Duke rowing headed to NCAA championships for first time

Duke's Varsity Four practices on Lake Michie in March 2016.
Duke's Varsity Four practices on Lake Michie in March 2016. Duke Photography

A week before Duke was set to compete in its first NCAA championships in rowing, coach Megan Cooke Carcagno was in her office on the second floor of Card Gym, savoring a brief reprieve from the construction noise. On this particular day, cutting concrete was the soundtrack.

There were flights to be booked for 20-some rowers, boats that needed to be driven to Charlottesville, Va., where ACC comrade Virginia would handle getting them out to the championships in California, and countless other logistical tasks to be completed before heading West.

Compared to the 10-month total overhaul of the program, though, those challenges were minuscule.

“There have been major obstacles throughout the year that I almost lost hope and faith with,” said Cooke Carcagno, a first-year head coach and unofficial director of operations at Duke. “I had a lot of long nights where I was like, I don’t know if we can do this. And a lot of serious doubts, with myself, my staff and some of the kids.

“But at the end of the day, we just kept coming back. We just kept showing up, and we just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and slowly but surely, we just kept gaining momentum.”

Duke, an at-large selection, will begin its first venture in the NCAA championships Friday at the Sacramento (Calif.) State Aquatic Center.

Rowing isn’t a historically successful program at Duke, and it has never had a reputation for being the most serious of athletic endeavors – until now.

Cooke Carcagno rowed for perennial powerhouse California while in college and spent the past seven years as an assistant coach at Wisconsin, which annually qualifies for the NCAA tournament. On her interview at Duke, she saw the framework for a successful program: year-round ability to get out on the water (Lake Michie), solid training facilities and support from the athletic department, financially and otherwise.

Once she was hired in late July, she encountered the unknown variable in the equation: her squad.

“I would say, when we first started, there was probably 75 percent of the kids that were on board and willing to do the work and willing to do anything we said,” Cooke Carcagno said. “And there were about 25 percent that shook their heads a little bit but said I’m on board when they really weren’t. And then eventually dig their heels in a little bit and made it difficult.

“There were a few key quits along the way that really just lifted the weight.”

The ones who stayed, though, and committed to following the new training regimen have flourished. Senior walk-on Mary Wilson went from the Third (out of three) Varsity Eight boat that finished last at the ACC championships last year to being an integral part of the First Varsity Four that will compete Friday at the NCAA Championships on Lake Natoma in Gold River, Calif.

“I feel like this is the first year I’ve really felt like a real athlete here,” Wilson said.

“I remember sitting in a meeting with the coaches and Megan telling me what she wanted my 2 (kilometer) time to be, and I was just floored,” Wilson said. “I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous. I don’t think I can get that.’ But she and (assistant coach) Chuck (Rodosky) just sat there and were like, ‘Yes, you can.’

“It’s kind of hard to believe, but we’ve also followed what they’ve said we should do.”

Nine months of training through the fall, winter and spring were in preparation for the ACC championships in May. The spring season included 6:30 a.m. departures six days a week for practices at Lake Michie and humbling races against top programs like Stanford, Princeton and Virginia. The idea was to show the Blue Devils what the best of Division I rowing looked like. That way, they would know how far they had to go.

“Every year we sit down at the beginning of the year and are like, ‘We want to get this program to a national championship,’ ” senior captain Lauren Miranda said. “And so we always say it, but this year we actually had the confidence from these coaches.

“I don’t want to say it was doubtful, but it also never felt like it could actually happen, because we had been spending so much time chasing it. It felt like a pipe dream, almost.”

Despite not being able to field a boat in all five events – numbers of team members are lagging after the housecleaning – the Blue Devils finished second at the ACC championship, behind Virginia. The First Varsity Eight, Second Varsity Eight and First Varsity Four all finished second in their respective races, winning three photo finishes with Syracuse (twice) and Notre Dame.

The strong showing at the ACC championship set up the Blue Devils to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA championships, the first in program history.

“That’s the message they’re getting every day – you have two arms and two legs, why not you?” Cooke Carcagno said. “Like, why not you? Why let it be someone else when it can just be you? And they really grabbed onto that.”

Laura Keeley: 919-829-4556, @laurakeeley