WIRA championships set to begin

Maikalina Madali

The Sacramento State women’s rowing team is participating in its last Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship this weekend before the transition into NCAA-recognized Conference USA.

The Hornets will be competing against 14 crews overall in the event. Although they have faced a majority of the crews before, head coach Mike Connors said racing is always unpredictable.

“There are four or five crews that we are being wary of and we’ve scrimmaged before. It depends on how people have progressed – that’s the big question,” Connors said. “Things can change a lot in a few weeks. You just have to go out, race your best race and see if that’s good enough.”

This year, Gonzaga University is one of Sac State’s biggest rivals. It got the best of the Hornets in the 2012 WIRA Championship by a matter of six points overall, with Sac State finishing second.

Connors said the Stanford lightweights, Loyola Marymount University and Saint Mary’s College are the other crews to look out for as well, but the level of competition is similar in speed.

“It’s not like other sports like football or basketball where you can game plan against another team or change what you’re doing offensively or defensively,” Connors said. “There’s no offense or defense in rowing – it’s just going fast. We just focus on ourselves. We’re going to take what works in practices and what worked in races. For us, it’s a continual evaluation of our lineups.”

The lineups, in terms of the separate boats, have had constant core groups with a few seat changes throughout the season. The most dynamic changes came about because of health-related issues, which created a trickle effect from boat to boat as rowers were moved up to fill positions.

Sophomore Angela Alftin is an example of a rower who has been moved around as the season progressed and situations surfaced. In her first year as a member of the team, she raced with the novice eight and varsity four boats while moving from seat to seat.

The goal is to strategically place rowers in hopes to have each boat race at its fullest potential.

“We’ve made some progress, but it’s hard to say. The real test is when you go out and race versus your competitors compared to how we do in practices,” Connors said.

During practices, the Hornets will have good speed and time but are unable to hit the same speed during races, Connors said. One of the largest factors in racing is the race environment with erratic waters and high stress levels from the start to the finish line.

“I tell them, ‘You guys just have to do what you do in practice and use that adrenaline and energy to help fuel you in the second half of the race when you’re really tired,’” Connors said. “We shouldn’t be slower than we are in practice. If you are, that just means you’re not rowing well while handling the conditions. But you have to handle that stuff.”

However, Connors tries to remind them that practicing on a Saturday morning with multiple runs is harder than just going out that one time and racing well. It’s just a matter of getting that one race right.

“We will just need to have the right mindset to push through and be the mentally stronger team out there,” Alftin said. “We know as a boat that we need to ‘empty our tanks sooner’ as our coach likes to say. Seeing these teams throughout season has prepared us for what is to come this weekend and we are ready for it.”

Graduating senior rower Shelley Zakskorn said she has seen the team improve as a whole as they learn from past victories and failures.

“I think the whole team uses previous races and practices to really set up for the (Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship). Every day we think how can we improve for this race, which relates to our end goal for (the championship),” Zakskorn said. “We learn from mistakes and where we’re strongest, so by the end of the season we can just go.”

Zakskorn said she is upset she will not be able to enter Conference USA with her team of four years, but she is excited for her teammates and said she hopes they go out with a bang.

Sac State has been a competitor in the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association program since its inception in 1995. Because Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association is not a conference recognized by the NCAA, nor does it have an automatic qualifier race into the NCAA competition, joining Conference USA will only promote growth and provide more opportunities for the rowing program at Sac State.

Conference USA will have a higher competition level, but Connors said he believes the younger rowers will provide a good transition into the new chapter.

For the upcoming tournament, Connors said the team has the skill; it’s just a matter of whether they leave all their efforts on the water.

“We have an opportunity to win these races,” Connors said. “You have to be hungry and you have to want it. We have to push that little bit extra.”


Maikalina can be reached on Twitter at @sh_sports