"This weekend is a really monumental I think because it's our first race at home in front of our fans and the first race where the university can see our sport," said Alabama freshman Katherine Spohr. "You can see practices but no one's going to get up at 6 in the morning to see us on the river. I think it means a lot to us as individuals and as a team, and it's going to be great."
Crimson Tide fans won't have to get up quite so early this Saturday, to see Alabama rows against Murray State on the Black Warrior River. There will be five races with the first starting at 8:30 a.m. and the last going off at 9:45 a.m. All the races can be seen from River Road Park which is located on the Jack Warner Parkway.
One of the challenges the team has faced in its first year at varsity level is racing more established schools, which have sometimes been at varsity level for as many as 10 years, with numerous scholarship athletes and recruits. At Alabama, all of the athletes are walk-ons, and recruiting isn't done at the high school level, but with any interested Alabama students.
Spohr, a native of Edwardsville, Ill., found out about the team through the university's "Get on Board Day," and said she attended the first meeting with a friend just for fun. Before she knew it, she said, she was competing as an NCAA varsity athlete.
"I went with my friend for fun to the informational meeting and it's kind of a ‘how did I get here' thing," she said. "They didn't really find us; it was that moment that kind of happened that you can't think how it happened."
Alabama head coach Larry Davis attributed the group's early successes to hard work and focus, as well as a talented coaching staff that includes Davis, a 40-year veteran of the sport, and assistants Marina Traub and Megan McKee.
"In general we're rowing against teams that have been established for at least five years as varsity which means they have scholarship athletes," he said. "To take basically walk-on athletes that have never thought about the sport before and get them up to speed in a short period of time – a lot of the girls on the upper boats had a semester or two max so they're not really experienced rowers – they've been able to handle the pressure and workload they are expected to as varsity and race against established programs.
"We've had our victories here and there and the novices have done a good job, and it's a good base for what we're trying to build and realize that not everything's going to happen the way we want it to the first year. My goal is within a three to four year period to be in the upper levels of Division I, which is a pretty aggressive goal."
The Tide began its spring season with a strong showing against Bucknell, finishing just behind the Bison in both Varsity Eight results, and taking first and second place in both Novice races. The Tide then defeated Cincinnati and took second place to Notre Dame and defeated the Irish in a Novice race, March 18, before posting strong times and falling just short against SMU, March 31.
Many of the athletes on varsity level have at least minimal experience with rowing at the club level, but many of the novice racers, like Spohr, had no previous experience with the sport when they joined the team. Starting the season, she said, many of the team's goals were not to win races or make the NCAA Championships, but merely just to get through the grueling preparations for early races.
"I think our first goal was just to survive every day or survive each practice," she said. "Now getting towards the end of the season I think a lot of the goals are to keep our standards and get better every day so next year on varsity level we can show the varsity members we are up to par with them even though we've rowed for one year and they've been rowing for quite awhile. Still surviving is a lot of it."
McKenna Frease, a junior from Cordova, Tenn., said she is not surprised by the team's early success and said that since the varsity boats have gotten a better idea of the competition, they have grown more comfortable. "It's been very well," she said. "All of our boats have done pretty good against the competition. The varsity has started to definitely get a better feel of what the competition will be like. We haven't posted winning races yet, but we're still getting a good idea of what to expect and kind of starting to measure ourselves up against them.
"As a club we've always been very successful and just kind of making the step up has shown us that we really as a club could come up into this program."
Frease said she is happy to finally be racing on the Tide's home river and anxious to showcase Alabama's newest varsity sport to the university and city of Tuscaloosa. The event, though small in relation to future races planned for the Black Warrior, will feature U.S. Rowing Sanction Officers and the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
The differences in racing at home and on the road, she said, will benefit Alabama.
"You don't have the pressure of having to deal with the car ride and can stay home and relax and just mentally prepare on your own instead of in a hotel room you've never been in before and there's that comfort," she said. "The home field advantage definitely helps because we know our river and the landmarks and where everything else is and it helps dealing with that."
Davis said his goal for the team is to get an invitation to the NCAA Championships in four to six years. Tennessee, who is the only other SEC school with rowing as a varsity sport, didn't get an invitation as a team for the first 10 years of their program.
With his team continuing to post strong times against quality competition, he said, and with the novice team preparing to move into varsity, he doesn't think the goals are unattainable.
"The short-term goal was to be able to row against pretty tough competition," he said. "When I set the schedule I had the chance to get some really high end competition like Notre Dame, who was in the NCAA Championships last year. Murray State is basically at our speed, so there are no softies on the program.
"Our goal was to be as competitive as we can and win some things and we've been able to do that. The novices have done really well and each race we've done a little different combination and went out and competed very well."
This weekend's race is one of two home events for the Crimson Tide this spring. The Tide will also face Miami, April 28 on the Black Warrior.