Feb. 24, 2003
Notre Dame head coach Martin Stone and his Irish rowing squad are looking to build on the success of last season in hopes of qualifying the entire team for the 2003 NCAA Rowing Championships. After entering the varsity eight at last year's NCAA meet (where it finished 16th) and landing at 13th in the final preseason poll, the rowing community is starting to take notice of this upstart Irish program.
For its efforts, Notre Dame achieved a number of program bests in 2001-02 and showed the nation the Irish are contenders for years to come. The No. 9 team ranking after the San Diego Crew Classic was the highest in school history and the final ranking of 13th was also a program best. Notre Dame also boasted its first Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association All-American in senior Ashlee Warren, who was named to the second team. The Irish had four women (graduated seniors Michelle Olsgard and Katherine Burnett, Warren and junior Natalie Ladine) named to the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association (CRCA) All-Central Region team, marking the most in school history.
Stone was also recognized as one of the best coaches in the nation when he was named one of six finalists for the CRCA National Coach of the Year award, marking the first-time he has earned such distinction.
In the classroom, Notre Dame had six women named to the CRCA National Scholar-Athlete team including Burnett, Katie Besson, Becky Luckett, Diane Price, Ladine and Cassie Markstahler. The six women in one season beat the previous-best mark of four set in 2001. Notre Dame also had 25 women named to the BIG EAST Academic All-Star team (24 was the previous high in 2001) and the Irish achieved over a 3.2 grade-point average for the 10th consecutive semester.
The Irish will have to work even harder in 2002-03 in getting back to the premier level they achieved last season. First and foremost, Notre Dame will have to replace the likes of first boaters Besson, Burnett, Olsgard and Price. Besson was a three-year monogram winner in her career rowing in the second varsity eight as a sophomore and junior and the first eight as a senior. Burnett, a three-year member of the first eight, earned second-team all-region honors and was a three-time National Scholar Athlete awardwinner in her career. Olsgard, a team captain, earned her second consecutive first-team all-Central Region honor and posted the third fastest erg score on the team in 2002. Price is going to miss the spring semester because she is studying abroad in Chile.
"The losses of those women will no doubt hurt our team," Stone admits.
"They were all such tremendous leaders and offered so much both in an out of the boat. We will really miss Katherine and Michelle because no one hated losing more than those two."
Stone will however turn to Warren, who became the first Irish rower to earn All-America honors, and Ladine, who was a second-team all-region honoree in 2002 and has one of the fastest erg scores on the Irish this season. Ladine looks to move to the stroke seat for the 2002 season, while Warren will bounce between the sixth and seventh seats.
"Ashlee and Natalie were the strongest pullers in the boat last season and we will see that from them again this year," Stone says.
"Their experience is also going to be critical as some of the younger athletes vie for spots in the boat. We are expecting a lot of both of them, but they will both be up to the challenge."
Also back is senior coxswain Markstahler who did an excellent job for the Irish in 2002 and will provide additional leadership to the younger rowers. Markstahler completed her first full season in the varsity eight shell in 2002 after sitting behind former coxswains Claire Bula and Erin Kiernicki for two years.
"Cassie made tremendous strides last year as she gained more experience," Stone says.
"She is a take-charge kind of coxswain and can really lead a team when times get tough. She wants the team to be the best it can be and she will do whatever she can to get the entire team to the next level - which is all of us being at the NCAA Championships at the end of the season."
Senior Casey Buckstaff is the only other Irish rower returning who has competed in the top boat during her career. Buckstaff, who was voted a captain by her teammates, missed the 2002 spring season after studying abroad in London. Previously, Buckstaff rowed in the first eight in the fall of 2001 and her entire sophomore season.
"Casey brings a tremendous amount of experience to the roster," Stone says.
"She has been in the first boat for at least a year and half and brings championship-level experience. She also is a tremendous team player that garners a lot of respect from her teammates. She has been a stellar student-athlete as she is a tremendous rower and boasts great academic credentials."
Also look for senior Erica Drennen, juniors Alice Bartek, Jacqueline Hazen, Danielle Protasewich and Kathleen Welsh, sophomores Katie Chenoweth, Rachel Polinski,, Meredith Thornburgh and Shannon Mohan and freshmen Meghan Boyle and Melissa Felker to also challenge for seats in the top boat.
"We have14 women for eight seats in the first eight," Stone says.
"There will be tremendous competition between all of them. I think competition is healthy though because it makes everyone work that much harder to be the best rowers they can be. All want to be in the first boat so it will come down to the ones that work the hardest in getting themselves physically and mentally to the next level in determining the seats."
One positive about having so many rowers able to row in the first boat is the one's who do not make it will be critical to the success of the second shell and the fours, ultimately determining whether the Irish will qualify as a team for the NCAA meetin 2003.
"We have so much depth this season, which is a nice problem to have," Stone says.
"We spent the fall season getting stronger and looking for the right combinations of rowers to ensure our boats will be fast this spring. No matter who rows in what boat, we expect that we will be stronger and faster this year which is really exciting for everyone."
There will also be competition in the coxswain position as well as Kathryn Long, Kacy McCaffrey, Caitlin Rackish, Becky Campbell and Maureen Gibbons have all made tremendous strides in the past season. The trick for Stone is to find the right personality to maximize the performance of the athletes in all of the boats.
"Kathryn coxed the the gold medal four at the BIG EAST Rowing Challenge and did a tremendous job. She also did a good job in taking the club four to the gold medal at the Head of the Ohio in the fall," Stone says.
"Kacy is a great motivator and tracer, while Caitlin did a great job this fall with the varsity four, winning at the Head of the Ohio and the Head of the Rock. Becky is finally comfortable after moving to the coxswain role last season. Maureen was a member of the novice roster last season and is ready to guide a varsity boat in 2003. She is a quick study and has really made quite an impression on the entire team."
The varsity four, under the direction of assistant coach Joe Schlosberg, should also be a strength for the Irish in 2003 after a tremendous fall season. The fours won both the Head of the Ohio and the Head of the Rock as the team of Rackish, Mohan, Felker, Christine Donnelly and Sarah Palendech surprised many people this fall.
"The success of the varsity four will be critical in qualifying the team for the NCAA Championships," Stone says.
"We were pleasantly surprised at the success we had in the fall and hope to continue that in the spring. We have some renewed energy in the fours after the graduation of Maureen Carr and Kolleen Myers, who had been in the fours the past three seasons."
The development of the novice roster will also be key again in 2003. Assistant coach Pam Mork has developed the novice program into one of the nation's best as 16 women jumped from the rookie to the varsity roster in 2000. In 2001, 12 more made a similar move and all but 11 women in 2002-03 have spent time on the novice squad.
"One of the most exciting aspects of the novice roster is the rate of improvement. Look at the development of Alice Bartek last season," Stone says.
"On a daily basis, I see light bulbs go off as our athletes grasp a new aspect we have been working on in practice and training. The addition of scholarships also has played a key role, allowing us to be more competitive in the recruiting process and signing more experienced athletes."
That depth and experience will make a big difference as the Irish have upgraded their schedule in 2003, facing many of the nation and region's top teams. The Irish open the spring season March 12, for a dual regatta against South-region power Clemson in Clemson, S.C., before heading to Knoxville, Tenn., for a week-long training trip and a dual regatta against Tennessee on March 15. Notre Dame then goes to Ann Arbor, Mich., on March 22 for a race against national-power Michigan. The Wolverines were ranked in the top five for much of the 2002 season and finished eighth in the team competition at the 2002 NCAA meet.
Notre Dame then goes to West Lafayette, Ind., on March 30, for the Indiana Classic. The Irish have two more dual regattas as they travel to Iowa City, Iowa, to face powerhouse Iowa on April 6, before heading to East Lansing, Mich., for a date with Michigan State on April 12. Michigan State had an impressive NCAA meet in 2002 by finishing ninth in the team competition and is one of the top programs in the nation in 2003, while Iowa was ranked in the top five at the end of the 2001 season.
The Irish finally return home for their only dual regatta in South Bend as they play host to Dayton on April 13. The race will be run on the St. Joseph River with the start and finish at Margaret Prickett Park in Mishawaka.
Notre Dame then has two weeks off before heading to Worchester, Mass., for the BIG EAST Rowing Challenge. Notre Dame finished second at the 2002 Challenge and is looking to unseat defending champion Syracuse at this year's regatta. The meet features all nine BIG EAST Conference schools which sponsor rowing including the Orangewomen, the Irish, Boston College, Georgetown, Rutgers, Miami, Villanova, Connecticut and West Virginia.
After the BIG EAST meet, Notre Dame will go to Seattle for the Windermere Cup on May 3. The Windermere Cup is one of the nation's premier races and teams are selected by invitation only. Scheduled to race in Seattle are defending national champion Washington in the varsity eight, second varsity eight and varsity four competition and the Polish under-23 national team in the varsity eight.
Next the Irish head to Oak Ridge, Tenn., on May 17-18, for the Central Regions, a meet which has huge implications on the NCAA Championship meet. Last season, four teams competing in the Central Region regatta received invitations to the NCAA meet. The Irish placed fourth in the team competition, while the varsity eighth was also fourth. The novice eight became the first Irish crew to medal at the Central Regions after placing third. The NCAA Championships May 30-June 1 in Indianapolis, Ind., conclude the 2003 season.
"This is the toughest schedule we have faced since I have been head coach at Notre Dame," Stone says.
"We scheduled many teams that are regional and national powers in dual races this season. They should all provide excellent competition for our team and prepare us for the big regattas of the season including the BIG EAST Rowing Challenge, the Windermere Cup, the Central Regions and ultimately the NCAA Championships."
The NCAA Championships are in the second season of inviting 12 teams (up from 10) to the national regatta. Four eight-women boats will also receive at-large bids, which is how the Irish varsity eight qualified for the event in 2002. Stone has high hopes that his squad will be one of the 12 to receive a team invitation this season.
"We have worked so hard this fall and winter with the NCAAs in mind," Stone says.
"We hope this is the year the entire team will get to experience the NCAAs and continue to elevate our program to elite status. We have a lot of work to do achieve that, but we are on the right track."