The expectations couldn’t be higher.
The Yale heavyweight crew team has its eyes set on a national championship after one of the most impressive fall seasons in recent history. The Bulldogs won the Head of the Housatonic, placed third at the Head of the Charles and finished first at the Princeton Chase last semester, and they begin part two of their quest for a first ever national title on April 14 against Dartmouth.
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This year’s heavyweight squad represents a turning point for the future of Yale rowing because it is the first year in which head coach John Pescatore has personally recruited every member of the team. As a former world champion oarsman and the 2000 U.S. Rowing Coach of the Year, Pescatore’s name alone brings instant credibility to the program and carries considerable weight when it comes to persuading prospective recruits.
Yale often competes directly against Harvard for the same recruits, and Harvard coach Harry Parker, who has been with the Crimson since 1963, is considered to be one of the most successful college coaches ever and is a member of the U.S. Rowing Hall of Fame. Having a coach like Pescatore allows the Bulldogs to somewhat close the coaching gap, team members said.
“Harry Parker has been around forever,” heavyweight rower Liam Beedling ’08 said. “He’s a legend in rowing circles.”
In addition to increasing Yale’s visibility, knowing what it takes to succeed at the sport’s highest level has allowed Pescatore to shape the Yale program in a way that emulates the nature of his previous teams.
“There’s more focus this year than in years past and it’s a much more professional team,” Hunter Swartz ’07 said. “[Pescatore] has really tried to recruit a team that takes a much more professional approach to training. He’s taken the way he approached training and applied it to our training. He sought out individuals that really wanted to take this team to a whole new level.”
During the winter, the team primarily trains indoors and works on improving individual strength and endurance. Spring break and the annual retreat to Tampa allows the team to translate individual improvements in endurance into tangible results on the water. The Bulldogs trained twice a day over a 10-day period and selected preliminary lineups for the five boats heading into the race against the Big Green.
“The winter is really focused on individual fitness,” Vincent Granata ’09 said. “Now that we’re back on the water, it’s much more about blending together.”
Yale’s success this fall against the nation’s elite has given the Bulldogs reason to dream about capturing a national title for the first time in school history. At last year’s IRA National Championships, Princeton finished second and capped off an impressive season that included the Ivy League conference title. But Yale wasn’t too far behind — the Bulldogs finished 6th and were edged out by the Tigers by a mere three seconds.
At this season’s Princeton Chase, the Elis turned the tables on the vaunted Tigers as the first varsity boat finished a dominating 13.8 seconds ahead of the second-place Tigers. The Bulldogs also demonstrated their ability to deal with adverse weather conditions as they fought against either a direct wind or a crosswind for most of the day.
Before the team’s surprising performance last fall, the Elis had never finished higher than eighth at the Head of the Charles under Pescatore, and they had not won the Princeton Chase during the coach’s four-year tenure at Yale.
The lightweight team faces off against Navy this Saturday before competing at the Joy Cup at MIT the following week. The team sent two boats to the Belly of the Carnegie in November and finished 3rd and 7th. The month before, at the Head of the Charles, the team finished 12th, despite receiving a 10 second penalty for a bow violation.
Heading into the spring season, the lightweight team will try to improve on their solid, if unspectacular, start. The Elis have their work cut out for them this weekend, as the Navy Midshipmen are considered to be one of the best lightweight crew teams in the nation.
Despite their early success, at least on the heavyweight side, the Bulldogs are taking nothing for granted.
“What happened this fall is pretty much forgotten at this point,” Swartz said. “The next ten weeks are what’s important.”