Top 10 JUDolphins Moments of 2013-14: #9

Top 10 JUDolphins Moments of 2013-14: #9

Jacksonville's rowing teams had big things in mind when they ventured to Philadelphia for the famed Dad Vail Regatta in late May. In the end, the men's Freshman/Novice 8+ crew took home JU's first title on the Schuylkill since 1995.

The city of Philadelphia has a history with rowing that few other places in the country can rival. Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River is synonymous with collegiate rowing, and the city is home to a number of regattas throughout the year. None, however, can match the kind of crowd that flocks to Fairmount Park for the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta.

Started in 1934 and held annually with the exception of the WWII years, the Dad Vail has grown into the largest collegiate regatta in North America. This year, nearly 120 programs from across the nation put boats out on the Schuylkill for the event. The regatta has become an end-of-season ritual for Jacksonville. After launching a men's rowing program in 1957, the Dolphins were soon making the trek north for the races. The success of many of the boats there – in particular through the 1970s and 80s – led to three competitions being named in honor of Bob Negaard, the inventor of the wing-rigged single and father of JU rowing legends Brad and Kristen Negaard (O'Brien). While some races have since changed their titles to honor others who have played a role in the history of the Dad Vail Regatta, the grand final of the men's varsity pair to this day retains the title of the Bob Negaard Cup. Brad is also a yearly fixture at the race, serving on the board of directors. 

So saying that Jacksonville has a history at the Dad Vail would be an understatement. But in recent years, the success of the Dolphins in Philadelphia had waned. The women's team won a Varsity 4+ title in 2008 and a Freshman/Novice 8+ title in 1998, but the men's team last won an event in 1995 with a pairs title. A chance to end that long drought was on the minds of many as the team ventured up to the City of Brotherly Love last month for the season-ending regatta.

"This was our first recruiting class and we could see early on that the freshman/novice 8+ group was really close," said Head Coach of Men's Rowing Montia Rice. "I think we wanted to maximize their potential and see what they could do if we kept the group intact for the year."

What they could do was win titles at the Head of the Hooch, the Florida Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships (FIRAs) and the MAAC Championships. With those victories, the Dolphin youngsters certainly weren't lacking for confidence going into their last race. 

"The mentality of our boat is what set us apart from everyone we faced," said freshman Nico MacKay. "Every time we went to the water we were excited and energetic, but we always had a goal in mind and there was nothing we could do other than accomplish that goal. Everyone had this mentality of giving everything you had at all times."

To be champions at Dad Vails means advancing through two preliminary races – the first on Friday and the second on Saturday morning – to compete in the grand final on Saturday afternoon. The first race caused no problems at all, calm waters and a slight tailwind allowed the Dolphins to not just be the fastest boat among the 27 taking part in the six qualifying heats, but to set a mark they had been aiming for all season.

"One goal we'd had was to go out and break six minutes in a race, with the triple fives (5:55) being a time that we thought we had in us," said MacKay.

They turned out to be absolutely right, clocking in at 5:55.039 over the 2,000 meters. Only one other boat that afternoon was able to crack the six-minute barrier, and the 13-second margin of victory that JU had over Rochester Institute of Technology and others was the largest gap in any of the six heats. 

Those Friday heats trimmed the field down to 18, with three semifinal heats of six boats set to go off on Saturday morning. The top two from each heat would advance to the grand final, so there wasn't much time to reflect on what the team had already accomplished. Saturday would also present a new set of challenges, as the weather turned and the wind shifted, creating a much choppier course on the Schuylkill. Fortunately, Jacksonville has a built-in advantage when it comes to tough conditions: the St. Johns River.

"We train in much rougher water than a lot of schools do," recalled MacKay. "The St. Johns is a larger body of water and it's not enclosed so there's going to be more current. The size of the ships that travel on it give off a much larger wake, so the fact that our coaches push us to train through it gets us much more accustomed to those kind of conditions than a lot of other schools we face."

The two weeks leading up to Dad Vail featured particularly rough water on the St. Johns, which the JU coaching staff used to aggressively push the team through some of their harder workouts of the season. The payoff came that day on the Schuylkill as the Dolphins ended with a time of 6:10.992 in the second semifinal of the morning, nearly seven seconds ahead of Michigan, who became the other qualifier from the race to make it into the grand final. JU and the Wolverines joined Delaware, Drexel, Grand Valley State and Virginia as the six schools that would vie for the Freshman/Novice 8 crown, known at Dad Vails as the Toby Wallace Bowl.

Races continued throughout the morning and into the afternoon, but as time wore on, many eyes began to focus more on the radar than on the water. There was no doubt that the city was going to get hit with a large storm on Saturday afternoon, it was just a matter of when it would arrive. In the meantime, the wind continued to gain steam, making the course tougher than ever by the time Jacksonville came back out.

"Saturday afternoon ended up being the roughest conditions I've personally ever raced in," remembered freshman Luke Myhree. 

Jacksonville and Delaware were placed in the middle two lanes for the final, a reward for the fastest two times in the semifinals. While Delaware typically sprinted out ahead in its races, this time it was JU who surprised the Blue Hens early on.

"The speed that we came off the line with was so intense in the first 25 strokes that I've never felt anything like it in any boat," said MacKay.

By the halfway point of the race, Jacksonville was a full length ahead of Delaware for the lead and entering a point where the team can usually slam the door shut. Instead, the conditions on the water combined with one last Delaware surge narrowed the gap and had the two boats nearly even as they entered the final 500 meters.

"It was a real race the whole way," said Myhree. "On Friday and Saturday morning, we got out in front and stayed ahead comfortably. In the final, Delaware was right there with us until the last 200 meters, the wind was all over the place and we were catching crab left and right."

It would turn out to be an absolute sprint to the finish between the two sides, leaving the rest of the field in the dust. With Delaware having been forced to play catch-up after the first 1,000 meters, Jacksonville had enough left in the tank down the stretch – barely – to hold off the Blue Hens. JU's time of 6:41.446 in the final edged out Delaware by just over two seconds, roughly a length-and-a-half.

"Our whole sport is about being able to give more of yourself than the guy to your left and to your right," said MacKay. "Those last 500 meters, we poured out everything we had. You look at us on the medal stand and we're all holding each other up from falling over. What it came down to was that we wanted it more."

That afternoon ended up being the end of the season for the crew, who were barred from racing in the IRA National Championship Regatta after a change in the process limited entries to those schools that had its Varsity 8+ boat qualify. While JU was unable to challenge itself against the very best to end the season, the members of the team now use that as a motivating factor as they step up to compete for places on next year's Varsity 8+. For Coach Rice and those involved with the program, the future is bright thanks in part to what they witnessed throughout this past season and in particular on that weekend in Philadelphia.

"We made the decision that we were going to put our freshman into a boat, keep them together and let them have fun. Hopefully they'll now have that taste of winning and take that to the varsity crew in the coming years."
Check in every Monday and Thursday for the next four weeks as we countdown Jacksonville's Top 10 moments of 2013-14!

#10: Men's Basketball Dominates Dunk City
#9: Men's Freshman/Novice 8+ Claim Dad Vail Crown
#8: Coming June 23rd
#7: Coming June 26th
#6: Coming June 30th
#5: Coming July 3rd
#4: Coming July 7th
#3: Coming July 10th
#2: Coming July 14th
#1: Coming July 17th