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Full power: After long climb from club status, Texas wins first NCAA rowing national championship

Club team became a UT varsity sport in 1997, and once the Longhorns hired O’Neill in 2014, it’s been a steady climb since

Sunday was for Robin Berry and Jessica Hathaway, who were rowing for Texas in the late 1990s as the club team became a varsity sport.

It was for Steven Brown, Al Ramirez and three-time Olympic rowing gold medalist Carie Graves, coaches who pushed UT rowers and school officials to go faster and faster.

It no doubt brought a smile to Jody Conradt and Chris Plonsky’s faces, two UT administrators that helped the program flourish as it moved from Conference USA to Big 12 competition in 2009.

The Texas rowing team celebrates the program's first national title on Sunday after the I Eight victory at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Fla., on Sunday.

On a rainy day in Sarasota, Fla., lightning couldn’t even stop the Texas’ I Eight boat from slicing through the waters at Nathan Benderson Park to win the program’s first NCAA national championship. The Longhorns’ II Eight and I Four boats also finished third in their respective races in a rather remarkable regatta.

For Texas, it’s the athletic department’s third national title this spring and 58th overall. This semester matches the three national titles won during the 1989-90 athletic year. 

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“Words can’t describe how you feel in that moment. Electric,” UT senior Alex Watson said after the Varsity Eight won it all. “Just to know that we’re crossing first, it’s an amazing feeling. Hearing that buzzer go off, knowing that you’ve won, it’s amazing.”

Texas coach Dave O’Neill knew Watson was ready. No half-hour lightning delay would detour these Horns. The athletes simply waited in the team vans, got off their feet and stayed ready. “The last couple of days,” O’Neill said of Watson, “she looked like she was ready to rip someone’s face off.”

Said Watson: “We were all on the same page, from the word go, when we shoved off.” Texas won the championship finale in 6 minutes, 17.387 seconds.

O’Neill knows that championship look when he sees it. Before Texas, O’Neill was the Nick Saban of his sport having guided California to two NCAA titles and 12 top-four finishes. In Berkeley, O’Neill had to work with 12 scholarships. In Austin, he would get 20, the maximum allowed.

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Since O’Neill took over in the summer of 2014, Texas hasn’t looked back. The Horns finished fourth nationally in 2017, third in 2018 and second in 2019. The pandemic sank the 2020 season.

Earlier this month, Texas received nine first-place votes and was ranked No. 1 for the first time ever in the U.S. Rowing/CRCA Division I rankings.

Now, the program has reached the NCAA mountaintop, although another lightning storm forced a rather low-key trophy presentation along the shoreline.

“The best way to get noticed is to do something noticeable,” O’Neill said Sunday during a phone interview. “Here at Texas, I’ve been telling people this is the most exciting program to be a part of.”

This is the coach of the same program that once had athletes standing in front of Gregory Gym eyeballing other students, looking for anyone who might be athletic enough to join them.

“When I got hired here, I understood the expectations,” O’Neill said. “C.P. would introduce me around and tell people, ‘Yeah we expect a national championship out of him.’ And I was like, ‘Uh, OK, cool.’ The pressure I put on myself is probably greater, but it’s been a lot of fun. I’ve sort of embraced the pressure and embrace the expectation as well.”

Kaitlin Knifton, a junior from McCallum, guided the I Eight winning boat. The Austin-raised rowing star was a member of the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Rowing Junior National teams and a key figure in Texas’ success of late.

“She sets the pace. Everyone has to follow her,” O’Neill said. “She sets a really powerful rhythm.”

Francesca Raggi, a junior from Maitland, Fla., has been a part of the Varsity Eight since her arrival, too. Daisy Mazzio-Manson, a grad transfer, has been rowing since she was 15 and helped Texas win the Big 12.

“We know the history and it was certainly felt over this weekend,” Watson said. “People who have graduated two years, three years, 10 years ago, they’re all texting and sending good messages. No matter where you are in the world, it’s a family.”

This spring, the Longhorns have been rocking plenty of other teams’ boats.

The tennis team won an NCAA national championship, and the volleyball team was the national runner-up. The men's swimming and diving team also sent Eddie Reese off into the sunset with yet another national title. The women's basketball team reached the Elite Eight under a first-year coach. The softball team was one victory away from its first Women’s College World Series trip since 2013 on Sunday, too. 

O’Neill will gladly stay in his, though.

“When we came here, we understood what this program could turn into. Hey, let’s turn Texas into a rowing school,” O’Neill joked. “I’ve always said at UT, one of the advantages is we’re only limited by our imagination and how hard we want to work. 

“Yeah, we’re going to keep this going. This is really fun.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.