Kristina Boncheva knows it's anyone's race.
Barry Athletics

ATLANTA -- It can get lonely at the top. Thankfully the rowers of Barry, which has been No. 1 all season, have each other.

"Ranking is just a ranking,” head coach Dave Sanderson said. “We just have to do our best and prepare one day at a time, one race at a time.

“Thankfully, [the team] all enjoys rowing. It might sound corny or cliché, but they enjoy challenging themselves and each other. They're a diverse group, but together they have a collective focus to push day in and day out."

The Buccaneers managed to stay on top all season thanks to some big performances. They came in third overall in the Knecht Cup, with the varsity four winning its regatta filled with the country's top Division I and Division II crews in 7:55.02. No other boat in the final broke 8:06.

At the beginning of May, Barry’s varsity eight won the Dad Vail Regatta ahead of fellow championship qualifiers Nova Southeastern and Mercyhurst, despite weather delays and sub-par conditions on the water.

“There's been pressure on us all season. We've been No. 1 from the beginning,” bow and senior captain Kelly Harrison said. “We've only gotten stronger throughout the season, building up to this. I think it's time for us to peak."

Barry will have to compete against 2011 runner-up Mercyhurst, rival Nova Southeastern and seven-time champion Western Washington, along with at-large V8 boats from UC San Diego and Central Oklahoma, to claim the program’s first national championship.

“We cannot underestimate any team,” junior stroke Kristina Boncheva said. “Our biggest competition is obviously Nova and Western Washington, but there are only six boats and all of them deserve to be there, so anything could happen.”

That’s exactly what at-large qualifier Central Oklahoma is hoping for. The Bronchos, a six-year-old program, is making its second appearance at the national championships, finishing fifth overall last year, ahead of Barry.

“We’re excited and optimistic,” head coach Andrew Derrick said. “To be honest, we were disappointed to not get a team bid. But we’ve put together our eight-boat lineup with two new athletes in the mix and intend to surpass the seed number we were given.”

Despite not having the rowing tradition and experience of coastal schools, the Broncos have made great strides as a program this year. Freshman Hannah Anderson, who rows in the V8, is their first official pre-college recruit. Actually, the majority of UCO’s team has no background in rowing.

“This is just my second year rowing period,” senior Michaela Stam said. “I had never, never sat on an erg before and knew nothing about blade technique. But our coaches have done a tremendous job of taking little to no experience and getting back-to-back NCAA appearances.”

In April, the Broncos also reached another team landmark, winning their first major Division II V8 regatta at the San Diego Classic. Their time of 7:02.89 was six seconds ahead of 2012 national champion Humboldt State.

“I will take that proud memory to my grave,” Stam said. “Rowing is unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I’ve never hurt so bad in my life. I can’t see it, but I can feel every girl pulling their hardest for our boat and it makes me do the same. Rowing is just such an easy sport to fall in love with.”

The team’s fresh outlook and eagerness to prove itself has been an advantage rather than a hindrance the past two seasons.

“We’ve embraced coming from Oklahoma and love surprising teams that have never heard of us before,” Derrick said. “The team has an open mind to learn and…is willing to work harder to get noticed.”

DII competition kicks off on Friday at Eagle Creek Park with two heats of V8 boats, then two heats of V4 boats. Saturday morning, eights and fours will each have a repechage and then on Sunday, a national champion will be crowned after the fours grand final and eights petite and grand finals.