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'Chip away': Duke rowing finishes 16th overall at NCAA Championships

All three Blue Devil boats finished in the top-16 of their respective divisions.
All three Blue Devil boats finished in the top-16 of their respective divisions.

In a sport full of change, experience does not necessarily equal speed, and the young Blue Devils have made their presence known.

On the nation’s biggest stage, the NCAA Championships at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Fla., Duke earned itself an impressive 16th place finish, with gut-check performances from each of its three boats. The Varsity Eight finished fourth in the C final (16th overall), the Varsity Four finished third in the Petite Final (ninth overall) and the Second Varsity Eight won the C final (13th overall). Overall, 16th is a particularly impressive performance given the tremendous depth and versatility of the competition.

The Varsity Eight: Tara Fagan leaves her mark

Duke’s Varsity Eight, largely composed of athletes on the younger side of the collegiate rowing spectrum, put together a weekend of grit and toughness. The Blue Devils fought hard in their C final—made up of the third set of crews—which had just over seven seconds of separation between first and fifth place.

 “The C finals times and spreads show how competitive D1 rowing is," head coach Megan Cooke Carcagno shared regarding the close Varsity Eight finishes. 

SMU and Wisconsin asserted themselves in the top two, leaving Washington State, Duke and Tennessee battling close behind. The Blue Devils posted a speedy time of 6:37.250, edging out the Volunteers and beating Navy with open water separation—meaning that Duke's stern was ahead of the Midshipmen's bow ball.

“I told the girls ‘Look, it’s going to be three bow balls across between you, Tennessee, and Washington State, and just get in the middle of that pack and see what you can do to chip away on the leaders and go after it,’ and I thought they did a really nice job. They avenged some losses against Tennessee twice earlier in the season,” Cooke Carcagno said.

All of the rowers in this crew will be returning for another season at Duke, with the exception of coxswain Tara Fagan. The graduate student was an instrumental leader for the Blue Devils throughout the season, and her leadership and composure was key to the Varsity Eight’s success this weekend as well.

“[Fagan] is passionate, she is wise, she is cut-throat, she is such a great leader for the team, and has never backed away from the challenge of coming back for a fifth year and coxing the varsity and finishing what she started four years ago," Cooke Carcagno said. "It was great to have her up there, it was really fun to watch her lead the boat. In the third 500, when it looked like Tennessee might surpass us in that C final, the girls look a big power 20 for Tara, and it made them push ahead, and if anything, really solidified their positioning against Tennessee going into that final sprint. She’s a great leader and she'll be sorely missed.”

A power 20 is a strategic move in a race where a crew comes together so that each rower pulls harder than their base-effort for 20 strokes. Not only do these power moves directly cause a crew to gain ground on the competition because they are pulling harder, but they can unify a crew and demoralize opponents. The experienced Fagan led Duke’s youthful Varsity Eight to this inspiring finish.

“It is pretty remarkable that [the Varsity Eight] came away with the success that they did and I am really looking forward to seeing what next year’s team can do,” Cooke Carcagno mentioned. 

The Varsity Four: Duke’s top finish in a nail-biter

Duke’s Varsity Four made the Petite Final—made up of the second set of crews—and finished third, narrowly beating California and falling just short of Washington State. This race was one of the closest of the day, as first and fifth place were separated by only five seconds, barely qualifying as open water separation—which typically falls around three to four seconds. 

“They did a really good job landing themselves in the A/B semifinals," Cooke Carcagno said. "I think that was particularly helpful for the team. In the final, I think they did a really good job, they didn’t quite have the sprint that they needed to hold onto that second place finish so Washington State got the better of them, but I also think they really did a great job getting themselves into that final and in the top half of that pack.”

The Varsity Four was stroked by Rivca Chaver, who—despite only stroking a handful of races in her college career—led the crew to an impressive finish. Now, the California native is positioned to build on this experience moving forward.

"[Chaver] is gaining a lot of really good experience,” Cooke Carcagno said.

The Second Varsity Eight: C Final outright winners

Duke’s Second Varsity Eight was the only Blue Devil crew to win its final this weekend. The crew was not the fastest at the start, but rather relied on toughness to plow through the field of competition and establish a two-second victory over Princeton.

“They were really long and aggressive through the middle 1,000 of that race to slowly and steadily walk through Princeon. I thought that was really exciting,” Cooke Carcagno said.

In 2,000-meter races, the middle 1,000 is the center chunk of the race where crews must dig deep to maintain speed as the pain sets in. The Blue Devils’ Second Varsity Eight did this beautifully in their gut-wrenching victory.

“The middle base speed of the Second Varsity Eight is really remarkable," Cooke Carcagno shared.

Six of the nine rowers in this particular unit are returning to Duke next season, creating an exciting culture and camaraderie entering the offseason.

Looking Ahead

The Blue Devils did not enter this weekend with many athletes who had experience at the NCAA Championships, but they still excelled in this high-pressure environment at .

“Given all the circumstances that we’ve gone through in the past year, I’m really proud of our efforts,” Cooke Carcagno said.

Duke posted an effort to be very proud of. To the rest of the rowing world, look out, because this was just the beginning, and the Blue Devils are coming back faster.

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