Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Greatness That Apparently Never Happened

You're in Detroit, and it's the culmination of another March Madness. North Carolina has just shredded Michigan State in a 40-minute snoozer and is ready to collect its well-deserved NCAA title.

But wait. Here comes Michigan State's JV team, and boy, do they look tough. And who is that waiting in the rear? That's right, it's Tom Izzo's best 2-on-2 team. Uh-oh, Roy Williams may have a problem on his hands. In fact, UConn looks like it has a pretty good JV team waiting in the wings too. Maybe this whole thing is really up for grabs.

Absurd, right?

If you think the 2009 NCAA men's basketball championship was a blowout, you should have been by Mercer Lake on May 28, 2006. It was the NCAA varsity eight grand final in open rowing. The best six boats in the country lined up together, each 2,000 meters from championship glory.

Last year, Yale won that grand final by less than one second over Stanford. The year before, Yale won by less than two seconds over Ohio State. In 2005, Cal topped Princeton by just over two seconds.

But on that day in 2006, Princeton won the grand final by 6.4 seconds. To go back to the basketball analogy, the walk-ons are running up and down the court with multiple TV timeouts still left. The starters are fighting over which part of the net they want to cut first.

That 2006 Princeton crew was one of the best in NCAA history. Maybe it wasn't the best ever; Yale is riding two straight victories and could easily win the 2009 title, while Princeton only had the one championship. But Princeton is in the conversation.

At least, Princeton should be. But as time goes on, people will forget that team. How is that possible? Who could forget such a great NCAA champion?

Because, amazingly, Princeton wasn't actually the 2006 NCAA champion.

Don't believe it. Click here, the OFFICIAL site of the NCAA. California and Brown shared the NCAA title, despite the fact that neither boat finished within six seconds of Princeton. In fact, TigerBlog remembers members of both the Cal and Brown crews gathering around the officials to determine the exact order of that grand final. When it was ruled that Cal finished in 6:43.26, while Brown finished in 6:43.52, the Golden Bears exploded in celebration.

Never has second place felt so good; after all, second place made them the NCAA champion.

Title IX allows programs a maximum of 20 scholarships for open rowing. This has accelerated the growth of the sport and allows many more girls the opportunity to compete in an NCAA sport in college. Nobody is against that. Because of the 20 scholarships, the NCAA has decided to recognize an overall team champion, which is comprised of a first varsity eight, a second varsity eight and a varsity four. In comparison, men's heavyweight, men's lightweight and women's lightweight rowing determines its national champion by the winner of the IRA varsity eight grand final.

You can debate which is the most fair or the most logical. TigerBlog looked at different collegiate web sites, and for the most part, story headlines and lead paragraphs tell you first and foremost how the varsity eight finished. The sport's own poll, the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association/USRowing poll, even ranks teams solely by varsity eight boats. And yet, at the end, the biggest title in the sport goes to the team with the best 1-20 rowers, not the best 1-8.

TigerBlog doesn't agree with it, but it's the way it is. That's not even the point here. This is a sport that generates so much of its publicity on the first varsity crews, that prides itself on the best eight-woman boat each school can offer. And yet, on the NCAA's own web site, those boats are forgotten. That 2006 Princeton 8+, which included two Olympians, a U-23 gold medalist and a rower competing for a spot on the Elite national team, has been forgotten by its own organization.

And someday will be forgotten by the fans of its own sport. The NCAA has chosen its own way to crown a champion, and it seems unlikely that will ever change. One can only hope the NCAA does a better job telling the story of its past, and especially those championship boats that helped grow the sport along the way.

And if they won't, the admittedly biased TigerBlog will. The team of stroke Caroline Lind, #7 Kristin Haraldsdottir, #6 Jackie Zider, #5 Devan Darby, #4 Andreanne Morin, #3 Caroline Kruse, #2 Genevra Stone, bow Kate Bertko and coxswain Lizzie Agnew was and still is the best boat TB has ever seen, and its dominant performance on May 28, 2006 can't ever be forgotten.

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