The University of Minnesota rowing team hopes to build on the success of its phenomenal 2007 season. With a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships and a Big Ten Conference title under their belt, the Golden Gophers look to improve on their national ranking and become one of the premier teams in the nation. The task however, will be a little more difficult in the 2007-08 season. With the loss of six rowers in the First Varsity Eight and three from the NCAA champion Second Varsity Eight, the Gophers won’t be as deep as a team a year ago. However, head coach Wendy Davis claims that as a challenge she and her staff are ready to take on board.
“Although we graduated six of the nine in the First Varsity Eight Boat, members from the Second Varsity Eight will move up into that boat with five returning,” Davis said. “The three that we have returning in the 1V8 are three key women. We will also have Tina Cho, who red-shirted last year so we should be fine in the 1V8. Our top boat is going to be competitive. The unknowns will be the Second Varsity Eight and the Varsity Fours, but it’s the first time we’ll have a boathouse in September. That’s what I’m excited about. The ability to teach them and progress them from the beginning of the season is going to be tremendously different then anything we have experienced before. It’s very encouraging to be able to do that.”
Davis’ key returners in the 1V8 are none other than her coxswain Megan Flannery, her stroke, Laura Jatutaite and her All-American Jenny Barnes. Flannery and Barnes competed in every First Varsity Eight competition in 2006-07. Both were members of the First Varsity Eight that received a school record seventh-place ranking and were members of the Big Ten Boat of the Week honors twice last season. Barnes was also named Big Ten Rowing Athlete of the Year. For the second straight year, Barnes earned national recognition when she was named a first-team All-American. Jatutaite made her way into the stroke position of the 1V8 during the spring season for the first time and will make a run at the position again next year. All three were members of the 1V8 that finished second at the Big Ten Championships and won the Petite Final of the NCAA Championships.
“Meg walked in with an incredible talent,” Davis said. “I watched her grow in her ability to lead and in her confidence. I think the 2006 NCAA Championships was a very big eye-opener. Last year didn’t go exactly as we had planned, but she was able to keep us on the right track. To have Meg as our coxswain for four straight years is going to be golden for us. Last year was the first year we had Laura stroking the 1V8. She was a little inconsistent, but in two of the three races at the NCAAs, she was fantastic. I think the finals solidified for her that she understands her role. She knows how to be a leader in the boat. I’m looking forward to working with her this year. Jenny’s great. She went to the Under-23 camp this past year. She didn’t make the team, but I saw her improving in areas that she needed and hopefully she can bring that back to the team. She has been our ringleader of getting the rest of the team ready for this year.”
Not only do the Gophers have their key components of their 1V8 returning, the Gophers return five from the national championship Second Varsity Eight boat in Mary Ann Weinzierl, Christine O’Donnell, Ashlee Vilmo, Sarah Graham and Katie Johnson. The group helped the 2V8 win the national event championship by three seconds over California. The group also won the Second Varsity Eight race at the Big Ten Championships, an accomplishment that had never been done at Minnesota before. With the experience those five rowers gained at the NCAA Championships, Davis is confident that they will be ready to move into the 1V8.
“Mary Ann is going to step right into the 1V8,” Davis said. “She is one tough customer. When they were leading in the national championship, she was still going as hard as she could. That kind of work ethic is really going to pay off for us. Ashlee is coming into her own and I think she’s going to have an epiphany this year. I watched her get better in every race. She’s a natural talent. She’s going to walk into this year with more confidence. At this time in 2006, she wasn’t as confident so I’m really excited to work with her. Sarah Graham as a freshman and Katie Johnson as a sophomore both come back more mature. Tina Cho is chomping at the bit to get back out on the water. Christine O’Donnell needed to gain a little confidence in what she was doing, but she made remarkable strides. All of the athletes that competed in the championship really learned a lot.”
The Gophers also return four of five members from their Varsity Four in coxswain Erica Niemiec, Rebekah Brzozowski, Emily Baxter and Lauren Van Proosdy. The group helped the Varsity Four to a seventh-place overall finish at the NCAA Championships. They were also members of the First Varsity Four that won the race at the Big Ten Championships. These four will most likely move up and contend for a spot in the varsity eight boats.
Along with the returners, Davis expects two true freshmen to contribute to the varsity program in Sarah Krueger and Kathryn Switalski. Krueger was a member of the Saratoga Rowing Association for four years. A four-time New York Empire Games gold medalist, Krueger has competed at the Canadian Henely and the Head of the Charles for four years. Like Krueger, Switalski also has Head of the Charles and Canadian Henely experience as well as junior rowing championships experience.
“Sarah Krueger is a really tough competitor,” Davis said. “Her speed skating background will help her in this sport. Like most freshmen, she’s going to have to find a balance in doing what she loves: training. Once she’s over that culture shock, she’s going to be a good addition for us. We hope that she can make the Second Varsity Eight, but if not, she’ll be in the Varsity Four and that will only strengthen that boat. Kathyrn Switalski is very similar. You have to adjust during your freshman year. We hope that she can step into the Second Varsity Eight as a freshman as well.”
With the returners coming back and the addition of key freshmen, Davis has high hopes for the 2007-08 season. A return trip to the NCAA Championships is one among many of the Gophers’ goals this season.
“We need to go back to the NCAA Championships as a team,” Davis said. “That’s our first goal. It won’t be as easy of a goal this year. Heading into last year, we knew that our 2V8 was going to be a fast boat. If you look at the NCAAs, our 2V8 won, but we came in sixth overall because our other two boats didn’t make it to the Grand Final. If the top boat makes the Grand Final, your overall team success is going to finish higher and your team placing.”
The Gophers open the season with the Head of the Charles (10/21), Head of the Iowa (10/28) and the Chicago Invite. Minnesota opens the championship season against Tennessee on March 22 and host Michigan and Michigan State on April 19. After hosting Kansas on April 26, the Gophers will defend their Big Ten Championship title on May 3 in Ann Arbor, Mich.