SHREWSBURY — After helping the WPI women’s rowing varsity eight to the NCAA Division 3 championship last Saturday, Shrewsbury’s Caitlin Kean was running on little rest and a lot of adrenaline earlier this week.
“I didn’t want to go to sleep because I was afraid I was going to wake up and it would just be a dream,” Kean, a senior captain, said Friday morning after the Engineers wrapped up their final practice of the year on Lake Quinsigamond. “It’s still settling in. I can’t believe it.”
MORE: ‘We’re willing to work hard to see results’ – WPI women’s varsity 8 shine again with Caitlin Kean
WPI’s varsity eight and second varsity eight boats will next compete in the Women’s Henley Regatta. The Engineers depart Monday for London.
“We’re living the dream right now,” senior Ashley Schuliger said.
Kean was a freshman on WPI’s varsity eight boat that captured a silver medal at the 2019 NCAAs, and she has made a major impact on the continued growth of the program. This year’s varsity eight rowers, Melissa Bazakas-Chamberlain, Alex Heline, Megan Tupaj, Kean, Lilly Earley, Maren Cook, Emily Adams and Schuliger, and coxswain Logan Rinaldi, went into last week’s national final in Sarasota, Florida, with dogged determination.
“One thing we always say is, ‘Believe,'” said Bazakas-Chamberlain, a senior. “We always knew we could do it. We were envisioning getting gold. We wanted to win it so bad and we did everything we possibly could.”
Under coach Jason Steele, the Engineers claimed WPI’s first NCAA team championship. Eric Meerbach, who graduated from WPI in 1987, won the individual title at the 1986 NCAA Division 3 men’s golf championship.
“I give all the credit to the athletes,” said Steele, a former St. John’s High rower who grew up in Hudson and is in his 23rd season at WPI, “and how much they’ve invested in the program.”
During a very good regular season, which, as usual, featured an aggressive schedule, the Engineers got as high as No. 3 in the national rankings. They finished third at the New England Championships and fourth at the National Invitational Rowing Championships, both at Lake Quinsigamond, then had two weeks to prepare for the NCAAs.
“It all came together,” Steele said, “physically, technically and energy-wise.”
At the NIRC, the Engineers won their heat and rowed solidly in the grand final, before finishing behind Ithaca, Wellesley and Bates.
“We stuck with the pack for more than 1,500 meters,” Heline said. “Only in the last 500 they really took off, so we knew we had it in us.”
WPI’s confidence grew during practice the Saturday before leaving for nationals.
“We did a 2K piece that was one of our best pieces,” Heline said. “We went blazing down the course. That felt really good going into the NCAAs.”
In its NCAA heat, WPI came from behind to edge Ithaca by .055 seconds.
“That momentum flowed into the final,” Heline said.
The Engineers dominated the final and beat second-place Wellesley by 3.45 seconds.
“We have a strong-willed group that is willing to fight,” Kean said. “It’s always hard, but it helped that none of the other crews expected us to be up, so I think it was a mental game for them because we were so far ahead and we never lost (the lead).”
Steele, the WPI women’s rowing coach since the program’s inception in 1999, has watched video of the championship race about a hundred times.
“What I enjoy most is seeing the race unfold,” Steele said. “The post-race excitement is more for the athletes and the alumni. I’ve heard from so many that were just inspired and excited. The post-race glow, that’s for the athletes.
“They’re national champions, and they’ll take that for the rest of their lives,” Steele added. “It means a lot to me, too, but I enjoy the race. I enjoy watching it unfold more than thinking about the context of what it means and the significance of it. The thing I’m enjoying most is going back and watching the video over and over. That’s why I coach; I enjoy the excitement of the race.”
Steele has led the Engineers through their rise to, first, regional, and, now, national prominence. He believes the Donahue Rowing Room, WPI’s indoor rowing tank on campus, has played a major role in elevating the program.
“It’s a game-changer for us,” Steele said, “because it’s not a just a facility that has allowed us to help these young women develop into the championship-level rowers they are, it has also become a home for them. It’s where they gravitate. For almost all of our athletes, it’s their favorite place on campus.”
On Friday morning, WPI’s varsity eight and second varsity eight boats were on the water for about 90 minutes, fine-tuning their strokes and getting ready for the Henley and the Reading Amateur Regatta, both on the river Thames. The Engineers will be overseas for two weeks.
On the way back to the Donahue Rowing Center boathouse, seniors, as they traditionally get to do during the last practice of the season at Lake Quinsigamond, took turns coxing.
“We did some fun pieces, and it was a great way to end an awesome week with this team and get ready for our next adventure in England,” Adams said.
Kean will return for a fifth season, and is ready to keep WPI on top.
“We know that to get (a national title) you have to keep working hard the entire year,” she said. “There is no question in anyone’s mind that we’re here to stay and we’re here to make a name for ourselves. We’re Engineers who can row and that’s pretty cool.”
—Contact Jennifer Toland at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JenTolandTG.