Even for a well-established team like the Cal men’s crew team, experimentation is inevitable as coaches swap lineups to maximize chemistry, rowers translate practiced techniques into competition and underclassmen experience the intense heat of their first intercollegiate regatta. Daring to try different tactics at the beginning of a season is just as crucial for success as is adjusting to newly exposed weaknesses, a theme that head coach Scott Frandsen has embraced ever since taking the lead in June 2018.
After productive months of consistently solid fall and winter practices, Cal intends to, metaphorically speaking, hit the ground running and swing off to start a jam-packed spring season ahead.
Four boats of 32 Bears will represent the blue and gold this Saturday in the Lake Las Vegas Collegiate Invitational and the California Challenge Cup, with both events starting at 9 a.m. Two teams, including the third varsity and freshman eights, will test out the Newport Harbor waters in aims of sparking newfound motivation and proving themselves for the upcoming campaign.
More than 200 miles away, the first and second varsity eights squads will be on Lake Las Vegas hoping to set a triumphant tone for the rest of the season. The outcome of this competition will provide an important litmus test for 2020, according to Frandsen.
“They provide a marker on where we’re at on February 29th. Win or lose, good race or bad race, we’ll get back to work (in) March in preparation for the San Diego Crew Classic,” Frandsen said.
While time will tell what the Cal rowing team should specifically look to improve upon midmatch, fans can expect to see quick fixes early on by the coaching staff. In last year’s editions of the Las Vegas Collegiate and California Challenge, the Bears won all six of their races, parading through windy weather conditions and capitalizing on promising playstyles.
By the end of the season, the boats brought home third place in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association, or IRA, National Championship, second place in the Pac-12 conference championship and their sixth straight Schwabacher Cup after edging out Bay Area rival Stanford. The crew swept nearly every competition thrown at it, only losing out to Yale and Washington at the national championship. Needless to say, the Bears proved their worth in maintaining their historically decorated legacy dating back to as early as 1868.
Cal’s 2020 seems equally promising.
“We have a great group of guys and it shows in their demeanor. It’s fun to work with when they’re the ones bringing the energy,” Frandsen said. “Freshmen like Campbell Crouch and Adam Stephenson have already worked their way into the second varsity team. Meanwhile, our top varsity is led by senior leadership in Will Creedon, Brett Vilk and Matthew Mesman.”
With balanced boats of under and upperclassmen, the Bears clearly value maximizing untapped potential of fresh recruits as much as allowing seasoned veterans to stay in their groove. It’s a mixed bag that may result in either painfully prolonged learning curves or instant advantageous outcomes.
Some of the top contenders in the next pair of events hail from as far as New Hampshire to as close as Northern California, including both the Dartmouth Big Green and Santa Clara Broncos. Dartmouth is just one of the many East Coast rowing powerhouses looking to conquer competition in the West. Coming off of a Princeton Chase victory and a fifth-place overall finish in the 2019 IRA National Championship, the Big Green pose a significant threat to the clear frontrunner in Cal.
Santa Clara also boasts competitive accolades of its own, toppling teams in last year’s Stanford Invitational and respectively earning a highly contested spot in the prestigious 2019 IRA National Championship. This crew could very well give Cal a run for its money, and if overlooked, may steadily sneak past the Bears to claim the top California Challenge Cup prize.
But when push comes to shove, Cal men’s rowing has a solid record of going above and beyond expectations. Assuming the team’s experiments go according to plan — which is to say that its rotations and readjustments are relatively successful — the Bears should have no problem making a powerful statement to teams across the nation after this weekend.
“The Bears have a long-standing tradition of being in contention to win,” Frandsen said. “Fans shouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon.”
Ryan Chien covers rowing. Contact him at