Feb. 13, 2004
by Lisa Mushett
The goals are set. The expectations are high. The athletes are ready. So is the coaching staff. There is that feeling that this could be the year.
The year of what one may ask?
Head coach Martin Stone and the rest of the rowing program know the Irish are on the verge of something special and are ready to let the rest of the collegiate rowing world in on its secret. The Irish are ready to compete with the nation's best.
Although the Irish did not achieve their ultimate goal of qualifying for the NCAA Championships in 2003, the team continued to raise the expectation level of this program after winning three gold medals and a silver in the varsity races at the 2003 BIG EAST Rowing Challenge. The Irish then achieved another first in program history as the second varsity four won a gold medal at the 2003 Central Regions. Notre Dame also received its first invitation to the Windermere Cup in Seattle, rowing in front of more than 100,000 people. The Irish placed third behind the likes of national-power Washington and the Belarus National Team, but it put Notre Dame in position for its best season in the short history of the program in 2004.
"Even though we did not qualify for the NCAA Championships like we had hoped in 2003, we learned a lot with the level of competition we faced," Stone said.
"We learned we only can control the things in which we have direct impact. We focused on working hard and doing better in the things that we ultimately can control."
The Irish faced one of the toughest, if not the most, challenging schedules in the nation in 2003 as they raced at least one team in the top 20 almost every weekend. The same is on tap for 2003-04 as the Irish have already rowed in the Head of the Rock and the Head of the Charles and open the year against nationally-ranked Tennessee and Duke. The next weekend, the Irish go to Ann Arbor, Mich., for another tough regatta against Michigan, who placed second in the varsity eight at the 2003 NCAAs, and Clemson, followed by a trip to the West Coast for the prestigious San Diego Crew Classic.
At the Classic, the Irish will face many of the top teams from the West Coast including Washington, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington State, Oregon State and California, as well as other standout teams from around the nation including Texas, Tennessee and Clemson - all of which were ranked in the top 25 last year. After a competitive regatta against Indiana, Purdue and NCAA qualifier Michigan State over the Easter holiday, the Irish head to the East Coast for races against Boston University and Northeastern, before going to Worcester, Mass., for the BIG EAST Rowing Challenge. The Irish are looking for their first team title at the BIG EAST race after placing second the past two seasons, including a narrow two-point loss to nationally-ranked Syracuse in 2003.
The Irish then have their most important regatta of the year as an NCAA bid is on the line when many of the nation's best teams compete at the Lexus South/Central Sprints in Oak Ridge, Tenn. If successful in Oak Ridge, the Irish will make a return trip to the West Coast for the NCAA Rowing Championships scheduled for May 28-30 in Sacramento, Calif.
"We need to race schools during the season who will challenge us to prepare for the Central Sprints," Stone says.
"It is too short of a racing season and we need to know as much about our personnel as possible before the Central Sprints.
"We are also a national school so we will go east and west every year and try to race the very best schools. I would guess that there are very few schools who will have raced as many NCAA Championship teams as we have by the end of the year."
The schedule is just one of many challenges for the Irish in 2004. Despite losing former All-American Ashlee Warren, coxswain Cassie Markstahler and captain Casey Buckstaff to graduation, the Irish do return five people from the first varsity eight and 20 overall letterwinners, including the entire gold-medal-winning second varsity four.
The heart of the 2003-04 team is the senior class led by two-time all-region honoree and team captain Natalie Ladine. The native of Sacramento, Calif., is looking to return home for the NCAA regatta this season and has two years of experience in the varsity eight. Others seniors returning from the 2003 varsity eight include Alice Bartek, who holds the Notre Dame 2,000-meter erg score record, and Danielle Protasewich.
All the seniors will make strong contributions whether it is in the first varsity eight or on other crews in 2003. Jacqueline Hazen and Sarah Keefer, who were members of the gold-medal winning second four in 2003; Katie O'Hara, who won a gold medal in the first four at the BIG EAST meet; Megan Sanders; 2004 co-captain Kathleen Welsh and coxswains Kathryn Long and Kacy McCaffrey will all play important roles on this year's team.
"The senior class is the most dominate group we have," Stone says.
"All of them have good testing scores and have trained well this winter, but more importantly, all provide great leadership. They have a great deal of experience in high-profile races which will only help us when we get to the Central Regions and hopefully NCAAs."
The junior class boasts three members who rowed in the top eight last season including Katie Chenoweth, who was also a 2003 National Scholar-Athlete winner with Ladine; Rachel Polinski and Kati Sedun. Meredith Thornburgh was a member of the second varsity eight. Coxswain Maureen Gibbons made incredible strides in the fall, while Kristen Mizzi and Kristin Henkel also will be in the mix. All three were part of the history-making second varsity four last season. Also back is Elizabeth Specht who will compete for a seat in the first eight.
"The junior class is a consistent group, but we need more from them this year for us to be truly successful," Stone says.
"Last season, they were not sure what their role was and did not want to step on the now-seniors toes. This year, we need them to be more aggressive and become the future leaders of our team."
The member of the sophomore class showed great promise in their first year of varsity rowing in 2003, and even more is expected from them this season. Leading the class is Meghan Boyle, who earned a seat in the middle of the first varsity eight as a freshman and should be there again this season. Melissa Felker rowed as part of the second varsity eight last year and had a tremendous fall, which could vault her into the top boat.
The Irish novice program, led by 2003 Central Region assistant coach of the year Pam Mork, continues to produce great athletes as sophomoresAndrea Doud, Pamela Jefson, coxswain Shannan Lettieri, Julie Lewis, Marcia Luttio, Jenna Redgate and Danielle Stealy all are making the jump to the varsity level and will contribute immediately. Redgate rowed as part of the first eight in the fall, while Stealy and Doud were in the second eight that placed third in the Club event at the Head of the Charles.
"The sophomores are extremely strong and can really move the boat," Stone says.
"They have made dramatic improvements over the spring and fall and will be key components in our success this season."
The Irish also welcome seven freshmen to the varsity roster and another 16 to the novice team. Like most freshmen, it has been a roller coaster ride for many thus far, but they continue to develop and will row in the spring. Headlining the class is Ashley St. Pierre who earned a seat in the first eight for both races in the fall. Alyssa Close, Jessica Guzik and Colleen Larson also have made improvements over the fall and will compete for seats in the varsity boats. The other freshmen in the class include coxswain Eileen Froehlke, Sarah Kate Hafner and Danielle Potts.
"Like all freshmen, it takes time to understand the level of competitiveness necessary to be successful day in and day out," Stone says.
"It is difficult to have consistent results when you are still learning each day, but all of them have done a great job and we look forward to their contributions to the program."
One great advantage for the Irish this year is the experience of the coxswains as Long has worked with the second varsity eight the past two seasons and McCaffrey has overseen the first varsity four, but also has valuable experience with the eights. Gibbons coxed the gold-medal winning fours last season and is earning valuable respect from her teammates. Lettieri and Caitlin Rackish continue to develop and will contribute down the road.
"To be a great team, you need three really good coxswains," Stone says.
"We have that and more. Kathryn, Kacy and Maureen are all really good as they have tremendous experience among them. Shannan and Caitlin continue to learn, giving us a bright future." Stone is still searching for the right boating combinations entering the spring season and admits as many as 18 women have a chance of rowing in the first eight at this point.
"The way the program is set up, most of the onus is on the athletes as to who will row in what boat come spring," Stone says.
"In the fall we use the ergs and the pairs matrix, while in the winter we continually test on the ergs and everyone knows where they rank on the team. In the spring, we will see the progress one has made in the winter and then use the fours to help determine who should sit where. Experience is usually the key in where a person sits, but ultimately the athletes have to compete against one another to determine the seats."
Although there are still many questions to be answered, the Irish are on the verge of something big and you do not want to miss it.