The University of Minnesota rowing team is primed and ready to go for yet another season. After what some would consider a rebuilding year in 2007-08, the 2008-09 edition of the Gophers is more experienced and is ready to return to the top echelon of the Big Ten Conference. Although head coach Wendy Davis feels that the Gophers may be a “dark horse” to win the Big Ten Championship in May, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. With five rowers returning to the First Varsity Eight, the depth the Gophers have throughout the boats and the strongest freshmen class they have had since the program’s inception, Minnesota has all the ingredients to contend for their second Big Ten title in three years.
“I feel like we are just a much more experienced team heading into this year,” Davis said. “The team doesn’t have the deer in the headlights’ look that we had last year. We definitely have more experience this year but the big question is, are we confident? Absolutely not, and we shouldn’t be because we haven’t raced yet. But we are eager and focused. As a staff, we should be planning to be one of the top Big Ten schools. Because we plan on being one of the best in the Big Ten, we should plan on being one of the top teams in the country since the conference is so deep.”
Returning to the Gophers’ First Varsity Eight is Stephanie Bakkum, Ashlee Vilmo, Lucy Mulvey, Katie Johnson and Lisa Pugh. All five were in the boat last year for their first year and look to show their experience and veteran leadership in the upcoming season.
“The good news is that we’re keeping five rowers in the Varsity Eight,” Davis said. “Last year, it was a group of six brand new rowers, so there’s a world of difference in their approach from day one and we can already see it. Ashlee, Stephanie, Lucy, Lisa and Katie all know what they’re doing now. People like Tina (Cho) and Jenna (Schuder) understand what they’re trying to get accomplished. We’re not just picking up where we left off, but instead setting our standards high and pushing ourselves to meet them.”
Vilmo leads the pack in the Varsity Eight and is considered one of the Gophers’ power rowers. In 2006-07, Vilmo was a sophomore and was positioned in the Second Varsity Eight during the boat’s national championship and was bumped up to the 1V8 last year.
“Ashlee is a great natural athlete,” Davis said. “When you have someone who’s tall and strong and able to produce good erg scores, it’s often because they don’t feel the pain. It’s tough for them to make technical changes, but Ashlee has really good technical skills and is able to make the changes that need to be made. That’s why I feel like she is a new generation and leading the way. It’s one thing to be strong, but if you aren’t moving the boat effectively, your strength can be used against you.”
The Gophers depth at coxswain is the best it’s been since the beginning of the program. Megan Flannery graduated last season after spending her entire Gopher career in the 1V8. The position is up for grabs between returning letterwinners and a highly skilled freshman in Illana Ostrin. Both Niemiec and Trandem competed with the Varsity boats last season. Niemiec primarily held the coxswain role of the Varsity Four, while Trandem steered the Second Varsity Eight. Ostrin was a member of the Culver City High School team that was in tough competition week in and week out.
“Right now we’re looking at Erica (Niemiec), Linnea (Trandem), or Ilana (Ostrin) as the coxswain for the 1V8,” Davis said. “All three of them have the knowledge to step into that position and right now we’re mixing and matching to find out who fits where. We have seven coxswains this year and we’ve never had that many and they’re all very good. We look forward to all of them taking a leadership role in whatever boat they are placed in this year.”
Minnesota will look for leadership from student-athletes in the Varsity Eight as well as other boats in order for the team to be successful. Her peers voted Senior Emily Johnson as the team captain. A letterwinner with the Varsity Four last season, Johnson competed at the Big Ten Championships and held the bow seat at the South/Central Sprints as the Gophers finished fourth in the Grand Final (5/17).
“Emily is a very mature person and very understanding,” Davis said. “She is easy to talk to and is extremely smart. Emily was named captain because people are comfortable coming to her with issues, and they know she’s giving the most she can possibly give every day at practice. I’m glad she’s the captain and I think it will be fun to work with her this year.”
Including the First Varsity Eight members, Minnesota returns 15 letterwinners from last year’s squad. Along with the Varsity Eight, Minnesota’s depth reaches into the Second Varsity Eight and Varsity Four boats, all them striving for the openings in the 1V8. Returning from the Gophers’ 2V8 is Tina Cho, Sarah Graham, Jenna Schuder and Kathryn Switalski. In 2007-08, the 2V8 finished fourth in the Grand Finals at the Big Ten Championships and won the Petite Final at the Aramark South/Central Sprints.
“Unlike last year, we are deep enough where we could have 10 people that could be in the first eight,” Davis said. “It comes down to who is going to fit where. Jenna (Schuder) is looking like she has a good chance of finding a spot in our top boat and Tina (Cho) has a good shot of moving up too.
It’s tough competition to fill the 1V8 this year.”
Minnesota also returns four of its five Varsity Four veterans in Niemiec, Emily Johnson, Ali Fisher and Sarah Krueger. Along with novice rowers moving up to the varsity level, all varsity rowers will be trying to find a spot in the Gophers’ top boats.
“We’re a deep team and I think a lot of that is due to the sophomores that have moved up from a really talented novice group last year,” Davis said. “I think our third-place showing at Big Ten’s in no way reflects how good they were. There is talent in this group that we have never had. In addition, this is the most talented freshmen group we have ever brought into the program. I’m already seeing a couple of the freshmen step up and doing a great job.”
Along with the veteran leadership, Minnesota adds seven recruited freshmen to the mix this season. Krystal Arbery has attended the development camps; while Cassie Drozynski rowed for four years with her high school team in Pittsburgh, Pa. Minnesota also welcomes Erika Berg, Debbie Brzozowski, Maddy Bourgeois, Illana Ostrin and Leah Rogotzke.
“I have to start with Ilana, the coxswain, and the fact that I’m even considering a freshman for the First Varsity Eight. With the level of talent we have already at coxswain already speaks volumes for her. Cassie Drozynski has gone to the Junior National Development and Selection camps the last two summers and on the water she’s bringing a nice level of confidence that I have never seen out of a freshman rower here. Krystal Arbery is going to be fantastic, but she’s another one that’s tall and strong and has some technical issues that need to be worked out. Erika Berg has the least amount of experience out of the freshmen rowing with the varsity this year. However, she is progressing nicely and has a great work ethic and fits nicely into the mix. Debbie Brzozowski is bringing a lot of experience and is just nice and smooth. As she learns to be more aggressive, she will be a great contributor.”
Minnesota starts the season hosting the Head of the Mississippi on Oct. 5 and will compete at the Head of the Rock in Rockford, Ill. Minnesota opens the spring season against Tennessee on March 21, followed by the Varsity boats going to Iowa (April 4), while the novices head to the San Diego Crew Classic. The Gophers will also face off against Notre Dame, Indiana and Brown on April 11. Minnesota’s lone home dual, against Kansas on April 26, is final tune-up before the Big Ten Championships on May 2 in Columbus, Ohio.