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UW women's rowing

A University of Wisconsin women's rowing team prepares for the opening race during a 2015 regatta at Devil's Lake.

A spot in the NCAA Division I women’s rowing championships is up for grabs Sunday at Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo.

The 11th-ranked University of Wisconsin-Madison team — hosts of the 2019 Big Ten championships — will have to navigate a difficult conference to earn that spot.

“Our goal is always to win,” UW coach Bebe Bryans said during a press conference last week. “It’s going to be tough. The Big Ten is arguably the strongest conference in the country right now. The depth is awesome. We want to race better, individually and against other boats, than we have yet this season.

“We just want to get a really strong race under our belts. We want to show that were fast enough to race in NCAAs and make that happen.”

The Badgers, who took third in the conference last season, will have to knock off six-time defending champion Ohio State in order to earn the automatic bid into the 22-team NCAA championships May 31 through June 2 in Indianapolis. Ohio State was perfect last season, becoming the first team to win all seven races at the Big Ten Championships since the format was introduced in 2013.

However, the Buckeyes aren’t the top-ranked team in the conference heading into Sunday’s regatta. Ohio State entered May ranked sixth in the Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association/US poll, one spot behind rival Michigan. Wisconsin and Iowa are ranked 11th and 12th, respectively, followed by No. 15 Indiana and No. 16 Rutgers. The final two Big Ten teams — Minnesota and Michigan — were the first two teams in the others-receiving-votes category, just outside the top 20.

“I don’t put a lot of stock in ranking usually, but I’m really proud of the fact that they’ve been able to show themselves, No. 1, but also show the rest of the country and the rowing world that they are worthy of being Wisconsin and they are worthy of being a contender,” Bryans said.

The success wasn’t assured, as the Badgers didn’t know what kind of team they had going into the season.

“It’s been so rewarding for the coaching staff to be working with this group of athletes who came into this year with high hopes but not a lot of experience to back up those hopes,” Bryans said. “They did everything we asked them to do and they stepped up the work ethic that we’ve had in the past. They bought in completely with what the plan was for them and have really excelled this year.”

The reward always comes at the end of the year, and it should be a special one for the Badgers. Not only will they compete less than an hour’s drive from campus, the regatta is also being held a week after UW’s graduation, allowing the team’s seniors to attend last Saturday’s ceremony at Camp Randall Stadium.

“Our seniors, for the very first time since I’ve been here, they get to graduate,” said Bryans, who is in her 15th season with the program. “Then we have a few days to breathe, relax, de-stress from finals and just have fun up at the Big Ten Championships.

“They want to be with their friends and family doing what they love to do, which is racing for this team. This is like a win-win, because they get to do both.”

While the Badgers are looking forward to competing close to campus, the Devil’s Lake course won’t necessarily provide a home-lake advantage.

“Other than the fact that it’s our show,” Bryans said of the benefits of hosting the regatta. “We’ve been there (Devil’s Lake) a number of times, our seniors have probably raced their four or five times. ... The course is remarkably fair, which is one of the things that makes it a really good place to race. Knowledge of the course won’t matter there, but the fact that it takes us only 45 minutes to get there, that’s a huge deal.”

Follow Brock Fritz on Twitter @BrockFritz or contact him at 608-963-0344.

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