When the rowing program took flight in 2000-01, Wendy Davis and the University of Minnesota hoped that it would turn into something special. That something special came in two parts last season. The first came when the University broke ground on their new rowing boathouse on April 18, 2006. The second occured when the Gophers’ First Varsity Eight established themselves as one of the top boats in the country and qualified for the NCAA Championships last May. Now in the 2006-07 season, Minnesota looks to continue the momentum it started last year. With the opening of the boathouse and with the Gophers returning a majority of rowers from last year’s strong performance, the program looks to be on pace for yet another great season.
“Out of our top 24 rowers from last season, we have 18 of them returning,” Davis said. “The top two boats have 14 returning. We’re looking really good. To return that many is a huge advantage for us. Although the seniors we had last year were leaders, we still have our big guns in the boats this year.”
After finishing eighth in the First Varsity Eight race at the NCAA Championships last year, Minnesota returns six of its eight rowers in Cheryl Wick, Berit Tomten, Jennifer Barnes, Laura Jatautaite, Vilma Stragyte, Erika Bartkute and coxswain Megan Flannery. With the six returning rowers in the 1V8 and nearly all of the returners in the Second Varsity Eight, the Maroon and Gold have their eyes on the prize of making a consistent mark in the top echelon on the Big Ten. Minnesota finished second a year ago just behind Ohio State at the Big Ten Championship. The Gophers won three events and had all of their boats advance to the Grand Final. Along with their second-place accomplishment, Davis was named Co-Big Ten Coach of the Year. She shared the honor with Ohio State’s Andy Teitelbaum.
“What was great about finishing second last year was that it came from our mid-group in winning both fours events and winning the Second Novice Eight,” Davis said. “That really helped us. At Big Tens, a couple of the athletes said that they just wanted to medal. It wasn’t even in their mind that finishing second was a possibility. Now, we can say, that we can go after it and win it. Whether we do or not, there’s a lot behind that, but now it’s in there thought process. I want to be one of the top programs, and I think we have it in us.”
Although a majority of the 1V8 is returning, Davis is quick to point out that there are only two spots guaranteed in the top boat. With a majority of spots up for the taking, Davis looks forward to see each member push each other. With a majority of her top rowers competing for club teams in the off season, Davis says that a lot of her rowers are “hungry” and will all have to compete for First Varsity Eight spots.
Two rowers, however, have shown that they deserve to be in the 1V8. Minnesota returns its first-ever first-team All-American in Jennifer Barnes. In her first year with the Gophers, Barnes stormed onto the scene. The Columbus, Ind., native transferred to Minnesota from Purdue, where she competed with the Boilermakers’ club team. In just her first year, Barnes moved up to the 1V8 in the fall season and held the No. 5 seat for a majority of the spring season. A first-team All-Big Ten honoree and first-team All-Central Region, Barnes will be a leader for the Gophers this year.
“Jenny Barnes is busy demolishing our previous school records on the ergs that she set last year,” said Davis. “She has absolutely turned the corner and is going to be a program maker. However, it goes back to the fact that she needs to get her timing down and focus on that so we can take advantage of her physiology. Last year she was new and was trying to figure out the school and everyone’s names. This year she is going to be a lot more comfortable to take a leadership role.”
The other Gopher who has locked herself into the 1V8 is senior Berit Tomten. Last year, Tomten earned second-team all-region and Big Ten honors. Tomten started her Gopher career on the novice team in the 2003-04 season and quickly moved up the ranks to the 1V8. Like Barnes, Tomten competed in every First Varsity Eight race of the 2005-06 season and held the No. 7 seat. “Berit is so tough,” Davis said. “She is one tough customer. It will be easy for people to look at her as a leader on the team."
With Barnes and Tomten leading the way in the 1V8 the Gophers hope to return for their second-straight NCAA appearance. Minnesota competed all three days of the event. The Gophers placed third in their heat behind powerhouse and 1V8 national champion Princeton and Big Ten’s Michigan State. The Gophers missed the Grand Final by one second as they finished fourth in the semifinal. Minnesota finished second in the Petite Final behind Notre Dame and in front of two-time champion Washington, Yale, Southern California, UCLA and Stanford. Minnesota had the highest finish by an at-large team at the NCAA Championships. However, Davis and staff hope for a little change this year.
“We absolutely want to go as a team,” Davis said. “We still want to be top five. I think we can be even higher then that. However, it goes to if everything falls into place. It’s totally different from the regular season to the championship event. Last year at NCAAs, we had the people in the 1V8 who belonged there and that they didn’t feel pressure. What we need to do is get our Second Eight and our First Four to recognize that they belong there and when the pressure hits, they can handle it."