With an unprecedented performance at last year’s NCAA Championships and a top ranking in this year’s preseason poll, one might expect that the women’s crew team would be phased by the lofty expectations set out before them. Yet somehow, a healthy sense of perspective abounds over at Gilder Boat House in Derby.

“While the team is really excited, we’re not empowered by the rankings and the hype. The excitement for the racing thing stems from inside the boathouse,” rower Charlotte Taft ’05 said.

Head coach William Porter, entering his sixth year at the helm of Yale’s program, agrees.

“We try to focus more on our day-to-day rowing and how we perform in practice each day,” he said. “Our expectations are from within our team, as a group we know how hard we are working and we know weather we are getting the right amount of speed out of our boats.”

The squad returned from Sarasota this weekend to kick off the spring portion of the 2004-05 season. Although the Bulldogs have not raced since late fall, last hitting the water at November’s Princeton Chase in New Jersey, they have been far from idle these last four months. Training through the winter, followed by a two-week stint away from Connecticut’s frozen waterways in March, is often the time where a team can gel as it prepares for the next stage of competition.

“We spend a majority of the year just training, and then it’s all about developing and building the team,” captain Dinah Dimalanta ’05 said. “In the winter, gaining a fitness level is a priority. We’re back from two weeks in Florida, where we were getting our technical aspect together and getting back on the water.”

Last year proved to be a historic one for the Bulldogs. The 2004-2005 team was nearly perfect through the season before clinching a ticket to the NCAA Championships in the May sprints, marking only the fifth time in history for the Elis to do so. As one of only 12 schools actually invited to the national event, held last Memorial Day weekend in Rancho Cordova, Calif., the Bulldogs dominated in preliminary rounds, qualifying all three boats competing for the Grand Final round. Yale nailed down a silver medal, with its 58 points second only to Brown’s 70.

With seven of eight members from the two varsity boats returning to the team last fall, the Elis headed up to Boston in October to compete in the Head of the Charles, the biggest meet of the first semester and the premier rowing event nationwide. The Bulldogs had dominated in recent years, nabbing first place in both 2002 and 2003. But despite another powerful performance, the Elis could not help but to have been disappointed when they placed seventh in Championship Fours and third in Championship Eights.

“The fall events set team character,” Taft said. “We still did well, and only lost to one national club team. On the other hand, it was good that our standard was so high, yet we also gained a sense of perspective.”

The performance on the Charles was enough to catch the eye of national observers. The Bulldogs are second nationwide in the USRowing spring preseason polls. Most on the team agreed that while the ranking is flattering, it does not hold much weight and will not have much bearing the minds of the rowers.

“The preseason poll for rowing is much like it is for any other sport, useless,” Porter said. “We are honored that we are ranked so high but let’s face it — no team has even raced yet. We deserve to be No. 2 as much as the next team. Last year I think we started at No. 3, won our fist race and were dropped to No. 5, won our second race and were dropped to No. 7, won our third race and were dropped to No. 9, lost our next race and moved up.”

The outlook will be much clearer once the racing actually does start on Saturday morning, in a home meet against Pennsylvania and Columbia. This weekend’s events are the first of six Saturday races leading up to the “sprints” on May 15. The Bulldogs will split time competing on the water between the Housatonic and Charles rivers, hosting four meets and heading up to Boston twice, once to face off against Boston University and Dartmouth April 9 and the other to race Radcliffe April 23.

Taft and Dimalanta said that these April events are a good opportunity to get some of the younger athletes into competition as well as a general gear-up for the EAWRC Sprints for the varsity athletes.

“The challenge is to every week, get better, become more efficient, and to peak at the very end,” Dimalanta said.

The EAWRC Sprints, in which all eight Ivy teams as well as other ECAC teams converge on the Cooper River in Camden, N.J., will feature most of the premier rowing programs in the country. Over a dozen teams compete in both four- and eight-person events.

“I expect Brown, Princeton, Radcliffe and many others to be fast,” Porter said. “Like it or not, the Ivy League is still a big factor in women’s NCAA rowing. The big scholarship rowing programs are making a push to squeeze the Ivy League out just like they did in football but the sport of rowing is such a great fit for academically-oriented athletes that the Ivies continue to get good rowers because the kids want the total package, mind and body.”

Yale finished third last year in the sprints, and the Elis hope that their performance this year will again propel them to the national championships.

“The base expectation this year is a team bid to the NCAA Championships,” said Taft. “But of course this is always difficult, and a New England bid is extra difficult.”

There is extra incentive to be one of the lucky 12 that heads to Sacramento, Calif. May 27. If the team qualifies, Yale alumni will completely fund a trip to the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta, held in Henley-on-Thames, England. It would be the first trip for any women’s Bulldog team to the world-renowned event held every June since 1839.

Although the stakes are high, an air of humility and self-motivation continue to drive the Bulldogs.

“We came off of a big year, but this year’s team has done a good job creating its own unique personality,” Dimalanta said. “We know goals are set for the Eastern Sprints and NCAAs, but everyday in the boathouse we respond to these expectations in a good way, not buckling under the pressure.”

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