Realistically, followers of Washington State athletics have to be wondering if it gets any better than this.
Six of the university’s 14 teams played into the postseason during the 1994-95 schoolyear.
The football team won the Alamo Bowl. The volleyball and soccer teams each qualified for the NCAA Tournament. The men’s basketball team advanced to the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament. And three members of the men’s track team competed in the NCAA meet earlier this week.
In addition, the baseball and women’s tennis teams won North Division titles.
Yet, only one WSU team can lay claim to the prestigious title of Pacific-10 Conference Champions.
That honor belongs solely to the Cougars crew, which qualified its Junior Varsity Eight shell for this weekend’s Collegiate National Rowing Championships in Cincinnati by upsetting Washington in the Pac-10 regatta last month.
The national competition begins Friday on Lake Harsha and the Cougars also have their Varsity Eight boat entered in the event, which features teams from the most powerful programs across the country.
WSU’s Varsity Eight finished third behind Washington and Stanford in the Pac-10 championships.
“Our girls are pumped up and ready to compete for a national title,” said Tammy Crawford, who has coached Cougar crew since 1991. That year, it was upgraded from a club sport to a varsity sport to speed up compliance with a court decision requiring gender equity in WSU athletics.
That WSU has become so competitive so quickly is a tribute to the work ethic of the girls involved, the commitment the school has made in funding the equivalent of 17 fullride athletic scholarships and the recruiting and coaching genius of Crawford and her top assistant, Jodi Winchell.
Unlike most of the country’s elite rowing programs, WSU has no nearby body of water on which to practice. Instead, the Cougars must travel nearly 18 miles along a narrow, winding highway to reach their boathouse at Wawawai Landing on the Snake River.
The commute is often used as negative ammunition by rival recruiters, but it doesn’t seem to bother those who make it on a regular basis.
“The long van rides down and back give us an opportunity to bond and form a more closely knit group,” said junior Michelle Kistler, who sets the rhythm as stroke of the varsity shell. “You really learn a lot about each other when you spend that much time together.”
With few high schools offering crew, nearly every recruiting decision is a high-risk gamble. The first thing Crawford looks for in a potential recruit is physical stature.
“Someone tall and lean and athletic,” she said. “We look for height because of the leverage you have, you swing forward and get all compressed right before the stroke.”
Tenacity, Crawford added, is also important.
“We look for athletes who have had that instilled in them,” she said. “We recruit a lot of volleyball and basketball players, track athletes and swimmers - anyone, basically, who is just tough as hell.
“We don’t like our basketball players to make many points, though, because those kind end up playing basketball in college. We like someone who is maybe a great defensive player and all over the floor diving for loose balls and that sort of thing.
“Our philosophy is to recruit the best athletes we can and then teach them how to row.”
The learning process, Crawford admitted, is as physically and mentally taxing as that of any sport.
During the school year, there are 5 a.m. wake-up calls for early-morning weighttraining sessions and conditioning drills. There are hour-long runs along the hilly streets that wind through campus, and there are grueling 2-hour workouts on the Snake.
Race Day might require the greatest effort of all, as rowers go all-out for a little more than 7 minutes while trying to push their shell through the 2,000-meter course faster than the other competitors.
Horror stories about the physical demands of the sport might be a bit overblown, Crawford said.
But not by much.
“Sometimes we scare people to the point where they don’t want to try out,” she explained. “But it’s important to understand that our workouts are progressive. The kids start off doing 10 push-ups, running a quarter-mile and doing some sit-ups, and then we build from there.
“Rowers really pride themselves on being the crazies - the most aggressive, the most fit. And it’s probably true.”
Crawford currently has 54 studentathletes in her program and spreads her available financial aid out among those most deserving.
Each fall, she explains, nearly 30 new faces show up for the Novice team. But by spring, nearly half of those will have decided that the rewards of competing in near-obscurity in a sport few people understand or care about are not great enough to justify the physical anguish.
“We can accommodate how ever many turn out,” Crawford said. “We don’t make cuts, as a rule, unless there is some kind of physical problem. Our workouts are such that there is enough natural attrition to keep the numbers manageable.”
The Cougars’ best chance for a national title this weekend would seem to rest with the JV Eights. Five of the rowers in that shell, along with coxswain Ann Hoang, were members of last year’s unbeaten Novice Eight boat.
Perhaps that is why Crawford doesn’t consider the win over UW in the Pacific-10 Conference finals to be the major upset it was billed.
“I suppose not many people figured we would beat the Huskies,” Crawford admitted, “but, of course, we thought we would.”
That confidence remained despite two early-season losses to UW.
“That wasn’t a problem for us because we knew we had a lot of room for improvement,” Crawford explained. “We come off the water in November and don’t get back on until late February or whenever the roads are safe. But Washington rows year-round, so we knew in our minds it was just a matter of time until we’d be able to get more strokes in and compete with them.
“The kids felt all along they could finish first in the Pac-10.”
The Varsity Eight boat, which includes two members of last year’s unbeaten Novice boat, was seeded No. 2 behind Washington in the Pac-10 finals, but lost to Stanford in head-to-head competition that was part of a unique format the league used to determine its champion.
Teams will race six-abreast at nationals and Crawford thinks her Varsity Eights will benefit from the customary format.
“Our Varsity boat was disappointed in their performance at the Pac-10s,” Crawford said. “Stanford jumped out to an early lead and our team got rattled. They were frantic and did not have a good race.
“They did not feel the third-place finish was indicative of their ability and they want to go to nationals and avenge their loss to Stanford.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Cougar rowers Here are the starting lineups for the two boats that will compete at nationals: Varsity Eight Coxswain - Stefanie Magill (Jr., Woodinville) Stroke Oar - Michelle Kistler (Jr., Spokane) 7 - Becky Arthur (Sr., Silverdale) 6 - Nicola Harper (Sr., Woodinville) 5 - Deanne Hatchett (So. Puyallup) 4 - Emily French (Jr., Tekoa) 3 - Kristi Hall (Jr., Seattle) 2 - Sarah Miller (Sr., Bellevue) Bow - Lisa Swayze (Sr., Oakhurst, N.J.) Junior Varsity Eight Coxswain - Ann Hoang (So., Tumwater) Stroke Oar - Mykel Papke (So., Federal Way) 7 - Paula Curry (So., Pullman) 6 - Nicole Bauer (So., Spokane) 5 - Anne Rich (Sr., Seattle) 4 - Kelli Kamphouse (Jr., Nooksack) 3 - Kelli Swanson (So., Nooksack) 2 - Molly Jordan (So., Anchorage, Alaska) Bow - Nicole Hepworth (Sr., Kennewick)