Huskies' crew keeps focus on another national title
Washington's undefeated, unchallenged varsity eight boat cruised to an easy semifinal victory Friday at the IRA championships and is the favorite to win the final on Saturday.
Special to The Seattle Times
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CHERRY HILL, N.J. — There was no wild splashing. No celebratory screams. Not even as much as a fist pump.
For the No. 1-ranked Washington Huskies, Friday's semifinal victory on a choppy Cooper River was business as usual for a team that has gone undefeated — and unchallenged — this season.
"We're trying to continue our dominance, that's it," said senior coxswain Sam Ojserkis, who guided the Huskies' varsity eight to another open-water victory and a berth in Saturday's grand final of the Interscholastic Rowing Association's national championship. "We race to win and this was another race."
The Huskies are looking to become the first Washington crew team since 1940 and 1941 to win back-to-back national titles and if Friday's dominant performance is any indication, it could be a breeze.
Friday's race was delayed two hours because of the threat of thunderstorms and when Washington lined up with Boston University, California, Wisconsin, Navy and Yale, the start of the race was further delayed by strong headwinds and an oar malfunction in Navy's boat.
"It wasn't just Navy," Ojserkis said. "A lot of the boats were having trouble staying straight in the wind."
Huskies coach Michael Callahan has made a habit of practicing delayed starts but said Friday's double delay tested his patience.
"It's a test of nerves," he said. "We told the guys to be calm and then ramp up again."
Washington busted out to an early lead but California made an early push to draw within five seats.
"We've raced them so many times," Ojserkis said. "We know how they roll."
Ojserkis called a power stroke of his own midway through the 2,000-meter race and the Huskies broke away from the pack, finishing with the day's best time of 6:14.95, well ahead of second-place Boston University (6:19.01) and Cal (6:35.35).
"The only thing I try to focus on is listening to my coxswain," said junior Alex Bunkers, who along with Ojserkis are the only returnees from last year's championship boat. "He's the one who unifies everything. If everybody is listening to him and paying attention, we're all on the same page."
Judging from the first two days on Cooper River, Brown University might be the only school that stands a chance against UW's powerful crew. Brown won its semifinal in 6:17.21 and will join Harvard, Syracuse, Boston and Cal in Saturday's bid to upset the defending national champions.
Washington and Brown met in Seattle on March 31, with the Huskies dominating Brown with a victory by nearly six seconds.
"It was 38 degrees in a pouring rain," Callahan recalled of his team's last race against Brown. "They're a very respected, strong crew. We knew they were going to be contenders this year and they are."
Bunkers said he has not given much thought to which teams are most capable of knocking off the Huskies, saying his focus is solely on Saturday's race, which is expected to take place under ideal weather conditions with temperatures in the mid 70s .
"When you start thinking about other crews, that's when your mind is out of your boat and in somebody else's," Bunkers said. "We just need to stay together and we should be able to get the job done."
Callahan said he's not interested in comparing this year's varsity eight to any other in the school's history, at least not until it finishes what it set out to accomplish at the start of the season.
"We're always on the quest for improvement," Callahan said. "We want to be better tomorrow than we were today. This is a unified group that has done what I've asked and sold themselves to it. When they work together, they can reach another level and that's what we're hoping for (Saturday)."
Only then will the Huskies celebrate what has been one of the most dominant performances in the school's rich rowing history.
"One step at a time," Ojserkis said "We get on the racecourse and we focus on our start. No big- picture thing."
• The Huskies also scored victories in the second varsity eight, freshmen eight and varsity four, recording the best time of the day in all four events in which they competed. If that holds true again Saturday, Washington is a lock to win its sixth straight Ten Eyck Trophy, given annually to the team that accumulates the most points in the IRAs. "We highly value the Ten Eyck," Callahan said. "A lot of people judge their boathouse by their top eight (rowers), which is important to us. But we're a team that really values depth and every man's role on the team. That's how we measure ourselves as a program."