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Gonzaga women’s rowing ends season on high note with fifth straight trip to NCAA Championships

The Gonzaga crew team competes during the NCAA Championships last weekend in Indianapolis. (Justin Casterline / Courtesy)
The Gonzaga crew team competes during the NCAA Championships last weekend in Indianapolis. (Justin Casterline / Courtesy)
By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman-Review

After two days of traveling back from the three-day NCAA Championships in Indianapolis, Marisa Wortman enjoyed the quiet and calm of a relatively empty Gonzaga campus on Tuesday.

The first-year women’s rowing coach saw her team finish 20th out of 22 teams on Sunday, then flew to Phoenix, where the team had to stay one night due to a flight delay. Finally, midday Monday, they got back to Spokane.

“It was really nice, because on those trips where you race in the morning, you rig the boats, half the team is heading home, half the staff is driving the boats back across the country,” Wortman said. “It is kind of nice to get in in the afternoon, having not raced in the morning, and be able to say goodbye to the team and really close out with whoever’s left.”

For the fifth year in a row, Gonzaga won the West Coast Conference’s automatic bid to the 22-team field at the Division I Championships, competing against programs that offer more scholarships and whose athletes usually stand a few inches taller – a crucial distinction in a sport in which height equates to power.

Gonzaga didn’t achieve its goal of finishing in the top 15, but its varsity eight won the D Final on Sunday, ending the season on a relative high, one that sophomore Anise Potjes said leaves the team eager for next season.

“This may not be our highest peak,” Potjes said. “We have a chance to show what Gonzaga is all about.”

Wortman, an assistant coach the last three seasons, took over as head coach after her predecessor, Glenn Putryae, became head coach at the University of Alabama. Wortman was named the WCC’s Coach of the Year.

A San Diego native, Wortman rowed at the University of Tennessee and understands the limitations of recruiting with fewer scholarships, and doing so in the same state as the University of Washington, which just won its second national championship in the past three seasons.

Washington awards 20 scholarships. Gonzaga offers half as many.

But as Gonzaga continues to win conference championships – it has 18 overall – and to acquit itself at nationals – finishing as high as 16th, in 2016 – the resources are growing.

“I want to do more with what we have,” Wortman said. “The more grateful you are for what you have, the more you can maximize what you have.”

Rowing is a nine-month sport, with a long-distance season in the fall and a short-distance season in the spring. For the fall, the men’s and women’s teams train out of a facility on the Spokane River, a good venue to prepare for 5,000-meter events, Wortman said.

To train for the 2,000-meter spring events, the team drives 25 minutes to Silver Lake, where Gonzaga’s new boathouse is nearly finished.

“It’s a great training site for the spring,” Wortman said. “The path on which they have to walk their boats form the boathouse to the dock, and put them in the water, is this really cool trail through trees. That is nowhere else in the country. It’s a really unique venue.”

Gonzaga starts the season with about 60 rowers, including walk-ons, and whittles that down to a roster of about 45 before the season starts. About 25 rowers travel to meets. Nearly all of them are from the West Coast.

In contrast, many of the sport’s perennial powers recruit internationally to fill out at least some of their roster. Washington, for example, has 10 international athletes on its roster. Washington State has 12. Gonzaga has none.

One of Wortman’s goals is to do more international recruiting, specifically to Australia and New Zealand, as she continues to grow the program.

Wortman said there is plenty to recruit to at Gonzaga, including top-level boats and equipment, proximity to the West Coast so families can more easily attend meets, as well as the academic benefits of smaller classes and access to professors.

Senior Lauren English, the WCC’s Rower of the Year, finished her career undefeated in the WCC and with four appearances at the NCAA Championships. She said she’s seen a difference in how the team approaches nationals.

“We’ve had to earn a feeling of belonging there. This year, we felt like we owned it more,” she said. “We have a history of being here and showing up, showing we can compete with these schools with a long tradition and history. We’ve built a reputation of belonging (at nationals).”

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