There were the high hopes so common to March and early April, and a pair of resounding dual victories to open 2006. But unknowingly, unintentionally, and uncharacteristically, the Harvard varsity lightweights assumed the role of the underdog for the final three weeks of the dual season.
There was a devastating upset loss to Dartmouth at home, an open-water loss at Navy, and the most inconsistent, frustrating performance of the year, a telltale loss to archrival Yale in the dual finale on April 29.
“[The Yale loss showed] we’re capable of doing really great stuff,” varsity stroke Chip Schellhorn said. “We just have to put it together. On one hand it’s encouraging that we can come back, but on the other it’s discouraging that we didn’t race the whole piece like that.”
Even in the course of a 2,000-meter race, the Harvard varsity has been unpredictable, sometimes dominant and aggressive, other times timid and incapable of the assertiveness indispensable to a championship crew.
“We’ve operated under the idea that we are not the best team in the league,” said senior varsity four-seat Wes Kauble. “We know we have a lot of speed that we need to gain if we are going to be able to compete on Sunday.”
Not once in April’s dual season was the Crimson able to put together a dominant 2,000-meter race. Even against Cornell and Penn—a race Harvard won by nine seconds—the Crimson fell behind at the start and fought to break a stalemate with both crews at the halfway point.
A strong final 1,000 against the Big Red and the Quakers gave the Crimson an easy victory, but not until an impressive last 1,000 against Yale and Princeton on the final weekend of the season would Harvard again make such a statement. Two lukewarm showings against Dartmouth and Navy revealed the lightweights’ week-by-week inconsistency.
In-race incongruities, most notably at Yale—Harvard relinquished a boat length in the first 1,000 meters to both Yale and Princeton, only to storm back in the final 500 to pull within a seat of the victorious Bulldogs—make the Crimson’s prospects at Lake Quinsigamond as unpredictable as was the boat’s lineup during the dual season.
If the Harvard varsity that scared silent the crowd at Yale’s Gilder Boathouse in the final 20 strokes shows up for 2,000 meters this Sunday, the Crimson might find itself on the winner’s dock once again.
But if the boat that sacrifices seats off the start and loses ground in the first 1,000 is at the line, Harvard will endure a long and rainy Sunday at Lake Quinsigamond.
“We’ve been doing a lot of starts,” said sophomore varsity two-seat Matt Young. “Crews have jumped us off the start and been more aggressive. We think we’re pretty strong through the middle, but the start could definitely use some work.”
Doubts are fewer for the Harvard second varsity eight, which has claimed two consecutive gold medals at Eastern Sprints. Only a heartbreaking 0.6 second loss at Navy sullied an otherwise perfect dual season.
The Navy second varsity overcame a six-seat deficit after the halfway mark to nip Harvard’s second varsity by a seat in Annapolis—a loss that forced the Crimson to reexamine its race plan and stroke rating after the midway point.
“We’ve been working on firming up the second part of the race and having the possibility of sprinting,” said senior seven-seat Alex Phillips. “We didn’t have that in our bag of tricks at that point. And it was an absolutely spectacular loss.”
Dual season perfection, however, means little in the lightweight finals in Worcester, where margins are close and seedings largely superficial.
“I’ve always felt that it’s a huge challenge to put together a completely undefeated season,” Phillips said. “We’d be in a different place if that loss hadn’t happened. We don’t go in thinking we’re the best—we know we have to work very hard or we’re going to lose.”
The Navy boat that handed Harvard its first defeat since 2003 sits atop the second varsity poll, and the Midshipmen enter the weekend with all five of its eights ranked No. 1.
While Navy has been consistent, its second varsity undefeated and its varsity with just one loss, the Harvard varsity program has endured the most turbulent of dual seasons—lineup changes, unexpected losses, the ups-and-downs that were never at issue in last year’s brilliant run to and beyond Lake Quinsigamond.
But on Sunday, the Crimson has six minutes to render obsolete the past six weeks. The winner’s dock at Lake Quinsigamond, after all, cares little about the past.
—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org