Mike Vespoli Selects His "Crew of the Year"
My Choice for Crew of the Year!
Each year only one or two crews from the high school and college ranks win their league races and championships, perhaps even their National Championship, but rarely make the next BIG step up in speed to win a major "out of league" or "world class" event, such as Henley. What intrigued me about this year was the number of fast crews who were able to do it. I have never attempted to pick a "crew of the year", but this year the incredible performances by so many college and high school crews struck me as "something special" so I decided to step up, recognize some VERY special crews and chose one that I think is the best of the lot!
Those crews who showed real speed in the fall (and in some cases for the last couple of years), held, or got faster throughout the spring season and into "post season," are the ones who made my "finalist" list.
I will start with the undefeated Princeton Women's Varsity, coached by Lori Dauphney, who won the '05 HOCR Champ eight, the Sprints and the Div 1 NCAA championships. They were a great, senior laden boat who performed to expectations. Two bays over in the same boat house is Curtis Jordan's Princeton Men's Heavy Varsity eight who defeated national and international contenders to win the Champ Eight at the '05 HOCR; they completed an undefeated season this spring, won the Sprints, took a 2nd at the IRA's and regrouped to win the Ladies Plate at Henley from a very strong international field. The nucleus of this spectacular crew won the Sprints, IRA's and Henley as freshmen four years earlier! Included on my list of collegiate contenders is the stellar Western Washington Women's Varsity eight coached by John Fuchs who repeated as NCAA Division II champions in '05 & '06.
I also feel the very fast Girl's four coached by Steve Lloyd from The Peddie School in New Jersey should be included. They were undefeated in the fall, the spring; then won the Stotes, Schoolboy's and the Cincinnati Nationals. They not only were dominant in their high school division for the entire year, but they beat the top club teams as well!
Speaking of great performances, I couldn't overlook the late season run by Todd Kennett's Cornell lightweights. They accomplished a rare feat for any collegiate lightweight crew: winning both the Sprints AND the IRA. Cornell proved they were the real deal on the "world stage" when they outraced the field at Henley, barely losing in the final to a much bigger crew.
Each of these crews are deserving of my pick as "Crew of the Year." However, when I evaluated how long a crew had dominated their category and how they performed when racing at the national and international level, my pick for 2006 has to be the boys eight from St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco. The St. Ignatius Wildcats have had the best high school and junior boy's eight for the past two years.
They are "left-coasters". As a result, they do not have the advantage of facing top level competition every weekend, and don't have the national "rep" that school's like "The Prep" enjoy. However, wherever the Wildcats showed up, whether in San Diego, Cincinnati, or Henley, they won! Each of the other crews on my list enjoy full fall and spring race schedules, access to top level racing locally, regionally, nationally and some even internationally. Most of the others on my list have first rate boathouses and "good" water. The St. Ignatius Wildcats, however, don't have fall rowing, aren't able to travel as far or as often as other crews; they share a cramped bay in a communal boat house with their girl's team and literally row in circles on a tiny lake shared by four other Bay area programs! Despite their limited practices time, lack of facilities and good racing opportunities they win!
Clearly, a few of the rowers in this St. Ignatius boat are very special. Last summer, two of the boys rowed in the '05 Junior Eight winning gold at the World Championships. Obviously this is a nice nucleus to build a top crew around, but sometimes this kind of success for just one or two boys can actually hurt the performance of the entire crew. It is a tribute to the St. Ignatius coach, a retired San Francisco policeman, Tom O'Connell, who can work within the program's limitations and also keep the egos of high school world champions in check. But if you meet Tom, you will immediately know he is the right man for the job. Tom is a leader. He motivates young men, blending their different abilities and attitudes into a championship team by straight talk and hard work Tom took over in 2002 and the team has improved each year culminating in a superb 2006 season.
As late as this February, the St. Ignatius school administration was still wrestling with whether to allow the team to go to Henley. Finally, the school agreed to relax their travel rule if the team qualified again for the Nationals and was competitive in Cincinnati. So, with that "carrot", St. Ignatius proceeded to march through their season undefeated, winning the Crew Classic and the Nationals at Cincinnati. But these results only matched expectations since they had done the same in '05!
Now they faced their biggest challenge: train 4 more weeks, travel 6000 miles to an unfamiliar place, and be expected to win the prestigious Royal Henley Regatta. Daunting! More often than not, trips to Henley are for "the experience" and a reward for a good season. There is usually not an expectation of winning. Clearly this was not the case for Tom and his crew. They weren't going all that way just for the experience, or as a reward, they were going to Henley to challenge themselves and the best high school crews in the world & on rowing's most famous stage!
They also had the added pressure (or motivation) of proving to their school they deserved to be there. The only way they could do that was to win. But, as anyone who has ever raced at Henley can tell you, it can be a cruel place. There is no "second" chance: you either win or you're out.
St. Ignatius would have to win five consecutive races on five consecutive days to achieve their ultimate prize: The Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup. To get to the Awards Stand, these high school students had to get over the 12 time-zone jet lag, race a longer distance than they ever had before; avoid the log boom; endure the cold showers; "enjoy" the food; and sleep in lumpy beds. And, that is exactly what this remarkably poised and well coached crew accomplished.
St. Ignatius won their early races "easily", and then fought off a tough, very fast English crew in the semi final by 2/3 of a length to next face and defeat a lesser crew in the final by 4+ lengths to become Henley champion& and become my choice for Crew of the Year!
Well done, St Ignatius, you're the best!