NCAA Rowing Championship Preview: Is this the Bobcats' year?

Bates women's rowing is making its ninth consecutive appearance at the NCAA Division III Championship this weekend in Sacramento, California. (Josh Kuckens/Bates College)

LEWISTON, Maine -- This Friday and Saturday at the Sacramento State Aquatic Center represents the ninth year in a row that the Bates women's rowing team will compete in the NCAA Championships. It's the second time –- the first being one year ago –- that the Bobcats enter the national regatta as the top-ranked team in Division III.

The five-year stretch from 2009 to 2013 saw the Bobcats assume both the prestige and frustration implicit in winning a silver medal. Somewhere during that time, the question was asked that has since become a perennial one: Is this the year? And because Bates' varsity eight (WV8) and second varsity eight (W2V8) have already beaten their primary competition in their past two regattas, the only logical answer is yes.

  • WHAT: NCAA Division III Women's Rowing Championships
  • WHERE: Lake Natoma, Sacramento State Aquatic Center | Gold River, Calif.
  • WHEN: Friday, May 29, 8:30 a.m. Pacific; Saturday, May 30, 10:50 a.m. Pacific

The competition at nationals is always familiar, and the same holds true this year. Five of the eight schools competing are from the New England Small College Athletic Conference, and they are the top five teams in the Division III national poll as well: after No. 1 Bates, there's No. 2 Williams, No. 3 Trinity, No. 4 Hamilton and No. 5 Tufts, which is limited to one eight. Filling out the eight-school field are No. 6 Wellesley, No. 12 Washington (Md.) College and No. 13 University of Puget Sound, which like Tufts will only field one boat. 

Each member and coach of the 2014 Bates team has had a year to stew about what happened a year ago in Indianapolis. A national third-place finish that would qualify as a banner year by most programs' standards instead didn't sit quite right with the Bobcats. Bates' W2V8 indeed made team history in winning the W2V8 grand final. But minutes later, in the WV8 grand final, Bates' top-ranked varsity eight fell from first place to fourth over the final 1,000 meters, and the Bobcat saw not only their first-place hopes evaporate, but a five-year streak of being one of the top two teams also ended, as Bates fell into third place in the overall team points. Instead of Bates, Trinity won its first NCAA title, and Williams placed second – the two rivals Bates had defeated convincingly in the season's previous championship regattas, the New England Rowing Championships and the ECAC National Invitational Rowing Championship.

Part of seventh-year head coach Peter Steenstra's response to the disappointment was to blame himself for moving too many rowers too often and too late in the season from the WV8 to the W2V8 and vice versa. "This year I went the opposite way and said we'll make the lineups early," said Steenstra. While ice still covered the Androscoggin River, he formed the WV8 as what he felt was the fastest group of eight on that very day, and the W2V8 as the fastest group remaining. "The idea was, 'Let's know what's fast, and then try to make them faster.' So even though we have (since) tested the women in the varsity eight, the results have been very clear they're the top eight women. Nothing has changed."

So far, so good. Bates' results in the NERC and ECAC/NIRC regattas very much resemble last year's, in that Bates' boats swept every honor, moving from the No. 4 national ranking into the unanimous No. 1 ranking.

The truth is, the makeup of both boats is vastly different from a year ago. The first varsity eight (WV8) has but two holdovers from last year's lineup, in senior Jenna Armstrong (Florham Park, N.J.) and junior Emma Taylor (Scituate, Mass.). Five others have moved over from last year's W2V8, a boat which was "not only undefeated, but unchallenged," in 2014, as Steenstra puts it, ultimately producing Bates' first gold medal in an NCAA Championship grand final. Sophomore Elise Emil (Washington, D.C.) is the WV8's only member without NCAA experience, as the boat's coxswain, sophomore Katherine Traquina (Wayland, Mass.), made the trip in 2014 as an alternate. Bates' far greener second eight comprises three first-year rowers and four sophomores, including coxswain Abigail Bierman (Bethlehem, N.Y.), and only one NCAA veteran in sophomore stroke Molly Pritz (Ithaca, N.Y.).

Steenstra's insight into the composition of the two boats is fascinating.

"The varsity eight is an old-fashioned, blue collar, scrappy bunch," he said. "They row at their best when someone challenges them. They don't row well if there isn't someone pushing them. They love being challenged.

"The (W2V8) is different in that they almost look more refined. They're taller, longer, smoother. They wear down the competition with their base speed. No one else can match them. So they beat you in the middle of the race course. They just wear you out."

The team otherwise has endured a year of adversity – some of it had to do with the historically harsh winter of 2015, which affected the bulk of Bates' Northeast-based competition as well. Bates also missed the services of three strong members of the team who succumbed to injury, in senior Liz Sangree (Ashford, Conn.), sophomore Savannah Stockly (Cumberland, Maine) and senior Rebecca Moore (Stonington, Conn.). This weekend, the Bobcats know their most imposing opponent may well be 90-degree heat. And last weekend, of all things, both of the teams' boats were damaged en route to being trucked across the continent.

Not to worry regarding that last setback, Steenstra insists. Replacement boats of the same make, model and quality as the Bobcats' shells are being lent to the team by Loyola Marymount University, and were already on site before the team arrived in California Wednesday night. It goes along with (the team's personality) that they're able to say 'Oh, that's too bad,' but then, 'Oh, Coach got us other boats that are just as good, so we'll be fine.' What I told them is, 'Think about everything we've been through this year; this can't be the thing that knocks us off our goal.'"


First Varsity Eight (WV8)

Bow: Alison Simmons '16 (Indiana, Pa.)
2: Eliza Barkan '15 (Seattle, Wash.)
3: Emilie Muller '16 (Concord, N.H.)
4: Elise Emil '17 (Washington, D.C.)
5: Emma Taylor '16 (Scituate, Mass.)
6: Jenna Armstrong '15 (Florham Park, N.J.)
7: Mallory Ward '15 (Pittsford, N.Y.)
Stroke: Rebecca O'Neill '15 (Westminster, Vt.)
Cox: Katherine Traquina '17 (Wayland, Mass.)

Second Varsity Eight (W2V8)

Bow: Laura Rand '18 (Barrington, R.I.)
2: Elizabeth Scholle '17 (Chestnut Hill, Mass.)
3: Rosemary Kyne '18 (Nashville, Tenn.)
4: Olivia Stockly '18 (Cumberland, Maine)
5: Emma Conover '16 (Camden, Maine)
6: Michelle Kelley '16 (Shaftsbury, Vt.)
7: Julia Mason '17 (Niskayuna, N.Y.)
Stroke: Molly Pritz '17 (Ithaca, N.Y.)
Cox: Abigail Bierman '17 (Bethlehem, N.Y.)


Hannah De Bruyn '18 (cox) (Old Lyme, Conn.)
Sophia Gottlieb '17 (Bow, N.H.)
Margaux Joselow '16 (Manchester, N.H.)