Incentives abound in H-Y regatta

By John Veneziano
Globe Corresondent / May 28, 2010

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LEDYARD, Conn. — This year’s Harvard-Yale regatta isn’t just about which crew crosses the finish line first.

For the Eli rowers preparing at Gales Ferry, it’s also about reviving a season that went off course at the Eastern Sprints and, for the senior class, about finally getting that ever-elusive victory over an archrival.

For their Crimson counterparts training downstream at Red Top, it’s about recapturing the magic they showed at Sprints — where Harvard pulled away from a strong field to win — and carrying that momentum into next week’s national championship IRA Regatta.

The 145th edition of America’s oldest intercollegiate athletic event takes place tomorrow with a rare morning row on Connecticut’s Thames River. It starts at 9 a.m., with the 2-mile freshman race, followed by the 3-mile JV contest (9:45) and then the varsity 4-miler (10:45), a grueling 20-minute test of mental and physical willpower.

The forecast calls for comfortable temperatures, a manageable breeze, and just the threat of a thunderstorm, nothing like the unsettled conditions of a year ago that dramatically slowed times.

Harvard leads the series, 90-54, with nine victories in the past 10 years and sweeps of the last two regattas. Its 2009 win was by 19.5 seconds.

Yale is expected to present a more formidable test this time. The Elis own a 5-1 dual mark, highlighted by victories over Dartmouth, Columbia, and Princeton, while a 1.8-second setback to Brown — at the time the top crew in the East — is its lone blemish.

Yet what should have been a big day at Sprints a few weeks back turned disastrous when the third-seeded Elis were edged by Columbia and Wisconsin in the morning trials. That sent Yale to the Petite Final, where it stumbled badly, finishing fifth.

“It hasn’t been easy to put that race behind us, but we’ve managed to do it,’’ said Yale coach John Pescatore. “As time goes by, it’s become strong motivation for us.’’

More motivation comes from the fact that Yale’s senior class has yet to defeat Harvard here, though they were freshmen when the Eli varsity captured the 2007 contest.

“We look to this race all year,’’ said Jim Tormey, one of those seniors. “And while none of us has earned a Crimson shirt yet, a victory here would be the cherry on top to finish our careers.’’

For as much as Yale wants to forget about Sprints, Harvard yearns to relive the experience. The Crimson’s victory, which followed a 6-1 dual campaign, came with five sophomores in the boat. And to hear Harvard coach Harry Parker tell it, the win was because of those youngsters, not in spite of them.

“It’s been a real solid season for us, and that’s primarily due to the emergence of our sophomore class,’’ said Parker, who believes this will be the first time since 1963 — his first season at the helm — that Harvard has raced five sophomores in the varsity against Yale. “We knew they had the potential to make a major contribution, but they’ve exceeded our expectations. And, indirectly, that’s improved all our other crews.

“The varsity had an exceptional race [at Sprints]. It will be interesting to see if they can come back to that level. It would be quite an accomplishment to row more than one race like that. They were at the maximum that they could produce.’’

One factor almost certain to play into the outcome is endurance, since the varsity contest is three times longer than a normal dual. Harvard was poised to win that 2007 race until one of its oarsmen collapsed in the final strokes.

“With the longer distance, you have to pace yourself,’’ said Yale junior Derek Johnson. “We’ll race to the first mile marker, then to the next one, and so on. We’ll attack it in little bites.’’

Harvard captain Blake Pucsek knows the challenge all too well.

“This race will eat you up if you’re not careful,’’ said the varsity bowman. “And every senior was here in 2007 when we won Sprints and lost this race. We have to be as ready as possible.’’

Harvard-Yale regatta
What: 145th edition
When: Tomorrow, 9 a.m.
Where: Thames River