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Last year, the lightweight crew team was just two spots away from winning its third national championship in four years. This year, the Elis hope to regain the title.

Head lightweight coach Andy Card enters his 14th year of varsity coaching at Yale, and this year’s expectations are no different than in previous seasons.

“Our goals are always to win five gold medals at the Sprints and to win the National Championship at the IRA,” Card said via e-mail. “That hasn’t changed this year.” The Intercollegiate Rowing Association hosts the annual national crew championships in late spring.

Such high hopes are no surprise for a program that has traditionally dominated regattas. Yale captured the Intercollegiate Rowing Championship in 2000 and 2002; last spring, the Bulldogs were a close third. In between the two championships, Yale won 13 of 15 possible medals at the Wind Sprints and was frequently ranked a top seed in regular season races.

This winning history made last year’s third place performance at the IRAs especially unsettling for coach Card.

“Our finish at last year’s IRA was indeed disappointing, but it shows you that in this league, if you are just a little bit off, you get nailed. And we were a little bit off that day, that’s for sure,” Card said.

This year, the team must deal with the departure of nine seniors, five who rowed for the varsity eight.

“The Class of 2003 was a big class for us, both in terms of numbers and quality,” Card said. Indeed, several rowers already have advanced to post-collegiate rowing, such as Eric Feins ’03, who rowed for the United States in the 2003 World Championships. For many teams, losing players of such caliber would mean a rebuilding period; Yale, however, aims to remain on top.

Although the program no longer has the services of U.S. National Team member Andy Liverman ’02 and Feins, team members are looking for success under new captain Tamas Toro ’04.

One reason to be optimistic is the traditional strength of freshmen walk-ons. Unlike most varsity sports, crew thrives on walk-on participants who often add unexpected strength to the team. Himself a walk-on at Princeton in 1981, Card encourages the practice because “rowing is effort-responsive, more so than any other sport, I would argue. The more work you put into it, the better you get.”

Although the season does not begin until Oct. 18 with the nation’s biggest race, the Head of Charles Regatta in Boston, the team remains busy integrating the newcomers with the veterans.

“The thing about rowing is, we’ve had guys who have walked onto the team, barely made the second freshman crew in their first year, and then make the national team and win medals at the World Championships after their senior year (Tim Howle ’87),” Card said. “I have a special place in my heart for the guys who start rowing at Yale, and I feel like we have the best mix of talented oarsmen who have rowed before and hard-working novices eager to learn and to work.”

So how will Yale fare against traditional rivals Harvard and Princeton?

“I am excited to begin another year with the team,” Card said. “We are having fun rowing together again after a long summer off. I will leave the predictions to you guys in the press.”