks that his team has.
“It’s been a fantastic fall,” Gehn said. “It’s been really enjoyable to coach. I like the energy, I like the attitude, and I like the focus.”
One of the biggest challenges facing the crew coming into the season was filling the Varsity 8 boat. Three of the rowers who raced in the V8 at the Western Sprints last spring are not rowing for GU this fall. To find replacements, practices have featured test pieces on the ergs (rowing machines) and seat races on the water to find the most consistent and fastest rowers.
“I’m really happy with the way the first eight has been coming along,” Gehn said. “Our goal was to really create more of a competitive race-savvy group and I think they’ve done that and done that well in practice.”
The competitive atmosphere resulted in a shell with four new rowers compared to the lineup that finished in the V8 last season. Recruited freshmen Jack Oberle and Ian Melder along with returners Connor Murray and Matt Peterson have stepped up to complete the top boat.
The crew’s first opportunity to test the new roster in a competitive setting came on Oct. 22 at the Head of the Spokane. The team battled Washington State University in the only home regatta of the fall season.
The Varsity 8 finished the 4,500 meter course with a time of 13:57, 28 seconds faster than the Cougars V8 time of 14:25. The Junior Varsity 8 finished at 14:57, edging out WSU’s JV8 time of 14:59.
“I think that was mission accomplished for us,” Gehn said. “I felt the boats rowed well and took what we have been working on in practice to the race course.”
The 2015 Head of the Spokane only showcased boats with eight rowers, but this year the team raced four lineups of boats with four rowers. Gehn believes the fours allow the team to sharpen their skills. In a four, mistakes are amplified because there are fewer rowers to steady the boat.
“I think that’s been part of our seat racing strategy,” Gehn said. “I think we can have more seat racing and get more coxswains involved. The fours are a little less easy to hide in and we can get multiple races going on.”
The Cougars Varsity 4 “A” boat finished first with a time of 15:33, but the Zags fours took the next four fastest times, with GU’s “B” boat finishing second at 15:44.
The Zags’ next competition is the Head of American on Oct. 29 at Lake Natoma, California. This is the first time the men’s team will participate in the regatta.
“We were looking for something that was a little different that we could get to,” Gehn said. “It fits the schedule nicely and there are a lot of boats to compete against down there. … It’s a different venue but it’s a known venue because the last part of the race course comes down on the championship course that we race for Western Sprints.”
The Bulldogs will face tough opponents like Stanford, San Diego and Santa Clara. GU will only send its Varsity 8 boat to the event.
The Zags will race at the Head of the Lake on Nov. 6.
The women’s crew team finished a program best 16th overall at the NCAA Rowing Championships last season, and the Varsity 8 and Junior Varsity 8 earned their highest finishes ever in their boat classes at the event. To build on last year’s success, the team is shifting strategy to include more pair racing.
“When it’s just two people in a boat without a coxswain,” coach Glenn Putyrae said, “it really forces the athletes to be more accountable both to their technical rowing and also to their consistency of effort.”
After scrimmaging Washington State on Sept. 24, the Zags faced the Cougars again at the Head of the Spokane on Oct. 22. Unlike last season when GU only raced eights and fours at the regatta, this year the crew raced five different pairs. Lauren English and Micailah Donner’s boat had the fastest time at 17:29.
WSU’s V8 boat finished the 4,500-meter course with a time of 14:39, 10 seconds faster than GU’s V8 time of 14:49. The Cougars’ Junior Varsity 8 time of 15:25 beat the Zags’ JV8 finish at 15:38.
“Right now we only know where we are relative to Washington State, but we expect them to have a strong team this year,” Putyrae said. “We kept pace with them, but know we have to get a lot faster before the next race. It’s so early in the season, we can really take today’s results and work on things in practice as a result of that.”
The Bulldogs’ next regatta is the Head of the American on Oct. 29 at Lake Natoma, California. This is the first time the women’s team has raced at the event since 2007.
“Most of our primary competitors are competing there,” Putyrae said. “So we will get an early season assessment of not just how we are progressing, but how we are progressing relative to our primary competition in the spring.”
The Zags will race eights, fours and pairs against the best of the west. Opponents include defending national champion University of California Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Washington and Stanford.
Follow the writer on Twitter: @jwiens17.