SARASOTA, Fla. – For the second time in the last three years, the Cal Golden Bears are NCAA champions. Neither rainy weather nor a condensed schedule detered the Cal women's rowing team on Saturday at Sarasota's Nathan Benderson Park, as it captured the fourth NCAA team title in program history. The Golden Bears were led by wins in the varsity eight and varsity four, as well as a crucial second-place finish in the second varsity eight.
Cal won the overall team title with a total of 130 points, while Washington, winners of the second varsity eight, finished second with 128 points. Texas claimed third with 115 points while Stanford rounded out the podium with a fourth-place finish. Cal's four NCAA team titles are now tied for the second most in NCAA Rowing history.
"I'm super proud of this team," said head coach Al Acosta. "When you're taking on really high-level competition like Washington and Texas, you have to bring your best on the final day. Through the ups and downs of schedule changes and the emotions of an atmosphere like this, our student-athletes managed it all so well. They did a great job and we are really proud of the effort this team has put in all year long."
After sunny skies for Friday's heats, the threat of impending Sub-Tropical Storm Alberto moved Sunday's racing to Saturday afternoon, with crews racing both the semifinals and finals in a span of less than eight hours. The Bears proved more than ready for the challenge – a testament to the team's willingness all season long to embrace hard work and stay the course.
"Everyone sees the glory day, but it's been a long time coming – a lot of hard work," said senior Mia Croonquist, seven-seat in the Bears' gold medal-winning varsity eight. "This was a total team effort with everyone bought in and giving their all every day. We worked hard for this all year and for it to happen now is just surreal."
With the schedule changes inverting the normal racing order for the grand finals, it was the Bears' varsity eight that set the tone in the first medal race of the day.
Looking to bounce back from a third-place finish at the Pac-12 championships that marked its only loss on the year, the Bears' varsity eight was back at full strength and put together an impressive race against an incredibly talented and speedy field. Washington, the top-seed in the event, got off to a strong start and held an early lead over their California rivals.
However, the Bears kept the Huskies within striking distance and used an impressive surge to draw level at the 1,000-meter mark. From there the Bears were able to steadily add to their advantage and finished strong through the line. Cal's victory marked the Bears' third NCAA title all-time in the varsity eight and their first since 2013. Cal first won gold in the varsity eight at the 2005 NCAA Championships, helping the Bears secure the overall team title.
Which means....— Cal Women's Crew (@CalWRowing) May 26, 2018
THE GOLDEN BEARS ARE YOUR 2018 NCAA TEAM CHAMPIONS!!!
"It certainly wasn't an easy path to get here but we had such a trust in our boat all year," said senior coxswain Hannah Christopher. "We knew we could come back from anything and that definitely played out this weekend. It felt really good to take it all the way home and we had so much trust and support from our teammates. This just feels like the perfect way to get to end my Cal career."
With the victory in the varsity eight putting Cal atop the team point standings, the second varsity eight earned a crucial result for the Bears. While Washington jumped out to an early lead and raced strong for an open-water victory, Cal was locked in a fierce race for medal position with Michigan and Virginia. A thrilling race to the finish saw the Bears outsprint the Cavaliers and Wolverines, with the Bears claiming second. Cal's silver medal was its second in this event in as many years and kept the Bears ahead of Washington by one point in the team standings, setting up a deciding race in the varsity four.
With a national title on the line, the varsity four lived up to drama, with Washington and California battling it out all the way to the finish. Neither team led by more than just a few seats for the entire duration of the race, but it was Cal who prevailed in the end. The Bears crossed the line in a blistering 7:00.798, less than a second ahead of Washington. The win marked Cal's fourth NCAA title in the varsity four, also claiming gold in this event in 2016, 2014 and 2011. The first-place finish also gave the Bears the outright NCAA team title, marking Cal's second national championship in the last three years and its 11th consecutive season charting a top-three finish at the NCAA championships.
Saturday morning began in thrilling fashion as the Bears topped rival Washington in the first A/B semifinal for the varsity eights. Cal won the regular season dual with their Pac-12 rivals before the Huskies got revenge at the 2018 Pac-12 Championships in Lake Natoma. However, the Bears held the upperhand on Saturday morning, erasing an early deficit with an impressive surge midway through the race. Cal maintained its advantage down the final 1,000 meters, beating the Huskies to the finish by several seats.
Cal continued to showcase its speed in the second varsity eight, with the Bears leading wire-to-wire in the second A/B semifinal for the event. The Bears were able to establish an early lead and continued to set the pace down the remainder of the course, finishing nearly a length ahead of second-place Virginia.
The Bears wrapped up the morning semis with an impressive showing in the varsity four. Cal put together a dominant performance from start to finish and topped the field by open water. The Bears finished with a blistering time of 7:03.710, the fastest by any four to that point in the competition.
Hours later, Cal's varsity four once again was first across the finish line, this time bringing a national title.
A day that began well before dawn finished with a championship for the Golden Bears.
"It's been the best day," said Christopher. "The absolute best day."