May 1, 2024

Developing a Special Chemistry in Working as a Unit, No. 1 PU Men’s Heavyweight Varsity 8 on a Roll

TOP SPEED: The Princeton University men’s heavyweight varsity 8 churns through the water in a race this spring. The Tiger top boat, which is ranked No. 1 nationally, won the Carnegie Cup last Saturday as it defeated No. 5 Yale and No. 14 Cornell on the Cayuga Inlet in Ithaca, N.Y. The Tigers covered the 2,000-meter route in a course record time of 5:26.6, breaking the mark set by Syracuse last year at 5:33. Princeton hosts Brown on May 4 on Lake Carnegie in the race for the Content Cup. (Photo by Ed Hewitt – Row2k, provided courtesy of Princeton Athletics)

By Bill Alden

Coming off a 2023 campaign that saw his Princeton University men’s heavyweight varsity 8 take third at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta and with three All-Americans returning from that boat, Greg Hughes was cautiously optimistic heading into this spring.

“Last year was a big step forward for us, I think it gave us confidence that we have something positive in motion,” said Princeton men’s heavyweight head coach Hughes, whose All-American trio includes Theo Bell, Marcus Chute, and Nick Taylor. “Any year where you are returning a big chunk of the previous year’s varsity, I think it is important to recognize last year was last year. It is absolutely a new season and you are starting from scratch but I think having some good experience together under pressure is definitely an advantage.”

Handling the pressure well this spring, the varsity 8 dominated in its opening regatta, defeating Drexel, Georgetown, and Temple on March 30. The Tiger top boat clocked a winning time of 5:43.0 over the 2.000-meter course with Drexel taking second in 6:00.2, Georgetown coming in third at 6:00.5, and Temple finishing fourth in 6:15.2.

“It did show that we had some good early season speed that would allow us to be in play this season,” said Hughes.

A week later, the top boat showed character, braving some gusty conditions to defeat Navy and earn the Navy-Princeton Cup. The Tigers covered the 2,000-meter course on the Severn River in 5:44.1 with Navy coming in at 5:50.2.

On April 13, Princeton topped No. 9 Penn and No. 16 Columbia to earn the Childs Cup. Princeton posted a winning time of 5:34.4 over the 2,000-meter course on Lake Carnegie with Penn taking second in 5:40.0 and Columbia placing third in 5:52.7.

“It was also a good learning opportunity for us, Penn definitely raced very well,” said Hughes. “That allowed us to learn some important things in our race profile that we needed to work on, which was very much a boost for us as we started to prepare for the Compton Cup.”

Racing top-ranked Harvard on April 20 on the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., for the Compton Cup, No. 4 Princeton came through with a superb performance, clocking a winning time of 5:51.7 with the Crimson coming in at 5:53.3.

“It was nothing to lose, it was No. 1 against No. 4, we knew that they were fast,” said Hughes. “Racing Harvard up in the basin is always a big opportunity and challenge — the guys really embraced that opportunity. We were very fortunate with conditions. It was very rainy but the wind was decent. The conditions allowed both boats just to race hard.

Consistency has been the theme, they executed that very well. That focus on racing consistently made a difference for us in that piece. It is being consistent with the pacing, with the speed, with the execution, and keeping it simple.”

While Hughes was thrilled with the win, he knows that there is plenty of racing ahead.

“It is a good mark for the middle of the season, that is how we see it,” said Hughes. “We know there are going to be another couple of times we will line up against those guys and they are fast. We are going to have to be ready.”

Jumping up to No. 1, Princeton lived up to that ranking, winning the Carnegie Cup last Saturday as it defeated No. 5 Yale and No. 14 Cornell on the Cayuga Inlet in Ithaca, N.Y. The Tigers covered the 2,000-meter route in a course record time of 5:26.6, breaking the mark set by Syracuse last year at 5:33.

“That was a really strong race for the varsity and the 2V; in 2023 we had some big wins but they were always at home,” said Hughes. “Developing the ability to go on the road and execute in a different place is a positive step forward for us. We technically won this trophy in 2022 because Yale missed a buoy on their own course. This is the first real win in the race since 2014 so after 10 years to be able to bring that one home is exciting.”

Hughes is excited by how the varsity 8 has come together.

“I think they have a really good chemistry in that group, they are able to be honest with each other about their goals and the things that they need to work on,” said Hughes of the boat that has an international flavor with two rowers from England (Bell, Chute), two from Australia (Patrick Long, Patrick Shaw), one for Brazil (Marco Misasi), and one from Germany (Hanno Brach), along with three Americans (coxswain Connor Neill, Zach Vachal, Taylor).

“As athletes, they are also willing to hear those things and make changes with that information. That is hard to do, there is always an ego involved for anybody to be able to be a good teammate and a good athlete.”

Emphasizing an unselfish approach has been a key factor in the boat’s success.

“One of the things we do talk about is being a unit, making sure that we are ready to work for the team,” said Hughes. “The goal is the team and team performance. The varsity has done a really good job of being open to their weaknesses and the things that we can improve on and seeking those out. Every single week, we can make progress going forward. We are not a finished product.”

Senior captain Misasi has played a key role in that process. “Marco has done an incredible job as a leader,” said Hughes. “Athletically he has been the top performer on the rowing machine, he has made solid steps forward this year. It is not easy to lead a team this big and he has been a remarkable leader, including with the athletes that are not in his boat and across the whole team. He has done a great job.”

As Princeton hosts Brown on May 4 at Lake Carnegie in the race for the Content Cup, Hughes is looking for another big performance from the varsity 8.

“We have definitely been living a road show, we have picked up some stuff we can take with us when we have to travel up north,” said Hughes. “This race is always a good one. When you get too late in the regular season, boats have had time to come together and develop. This race will be fierce, it is always is. It is a newer trophy, it was just started back in the early 90s. It is very evenly contested, there are no streaks. It is within one win, one way or the other. I fully expect that it is going to be a burner, that is what we are getting ourselves ready for.”

Heading north later this month for the Eastern Sprints on May 19 at Lake Quinsigamond in Worcester, Mass., Hughes knows his rowers have to maintain their focus on a daily basis to keep excelling.

“What you see with our schedule, there is not really any breaks in it,” said Hughes. “It is that consistency piece, that is why we talk about it. It is a part of how we want to race but also how we want to go through our weeks and our season and go into the postseason. We are not going to have too much variability. You need to be able show up ready to produce every day and make gains every day in order to achieve at the Sprints.”