The tents and grills were up and running Sunday at Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo.
It was a tailgating atmosphere at Wisconsin’s most-visited state park, as fans from across the Big Ten Conference braved light rain and storm clouds to line the lake’s south shore to observe the finish line of the 2019 Big Ten women’s rowing championships.
Michigan fans left happy, as the Wolverines won four of the seven events on the way to scoring 186 points and beating out Ohio State (171) to win the conference championship. The title, the sixth in program history, gave the Wolverines the Big Ten’s automatic spot in the NCAA Division I championships, which will be held May 31 through June 2 in Indianapolis.
“It started with our seniors, a great group of seniors,” Michigan coach Mark Rothstein said of winning the program’s first title since 2012. “Great people, and I’m just fortunate to be able to coach people like that.”
The University of Wisconsin kept their hopes alive for the NCAA championships, scoring 109 points to take third out of eight teams and keep their name in the running when the NCAA selection show is held Tuesday at 4 p.m. on NCAA.com.
“We’ve had as a conference a strong year, so hopefully we are fortunate enough to get four or five teams in the NCAAs,” Alex Knecht, the championships event director and a member of the UW athletic department, said of the Badgers’ NCAA hopes. “They’ll prep for that and in another week or so travel down there and be ready to go.”
Wisconsin finished in the top three of one race, as the second novice eight boat took second in 6 minutes, 53.18 seconds, trailing only Ohio State (6:50.42).
As the first university to host the Big Ten regatta since 2010, Knecht and the athletic department wanted to put on a show — with the hopes of bringing more regattas to Devil’s Lake in the future.
The Badgers finished with two All-Big Ten rowers: Sarah Gibbons made the first team and Alicia Evans made the second team.
“I think we definitely wanted to show off the course, the venue and Wisconsin,” Knecht said. “And also it goes back to our strong relationship with the DNR. We wanted to really show off what they’re doing here and what they have here, and how special of a venue this actually is. Hopefully we did that.”
Early signs are positive, according to Devil’s Lake State Park Superintendent Steve Schmelzer.
“The coaches from the other Big Ten schools are just raving about what a great venue this is and the backdrop with the bluffs and everything like that,” he said. “It wasn’t the best weather, but they said this is the best, if not one of the best, venue in North America.”
The venue was impacted Sunday, as the weather brought fog to the lake that covered most of the bluffs. But the bluffs serve a purpose outside of beauty and a high vantage point. They also block the wind, making the water ideal for racing despite the weather.
The regatta officials had more than wind to worry about going into the weekend, as the weather forecast showed thunderstorms all day. The staff discussed a number of ways to avoid the rain, including moving the regatta to Saturday, and ultimately moved the regatta up two hours to start at 7 a.m. Sunday.
“We had a couple meetings that weren’t necessarily on the schedule,” Knecht said. “We had a lot of back-and-forths with the coaches. Some of them wanted to row on Saturday; some wanted to wait until Sunday. Ultimately, we made the call and we decided to go two hours earlier and it ended up working out for us.
“There’s a lot of people involved with all of this. The Big Ten Network, us, the DNR, all the coaches and the teams. Everybody has been great to work with. Everybody was very flexible and I think that was the big thing, just the flexibility.”
The year-plus preparation process ensured that the lake would be ready to go if the weather cooperated.
“We put so much work in during the week, months and a year ago when we announced hosting this,” Knecht said. “You hopefully get to a day like today and you’re not scrambling around. ... All the hard work paid off.”
After years of discussion, the event planning began to ramp up when Knecht and regatta director Mary Browning visited Indianapolis last year to observe the site of the last eight Big Ten championships. They came back to Madison with the goal of giving the regatta a more personal touch.
“Down in Indy, it’s a rowing center. ... A rowing club putting it on; it’s not a university associated with the conference,” Knecht said. “Our staff is used to constantly putting on events, working events and working with coaches. ... We were just able to really make it feel a little more Big Ten championship-like, more so than just putting on a large event.
“Indy’s been doing it for the past seven or eight years in a row and they’ve done a great job. We were just able to tweak it a little bit in our advantages and make it feel a little bit more special for our athletes.”
It was extra special for the UW athletes, who got to compete in front of family and friends. Tim Asplund, a Madison resident who was manning the grill with his son Micah at the UW fan tent, enjoyed the chance to see his daughter — Lizbet Pietz — take fourth place as a member of the Badgers’ second varsity eight boat.
“The Indianapolis course, you can’t really see until the very end. The viewing corridor here is just awesome and then obviously the bluffs are spectacular,” Asplund said of the differences between Sunday’s regatta and the last two he’s attended in Indianapolis. “It’s a jewel of Wisconsin. The whole area, the Baraboo Hills are just awesome. It’s kind of what makes Madison Madison, being able to have the Wisconsin River and Devil’s Lake close by.
“This definitely ranks up there with the regattas we’ve gone to, with the organization, the racing and the setting.”
Grace Stuckey had a unique view at the finish line. The Baraboo High School senior took the short trip to Devil’s Lake to watch her future teammates for the first time.
“This is awesome,” said Stuckey, who has committed to being a coxswain for the Badgers starting in the fall. “Never four years ago would I have seen myself here and attending next year. The summer after my junior year I attended a camp at Wisconsin. It was a one-week rowing camp, we stayed in the dorms and just got introduced to rowing. I absolutely loved it and they really liked me and invited me on an official visit.”
A sport that many people aren’t exposed to prior to college, Stuckey experienced her first regatta Sunday. Until this point, she could only study the coxswain position from afar.
“I’ll be a coxswain, so I really need to understand the stroke,” said Stuckey, whose family has a rowing machine in the basement. “The coaches told me to watch videos of coxswains and audios of coxswains to just learn how to talk to your crew.”
If the UW and the DNR gets their wish, Stuckey and future Badgers will get to continue competing on Devil’s Lake.
“I think ultimately the (other coaches) are going to leave here and go ‘That was really well done, it’s a great venue,’” Knecht said. “Hopefully in the near future we do it again here.”