Friday, May 14, 2010

A Sunday Sprint

TigerBlog was fascinated by last night’s Cavs-Celtics game and all of its implications. After 48 hours of the all-hands-on-deck media watch of the King, could Lebron inspire him to match his Game 5 performance in Detroit three years ago? Would we, as the ads like to claim, witness another historic night?

Somewhere between Bron-Bron’s first and ninth turnover, TB had a pretty good hunch the answer was no.

TB feels like the only true NBA fan left between New York City and Philadelphia — a fact that could quickly change come free agency this summer. While it is somewhat stunning to think that Lebron is out of the playoffs and the hated Celtics aren’t, there is something comforting in knowing that the individual could not beat the team.

Outside of a few exceptions, sports are traditionally centered around the team philosophy. Even some individual-based ones like track and swimming still honor the team ultimately; Princeton won four Ivy League titles in an eight-day stretch this past winter to prove that very fact.

But there may not be another sport that is as dependent on the team philosophy as rowing.

Eight rowers. One coxswain. One boat. One rhythmic motion.

For 2,000 meters, each member of the boat must be in absolute harmony with everybody else to achieve peak speed. The slightest of errors, be it at 300 or 1800 meters, can cost two to three seconds.

Two to three seconds will cost somebody the Ivy League title Sunday.

When current heavyweight coach Greg Hughes was leading the Princeton lightweights, he talked at length about the excitement of the Eastern Sprints (each team competes for the Eastern title Sunday, while all but women’s lightweight crew also competes for the Ivy League title). It is a day when all slates are clean, and an Ivy League title is only 4,000 meters away.

The day is fairly simple. All of the Eastern conference (EARC for men, EAWRC for women) crews are seeded into heats. There are the varsity eight heats, which determine the top champions, but also competitions for other J.V. and freshman boats. With only a few exceptions, a team needs a certain finish in a heat to qualify for a grand final.

That’s the first half of the 4,000 meters. You don’t need to be perfect, but you better be pretty good.

In the late afternoon or early evening, the six boats left standing (rowing?) will line up side-by-side. Between them and the Eastern and Ivy title is 2,000 meters of water. In that moment, eight rowers, each of whom spent countless hours on an erg preparing for these next few minutes, know that perfection is mandatory.

There has been plenty of talk (and there will be plenty more) that the overwhelming pressure of the series was what hurt Lebron most. But that was pressure spread over seven games in one of a possible four series. For these rowers, many of whom will never compete at a higher level than this, the pressure is condensed into seven minutes on one day.

And that’s not just for Princeton rowers. You don’t think the student-athletes at Harvard, Yale, Navy and Penn want to win just as badly? They will feel the same pressure too.

In many sports, you can analyze matchups and get a sense of how things should go. How has this line handled a blitzing defense? How does that point guard react in a press? Does this wrestler prefer to ride or be on his feet?

On Sunday, Harvard’s crew can’t go into a left-wing lock against Princeton. Yale can’t go into a four corners offense if it leads Cornell. Every team gets eight oars and 2,000 meters of open water to figure out a winner.

It is one of the great days of sport in the Ivy League, and it has the chance to be an incredible one for Princeton. Each of the Tigers’ four varsity crews has a good chance to make its own grand final, and three are seeded in their respective top two heading into the weekend. Lightweight rivalries (the men with Harvard, the women with Wisconsin) will be the story of those two championship regattas.

The heavyweight men, seeded fifth, are looking to bounce back from a disappointing effort last season and possibly stun some of the top ranked boats in the national polls, including Brown and Harvard.

And the open women, possibly the best story at Princeton this spring, are looking to punctuate a storybook regular season with its first EAWRC title since 2006. The Tiger women are ranked second nationally and have three boats with very real chances to win their respective finals. But with recent national powers like Brown and Yale lurking, they know that nothing is assured.

All we know is the 2010 Eastern rowing championships are Sunday, and thrills are most definitely assured.

And maybe Lebron will stop by to watch.

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