Tough Course Spells Trouble for Lightweights

For two consecutive years, the Harvard varsity lightweights have taken silver to Cornell’s gold at the IRA national championships in June.

The emerging Cornell-Harvard rivalry gained ground last year, as the two lightweight squads traded No. 1 and No. 2 rankings throughout spring 2007. Then Cornell snagged its second-straight national crown in Camden, N.J., edging Harvard by just over one second in a dramatic grand final.

On Saturday, the Crimson again found itself trailing defending champion Cornell, this time in Harvard’s season-opening dual race on Lake Cayuga.

The Crimson’s three varsity eights all fell to the Big Red, while Harvard’s two freshman boats captured narrow victories over host Cornell. Both the Harvard varsity and second varsity boats handily beat third-place Penn, with the Crimson’s second varsity crossing the line 32.2 seconds before the Quakers’ junior varsity.

“It’s an interesting challenge [to start the season against Cornell],” said captain and varsity four-seat Pat Mulcahy. “It’s always a difficult way to start the season, because you know they’re going to be fast. But it’s a nice test of speed. It’s a tough way to start, but we came away with some good information.”

The Crimson varsity, composed of five sophomores, two juniors, and two seniors, returned just one member of last year’s varsity eight in senior five-seat Matt Young. The young group got its first introduction to Cornell on Saturday, when the Big Red took a two-to-three seat lead off the start and gradually widened the gap.

The Big Red took advantage of its turn-laden home course to make a concerted push just past the 1,000-meter mark, adding a few seats to the early lead. Cornell maintained the pressure through the crucial third 500 and built the lead to seven or eight seats as the two boats headed into the last 500 meters of the race. With each 500 meters, the Big Red methodically tacked one to two more seats on to its advantage.

“We didn’t make a mistake—it was a pretty steady move for them,” junior coxswain Kevin He said. “For the last 500 of the race, they were about bow to stern with us and we were able to hold that margin pretty consistently. They weren’t ever able to walk away from us, and we were able to walk back a bit at the end. I thought that was really encouraging for us.”

The Crimson varsity increased the stroke rating in the final sprint and managed to regain contact with the Cornell eight, but the Big Red’s steady, methodical pace gave the defending champions a comfortable 4.4-second victory over Harvard. Cornell crossed in 5:46.9, with Harvard trailing by just over a boat length with a time of 5:51.3. Penn rounded out the trio with a time of 5:57.5, several boat lengths behind the victorious Big Red and the second-place Crimson.

Despite the loss, the young Harvard varsity was satisfied with the boat’s performance. The Crimson is often one of the last crews to get on the water for practices and spring races, making the first dual competitions a crucial litmus test.

“I think across the board in all the pieces we’ve seen that we have a really solid foundation here,” Mulcahy said. “Starting off with this kind of a strong performance, we’re coming away with a solid piece. It’s a good indicator of how we’re going to do later on this season.”

Harvard’s second varsity also fell victim to the turns on the Lake Cayuga course, many of which host Cornell used to its full advantage. Off the start and through the first 500 meters, the Crimson stayed relatively even with the Big Red.

Halfway through the second 500 meters, however, the Big Red made a move at the course’s first big turn, taking up the rating and adding in a 20-stroke power piece to separate itself from the Harvard second varsity as the two boats crossed the halfway point.

“It’s Cornell’s home course, and they really knew what they were doing,” sophomore coxswain Dexter Louie said. “They took a really strong 20 on us, and coupled with the advantage of the turn, they managed to get a big enough lead so that in the second half of the race it was really hard for us to keep up with them.”

The Crimson fought back with its own push in the third 500, maintaining contact with the streaking Cornell boat and even making up some ground before the 1500-meter mark. As the two boats prepared for the final sprint, the Big Red stern sat on Harvard’s bow ball, with Cornell fighting for open water in the last 500 meters.

“They kept on charging after the turn and it was difficult for us to keep up right after they made that move on the turn,” Louie said. “We were expecting it but we didn’t expect it to be that big. But we made up some good ground in the third 500 and that’s the foundation that we want to build on.”

Cornell’s second varsity crossed in a time of 5:59.1, and the Crimson followed a boat length behind in 6:02.8. Penn was well behind and finished with a time of 6:35.0.

Next week, Harvard looks to capture its first dual win of the season against Dartmouth and MIT in the annual Biglin Bowl races. The Crimson has won the event 44 times.

—Staff writer Aidan E. Tait can be reached at atait@fas.harvard.edu.

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