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New mentality leads Duke rowing to new heights in Cooke Carcagno's first year

The Duke Rowing team photo and action photos on Lake Michie.
The Duke Rowing team photo and action photos on Lake Michie.

When she took over for Robyn Horner—the only head coach in Duke’s 17-year program history—in July 2015, Megan Cooke Carcagno knew she faced a challenging feat.

The former Wisconsin associate head coach had to implement a more rigorous training program and new mindset, one that she knew could ultimately lead to a significant number of rowers quitting the team.

“It’s just time. Family comes first, school comes second, rowing has to come third,” Cooke Carcagno said of her approach. “When rowing becomes fourth, fifth or sixth, then we won’t be good.”

Although approximately 25 percent of the Blue Devil roster left the program in Cooke Carcagno’s first year, the new mentality paid off, with Duke going from seventh at the 2015 ACC championship to second this year to tie a program record and book its first trip to the NCAA championship.

Last week, the Blue Devils finished 17th at the national championship to cap off a season of progress—one in which the team found a new identity led by Cooke Carcagno and assistant coaches Chuck Rodosky and Chase Graham.

“We have higher expectations, higher standards. It’s not that we never wanted to achieve but we’ve put in very specialized, direct work,” said senior Mary Wilson, a member of the team’s V4 that finished 13th at NCAAs. “We really did start from somewhere and I think that a lot of the alums and some of the former coaching staff really laid the foundation for what we’ve been able to become now.”

In addition to expecting that the team put in two-a-days almost every day of the week, Cooke Carcagno also focused on its internal makeup. Entering the season, she set up frequent meetings with the senior class to get to know her new team.

“We have a weekly senior meeting and we brought all the seniors and sat down and said, ‘This is your last year, you have one shot, what kind of team do you want to be on?’” Cooke Carcagno said. “‘What’s the best team you’ve ever dreamed of? How do we make that team this team?’”

Results with the new coaching staff were mixed early in the spring.

The V4 registered a victory against UCLA for the team’s only win of the day at March’s Pac-12 Championship before all of the team’s boats struggled in a dual meet at then-No. 3 Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.

But the presence of a dual meet against a top-10 opponent on the schedule represented a departure from the past and another change made by Cooke Carcagno and her staff. It provided a measuring stick at the ACC championship more than a month later when the Blue Devils had closed the gap on the Cavaliers, who still won every race convincingly in Clemson, S.C., en route to their seventh consecutive conference title.

After a two-week break to train and recuperate from the previous races, Duke rebounded from the Virginia loss by tying for first at the Dale England Cup in late April, losing out on the championship because of a tiebreaker.

The Blue Devils won the most races of any team and finally looked like the cohesive unit they were striving to become, to the point that the boats began taking on the personalities of their respective coaches.

“[Rodosky] has been a blast to work with,” said senior captain Lauren Miranda, a member of the 2V8 that finished 13th at NCAAs. “We always make fun of him, he is very sassy. He has a lot of attitude and he tries to push and his philosophy is to kind of have this mentality of, ‘Who cares who you’re up against? You’re going to try and win this race and you’re going to try and be the fastest boat no matter who you’re racing.’ I think that’s very, very true of us.”

Cooke Carcagno worked with the V8, which like the 2V8 outperformed its seeding at the ACC championship and featured two All-ACC performers—seniors Alex Stonehill and Katie Dukovich.

The boat finished 18th at the NCAA championship.

“She has this intensity, this perfectionist mentality that she expects out of the whole team and especially out of our boat, and I know that my boat makes noise,” Stonehill said. “I’ve definitely taken on that intensity and that perfectionist attitude and it’s definitely hard because she expects a lot out of us, but it’s also gotten us to where we are today, so it’s worth it.”

Wilson said she previously worked with several of the team’s boats, but found her niche this year with the V4, which Graham coached.

“It’s been incredible. It’s a joy to row for him,” Wilson said. “I trust him so much, and he has taught us the nuances of the sport in a way that I didn’t see before.”

Cooke Carcagno and Rodosky, who is also the team’s recruiting director, will now turn their attention to bringing in the next freshman class for a program on the rise.

Although Miranda, Stonehill, Dukovich and several other seniors depart, the Blue Devils hope they now have a sustainable culture in place to continue improving.

“I think the kids will start to believe us a little more. We talked a big game every time we had a kid in here but they said ‘Yeah, sure, right. We’ll see what you do,’” Cooke Carcagno said. “We were actually able to put our money where our mouth is.”

Amrith Ramkumar contributed reporting.