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Originally published Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 7:22 PM

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UW crew enters IRAs as heavy favorite, taking nothing for granted

No. 1 Huskies' varsity eight tries to earn first back-to-back national titles since 1940-41.

Special to The Seattle Times

IRA championships

Where: Cooper River, Cherry Hill, N.J.

Defending champion: Washington.

UW varsity eight's first heat: Thursday, 5:15 a.m. PDT.

Semifinals: Friday.

Grand final: Saturday.

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A sure thing?

Despite a season of decisive victories and a unanimous No. 1 ranking coming into this weekend's Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships in Cherry Hill, N.J., that's a term you won't hear Washington men's rowing coach Michael Callahan apply to his unbeaten varsity eight.

"We have a very strong boat, but we understand anything can happen in racing," Callahan said. "We learned that two years ago."

In 2010, the Huskies entered the IRAs on the same waterway as this year's championships, Cooper River Park in Camden County, ranked No. 1 and considered a clear favorite to win a second straight national title.

After winning its heats on Thursday and Friday, Washington's eight had a two-seat lead over rival California with 250 meters left in a 2,000-meter race.

Yet Cal used a furious finish to nip the previously unbeaten Huskies by one seat, a differential of 0.263 second.

"That was a painful lesson," Callahan recalled.

That thin margin of defeat stuck with UW's returning rowers in 2011. They barked out "Point two six" whenever any effort in training or competition was considered less than optimal.

The Huskies redeemed themselves in the 2011 varsity eight grand final, defeating second-place Harvard by nearly three seconds.

That gave Washington three national championships in the past five seasons, and if the top-rated Huskies pull off a victory in Saturday's grand final, UW can claim its first back-to-back national men's titles since 1940-41.

"It's nice to be racing for history," Callahan said.

Odds seem to favor Washington. The No. 2-ranked crew in the field of 18 schools is Brown, and the Huskies defeated the Bears on Montlake Cut on March 31 by nearly two boat lengths, almost six seconds.

In early May, at the annual battle royale of East Coast college crews known as the Eastern Sprints Regatta (Worcester, Mass.), Brown edged previous No. 2 Harvard by three-tenths of a second. Harvard, second to Washington at the 2011 IRAs, has been eyed as one of UW's chief threats in 2012.

The Huskies are unbeaten and largely unchallenged this season. After defeating Brown by six seconds, UW trounced Stanford (currently ranked ninth) by 15 seconds.

At Cal, the Huskies unofficially set a course record (5 minutes, 30 seconds) and won by 10 seconds. In their rematch at the Pac-12 meet, UW defeated Cal by eight seconds, and third-place Stanford by 14.

Washington has no plans to coast.

"All the other teams get better late in the season," Callahan said. "When everyone is on the same water at the same time, surprising things can happen. We have to keep looking for more speed."

Notes

• The Huskies are gunning for a sixth straight Ten Eyck Trophy, given to the program that accumulates the most overall points at the IRAs. Last year Washington became the first school to win five in a row.

• Callahan, in his fifth year as head men's coach, last week was named Pac-12 coach of the year for the third straight year and fourth time in five years. Senior Rob Munn, a Redmond High grad, was named the Pac-12's rowing athlete of the year.

• The varsity eight's first heat is Thursday at 5:15 a.m. PDT.

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