Up before the sunrise every morning for weeks, the University of Portland Pilots rowing team has been putting in practices at five in the morning to get ready for the upcoming spring season. The Pilots will be looking to make the leap into the top three of the WCC ranks, having finished fourth the last three years. Opening their season on March 9, Portland’s spring season has seen early success, but has a long way to go.
“The ultimate goal is to succeed at WCC championships,” said senior varsity coxswain Miranda Reyes. “The past couple years we have gotten fourth. This year, the ultimate goal is to podium.”
Portland is entering its eighth season with a varsity division I rowing team on campus, which first hit the water in the 2011-12 campaign. A former University of Washington rower, Head Coach Pasha Spencer is looking for her team to get a place on the podium since her first season at the helm of the Pilots in 2014.
Portland was slated to finish in fourth this season in the WCC preseason polls. The focus will remain on getting over the hump and reaching the top three ranks in the conference. Reigning conference champions Gonzaga were picked by the coaches to finish first of the conference once again.
Portland finished their annual fall season with solid results. The longer races, usually between three and six kilometers, were a good test and performance for Portland. The Pilots were able to race in three different races in their fall season. The team found their most success on the water against Seattle Pacific University when all three boats claimed first place for Portland.
“We compare the fall to a cross-country race,” said Spencer. “We are building up our endurance. The bigger engine you have the more endurance you have.”
Two members of the team will look to live up to WCC preseason honors and strong fall seasons. Seniors Lauren Jesse and Veronica Nicacio both received WCC preseason honors prior to their final seasons on the water. Nicacio also locked up all-WCC honors at conference championship race last fall. Both rowers will be returners in the varsity eight boat from last season.
The team will also look to do what it has struggled to do in the first eight years of existence: get a majority of rowers to return. This years team has done a solid job of keeping their core together.
“2018 was the first class we graduated seven four-years rowers, the most in program history,” Spencer said. “To have this experience and maturity makes a huge difference in the fall, something we are looking to take into the spring.”
Out of the 20 rowers who raced for the Pilots at last season’s WCC championship races, 13 are returning. The Pilots are returning five of the eight rowers in the varsity eight boat, as well as six of eight in the second eight boat.
Portland will be looking to hit their stride in the spring season, which consists of shorter two-kilometer races. The in-between time of the spring and fall seasons is where training is most important to the team. The goal is to gear up for the shorter, sprint races through conditioning and time trials on Ergometer machines.
The team only starting seeing practices on the water as recently as a few weeks ago, a week after their first race of fall season. Portland practices at their home lake of Vancouver Lake, but has to wait until there aren’t as many whitecaps in the water. Recently the water has been calmer and the team has been able to practice in more normal conditions.
The lack of time on the water can make a difference in preparedness. Like in every other sport, practice time in the same conditions you compete in is important. Four of the seven teams that race for the WCC championship are located in California, meaning the teams have most likely been able to be on the water for most of the year.
The preparation, however, has been nothing less than rigorous. Each morning the rowers have been training on land to build up strength and endurance through different workouts. The team also practices on the ergometer machines, indoor rowing machines which are used for rowing simulation. The ergometer machines give the coaches and rowers an estimate at where their times may land during the season.
Portland has also included their seven novice rowers in the fall training for the first time. Novice rowers will most likely not have a huge impact on the way the season turns out for Portland, but the team agreed it was important to include them. The strategy could be helpful in the long-term establishment of the team.
One difference that works in the favor of the rowing squad this year is the exposure it will see during the regular season. This season the team will row against many of their California opponents in preparation to see them again at the WCC championships.
“It is a pretty big deal,” said senior Veronica Nicacio. “Even when we practice we make calls about imaginary boats, it makes it exciting knowing we will see the team again at the conference races.”
Another advantage is that Portland will start and finish their spring season on the same lake, Lake Natoma in Sacramento, California. Portland put four boats on the water, with three finishing in the top half of the six team field. Portland’s varsity four boat rowed its way to an impressive top finish, the varsity eight boat finished second.
The March 9 race at Lake Natoma was the first of multiple races Portland rowed on at the lake this spring. Portland will return on April 27 for the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championships before taking the water on the same lake three weeks later for the WCC championships.
Portland will look to continue their early success at the Sacramento State Invitational through the remainder of their spring season. Portland will host their only home race of the year at Lake Vancouver on April 13, which will provide their second look at WCC competitor Saint Mary’s.
The Pilots have the tools and experience to finally push themselves over their multiple recent fourth place finishes and into the winner's circle. The only question that remains is will Portland be able to get the job done when the WCC championships roll around in May.
Jamison White is a sports reporter for The Beacon. He can be reached at email@example.com.