All the boats lined up to compete in the three semifinal heats of the men's varsity heavyweight eight – the final races of Friday on a sun-splashed day at the Jefferson Dad Vail Regatta – knew they would have to speed down the 2,000-meter Schuylkill course as swiftly as possible to qualify for Saturday's grand final.
As expected, St. Joseph's posted the fastest time in the field to put itself in position to win the regatta's glamour event for the first time since 1970.
Also as expected, defending champion Drexel, rowing in the same heat, posted a time that ranked No. 5 among the competing teams. Unfortunately for the Dragons, they finished third in their heat behind St. Joe's and Michigan. With only the top two in each of the three heats advancing, they were shut out of the grand final.
"It was a good race for them," Drexel coach Paul Savell said. "It was a gutsy race. I think we made up a lot of space and I was proud of how they raced. Even though we're disappointed with the result, they pulled it together really well. With 750 [meters] to go, I think we were the fastest boat on the water, but it was just too much to make up."
The Dragons were clocked in 5 minutes, 45.482 seconds and will race Saturday in the petite final. St. Joseph's crossed the line in 5:42.381.
"We talk a lot about just race composure and just being able to handle whatever comes at us in a race," Hawks men's coach Mike Irwin said. "It's finding that ability to be in a championship moment and master that championship moment and allow ourselves to have the performance that we've been training for all these weeks and months."
Drexel advanced to the grand final in the women's heavyweight varsity eight, which the team won last year for the first time in program history. But its time of 6:48.022 was beaten by four teams, including Boston University, which finished more than 15 seconds faster in posting the field's top qualifying time.
"I'm hoping we've got one better race in us tomorrow," Savell said. "We just had some spots in the race that we hope to clean up. I'm just glad we're in the grand final and ready to go."
Drexel qualified 10 boats for Saturday's finals as it attempts to win the Dad Vail's overall points total for the sixth consecutive year. The Dragons posted the fastest qualifying times in the women's junior varsity eight and the men's third varsity boat.
St. Joseph's advanced all four of its men's boats, including all three of its heavyweight eights and a freshman/novice four, into the grand final, along with two women's boats.
Temple, which clocked 5:44.825 in its varsity heavyweight eight qualifier to join St. Joe's, Michigan, Virginia, Delaware, and Colgate in Saturday's championship, advanced a total of five boats into the grand final.
While St. Joseph's is the team to watch in the men's heavyweight eight final, the Hawks know that they'll have to be at the top of their game to win.
"This is the stuff that, to be quite honest as a coach, you get excited about because you know it's going to be a great race," Irwin said. "You know it's going to be sort of tooth and nail just all the way down the course, sort of trading punches. That's really fun, memorable racing. We look forward to that."