Navy women’s rowing has set such a high bar that failing to make the NCAA championships in 2022 led to considerable soul-searching among coaches and athletes alike.
Navy had its streak of six straight Patriot League Championships ended last spring by Boston University. For the Midshipmen, it caused everyone involved with the program to take a long look in the mirror.
“It forced the whole team to refocus. We had to hit the reset button,” Navy coach Joe Schlosberg said.
“No doubt, the disappointment of losing that streak really motivated everyone,” team captain Sofia Ferguson said.
Ferguson and fellow seniors Kate Hammonds and Nicole Dado decided the team motto for the 2023 campaign would be “Earn it.” It was an acknowledgment that dethroning Boston University to reclaim Patriot League supremacy was going to take a tremendous effort.
“We felt that embodied what we do here at the Naval Academy and also our mission for the season. We took the approach of having to go out and earn everything we get every day in practice,” Ferguson said. “We never even mentioned NCAAs the whole season. We just took a day-by-day approach to getting better.”
That mentality paid dividends when it mattered most at the Patriot League Championships on May 12 on Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Massachusetts. Trailing by three points after two races, Navy needed to beat Boston University head-to-head in the first varsity eight in the grand final. The Midshipmen and Terriers both finished with 51 points, but the result of the final race was the tiebreaker.
As a result, Navy captured its ninth Patriot League title and earned its eighth automatic berth to the NCAA championships.
“It was a really long year spent building back to put ourselves in this position. Winning was the culmination of so much dedication and hard work,” Schlosberg said. “I’m incredibly grateful to all the athletes who were totally committed from day one.”
Boston University won in varsity four and second varsity eight to build a 27-24 lead. That really put the pressure on the first varsity eight, which quickly found itself trailing the top-seeded Terriers.
“We knew it was going to be an absolute battle with Boston based on everything we’d seen this year,” Scholsberg said. “[Boston] always starts fast with all their boats, so we were behind from the beginning and had to do all we could to stay locked into them.”
It was a two-boat race at the midway mark of the 2,000-meter course with Boston gradually pulling away to a six-seat lead. With less than a quarter of the race remaining, the Mids shifted into another gear and quickly closed the gap, pulling even with the Terriers with 400 meters left.
Coxswain Maeve Swick kept the stroke pace high as Navy never let up and wound up nipping Boston by 3 1/2 seconds.
“When Maeve and the rest of the boat collectively made the choice to go, there was no turning back. I have to admit the thought crossed my mind: Did they go too early?” Schlosberg said. “They got the momentum going and started to steadily eat away at the BU lead. They were pouring everything they could into every stroke. It was a gutsy effort and those women really showed their grit and mental toughness.”
Navy only returned two members of the first varsity eight in Lauren Day and Dani Baldwin. Schlosberg tinkered with the lineup all season and tried numerous combinations before settling on the starting lineup that ultimately delivered the Patriot League title.
It consisted of Swick seated in the stern and rowers (from back to front) Brienna Voss, Day, Noelle de Vente, Baldwin, Irne Norman, Anna Freihofer, Tenlea Radack and Ferguson.
“You play around with positions then gauge the performance. At some point, the boat just clicks,” Schlosberg said.
That team certainly displayed tremendous chemistry, heart and determination in the final 1,000 meters of the Patriot League Championship Race. Day, seated directly in front of the coxswain in what is known as the stroke seat, started the final sprint much earlier than usual and the Mids were able to maintain it until the end.
“We picked up the stroke rate and never brought it back down,” Ferguson said. “We were going to do whatever it took to cross the line first. We didn’t want to let the team down after all the hard work everyone has put in. We were all really proud of that moment because we pushed ourselves past our limits.”
Seven members of the first varsity eight earned All-Patriot League honors with Day, Voss, Radack and Swick being named first team. Baldwin, Freihofer and de Vente were second-team selections.
It was the second straight all-conference honor for Day, who is typical of most Navy rowers. She was a three-sport standout (volleyball, basketball, lacrosse) at Seattle Prep in Washington and did not start rowing until coming to the academy.
Day has now been a three-year starter on the first varsity eight and was recently invited to try out for the United States under-23 national team.
“Lauren has been a model of consistency. She has been one of the fastest rowers on the team and has worked hard to bring others along with her,” Schlosberg said.
Voss sits right behind Day and together they set the tempo. Schlosberg said the “has an ability to reach beyond herself” and is always pushing other members of the team. Radack, who only participated in three competitions with the third varsity eight last season, has really stepped up as a sophomore, Schlosberg said.
“Tenlea has poured every ounce of her soul into training and the result has been a tremendous year of growth,” he added.
Swick was a member of the powerful Annapolis Rowing Club and initially served as coxswain for the men’s heavyweight team. The Annapolis resident joined the women’s team last fall and made an immediate impact.
“Maeve is really the glue of that boat. She brings great intensity and focus and has been able to drive them and draw more out of them than they realized was possible,” Schlosberg said.
Hammond and Dado, the other two seniors, are the leaders of the second varsity eight. That boat along with the varsity four is loaded with sophomores and freshmen. Schlosberg estimates that more than 60% of the roster consists of walk-ons who never previously rowed and, in many cases, came to the academy to play other sports.
Navy now moves on to the NCAA championships, being held Friday through Sunday on the Cooper River out of Pennsauken, New Jersey. Temple is serving as host school and the 22 participating schools are staying in Philadelphia.
Navy is an underdog at nationals with the first varsity eight boat seeded 20th and the second varsity eight slotted at 21. Varsity four crew, which consists of two sophomores and three freshmen, is the Midshipmen’s highest-seeded entry at No. 19.
“We’d really like to beat that seed number we’ve been given and pick off as many boats ahead of us as we can,” Ferguson said.
Navy’s best results in seven previous NCAA appearances have been 14th place results by the varsity four boat. The highest team finish for the Mids is 17th.
“Although there are individual boats competing, it is a team-based sport and our depth is going to be tested. We have very young rowers in those other two boats,” said Schlosberg, who has led Navy to six of its nine Patriot League Championships.