Young Cats Prep for Spring Season

MANHATTAN, Kan. - K-State rowing coach Patrick Sweeney is sure of two things: his team is young and their fitness level is good. The rest is yet to be seen and won't likely be revealed until his squad hits the water in competition for the first time on March 21-23 at the Longhorn Invitational in Austin, Texas.

Cold weather, high winds and mixed precipitation have all played a role in keeping the Wildcats out of their boats and off the water through the majority of early spring practice.

"We're losing water time on everybody else," Sweeney, the fifth-year skipper for the Wildcats, said. "We race in two weeks and we haven't been on the water (as much as we would have liked). That's our downside. The fitness level is good from the little testing that we can do. There're always the normal aches and pains and colds we're suffering from, but we need water time and we're such a young team. It's like a crapshoot; you just don't know what's going to happen and how long it's going to take to develop during the season. That's our downside really at the moment."

Sweeney is excited about his young team, especially after returning all but one of the Novice Eight team that claimed the NCAA Central Region title last spring, but the lack of experience on the varsity level is what makes the lost water time particularly problematic.

Knowing they can't control the weather, Sweeney and his staff patiently wait for their chance to move forward. It's the same patience Sweeney's shown through the first years of his time at K-State, taking talented athletes with very little or no rowing experience and building them into competitive rowers.

"That's probably our biggest job, it's our lifeblood," Sweeney said. "We have to make our own and they're out there. There're 360 some high schools in the state of Kansas. We're writing the coaches to tell them that anybody they have that is not going to make it as a Division I athlete in those sports, send them to us and we'll make them a Division I athlete.

"It's paying off. That (Novice Eight team) we had last year, we taught them all how to row. For the most part they were all Kansas-based kids who came out for the team and we teach them. That's one of the reasons I came here. It's harder to do it this way and it's a slower process, but it works.

"I can't see why Kansas women can't be competing against Germans, Russians, prep school kids, anything - and that's what we're doing."

The Wildcats are coming off a solid fall in which they captured three event titles at the season-opening Head of the Des Moines regatta and swept in-state rival Kansas at the varsity level during the Sunflower Showdown.

"I was pleased with the varsity boats when we raced Kansas because all the varsity boats won," Sweeney said. "We haven't done that for a couple of years, and it's a really young team that we have. That was really pleasing. I think that race showed that we do have the material that we can do something with."

Sweeney's patience is further evidenced by his goals for this year's rowing team. He doesn't have a win-loss total he's shooting for or any postseason goals, instead Sweeney wants to focus on shaping his young core and making them more competitive. 

"We've sort of had a lull and I don't know if we'll be taking the next step for another year," Sweeney said. "I think if we can keep this young group moving in the right direction we shouldn't slip from our position. I don't think we're up there yet, but we're holding 30 or 40 in the nation - not bad for a young team.

"One goal is getting last year's novices to move up into varsity and to try to get them competitive at the varsity level this year. It's like we're in a holding pattern this year. We don't have a lot of depth with the older rowers, but if the younger girls can come up and learn a lot this year then we'll have a lot more strength next year when these girls are in their second year of varsity competition. The following year should then be a little bit stronger. The main aim for this year is to really solidify the team with that young group coming through."

Still, the young K-State team might have enough to turn some heads and capture the attention of other teams throughout the Midwest. Those efforts begin when the Wildcats make the trip to Texas and two weeks later travel to San Diego for the San Diego Crew Classic on April 5.

The Wildcats return to their home state for the Kansas Cup in Lawrence on April 12 and then make their first of two trips to Oak Ridge, Tenn., for the Southern IRAs on April 18. K-State then takes on Big 12 foes Texas and Kansas  on May 3 in Austin, Texas. The regular season wraps up at the 2008 NCAA Central Regionals in Oak Ridge, Tenn. on May 17.

The Wildcats' spring schedule mirrors last spring's schedule exactly, giving the Wildcats a sense of stability and familiarity.

"One thing we've tried to do since we've been here is to have a similar schedule from year to year," Sweeney said. "It makes the logistics easier, especially when you don't know what the weather is going to be like. We've got it pretty much down to what we're doing each week and it seems to be working quite well. I think its better for the athletes; they know where they're going after their second or third year. The Midwest is not a traditional rowing area but the racing is really of a very high quality. It's fun, it really is good quality racing."