May 28, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin women's rowing coach Bebe Bryans has a "secret" and it goes beyond her sport being one of the best kept ones on campus.
Few people outside of the tradition-rich, walk-on dependent program are probably aware that the Badgers are making their seventh-consecutive trip to the NCAA championships.
"The good and bad thing about rowing is that we slide under the radar a lot," Bryans conceded. "For us, it's not that big of a deal. It's just one of those sports that doesn't expect a lot of attention."
Bryans further rationalized that there were certain benefits to rowing in the shadows of others. "With not a lot of attention comes not a lot of hassles," she said.
In the same breath, she really wanted to shine the spotlight on her rowers, and rightly so. "They deserve a lot of attention," she said, "with the quality of performance they're putting out right now."
Wisconsin has not placed lower than fourth in the last seven Big Ten women's rowing championships, including five straight top-three finishes. It's not easy to sustain such consistency.
"It's really tough," Bryans said.
Just ask UW men's basketball coach Bo Ryan, whose program is a model of stability. Over the last 13 seasons, the Badgers have never ended up lower than fourth place in the conference standings.
"In some ways," Bryans allowed, "it's a little frustrating because I know how hard it is for him (Ryan) or anybody that can sustain a high level at anything."
As one of the 11 at-large selections to the 22-team NCAA field this season, Bryans also said proudly, "It just shows that we are and continue to be one of the elite programs in the country."
Overall, the Badgers are making their 10th NCAA appearance in the last 11 years.
"There aren't as many rowing teams as there are basketball teams in the country," she said. "but if you're going to be the best, it really doesn't matter how many there are.
"I'm very proud that we have that level of aspiration and I'm even more proud that we're able to continually attain it because it gets tougher and tougher and tougher every year.
"We're getting better and better and better," she added, "and so is everyone else. The bar is always moving upwards ... and what we do here is a little bit different than what everybody else does."
One of the time-honored traditions in Wisconsin rowing has been the walk-on.
"Most of these kids walk on this team, they don't row in high school," Bryans said. "Now we do have some really great recruits that can help lead them."
Still, she estimated that 19 of the 23 seats are filled by walk-ons on the three competing boats at Wisconsin. "That's the way it is as of now," she said, "and it's the way it has always been."
Bryans is not complaining. Instead, she has made the most of it. "The thing about walk-ons is that they don't know what they don't know -- they don't know what they can't do," she said.
That leads to this postulate: "If the expectation is," Bryans said, "we're going to try to win the Big Tens, we're going to qualify for the NCAAs and we're going to get on the podium ...
"If that's what we tell them (the walk-ons) our expectation is then that becomes their expectation and that's why it's so important that we keep this ball rolling.
"What we do here is sort of epic," she went on. "We have a huge turnout -- it's unheard of -- we have over 200 women who try out for the team every year.
|Bryans' secret weapon? "The toughness of the kids that we get," she said.
"It's a lot more about toughness than it is about talent. That's why I love this sport so much."
"Every single one of those women who really wants to learn how to row, we put them on the water and teach them how to row and then the sport takes care of itself.
"We don't make cuts -- the sport cuts people."
When asked about the program's recruiting radius, Bryans said, "All over the world."
But the "outreach" is obviously huge in Wisconsin and surrounding states.
"We do huge outreach on campus," she said. "We're at every single SOAR (Student Orientation Advising and Registration) session. There's a coach -- or coaches -- or athletes there (to recruit them)."
Prior to the Big Ten championships in Indianapolis -- which were held at Eagle Creek Park, also the site of the NCAA event (May 30 to June 1) -- Bryans addressed the blueprint for success.
"For Wisconsin to be successful at this sport," she said, "once we do hit the water, we need to take advantage of every single stroke. It's an advantage that we have. It's sort of our secret weapon."
So that's Bryans' secret. And what is that weapon exactly?
"The toughness of the kids that we get," she said. "It's a lot more about toughness than it is about talent. That's why I love this sport so much.
"It helps if you were born to be a rower and you just don't know it yet. But a lot of our kids are not the stereotypical successful rower as far as height and weight.
"We're pretty small -- relatively speaking. But they're really, really tough kids and they have to be to go through the winters that we have here."
Upon prodding, Bryans singled out three catalysts:
Anne Rauschert, a team captain and junior from Bushnell, Illinois ("Won a gold medal with the Under-23 World Championship, that's huge," Bryans said).
Gillian Cooper, a transfer from Oregon State and Auckland, New Zealand ("She's stroking our varsity eight and she has made a huge impact on the team," Bryans said).
Monica Whitehouse, a team captain and senior from Big Bend ("Pretty small kid, but absolutely fierce. She's the heart and soul of the team," Bryans said).
The Badgers have definitely not lacked motivation in preparation for the NCAAs -- not after they finished 16th last season, a major disappointment to everyone involved, especially the head coach.
"It was the worst performance we've had in an NCAA championship -- ever," Bryans said.
"They didn't trust each other or us," she said. "It was monumentally frustrating."
Did they fix what needed fixing?
"I think so, I think they corrected it and that was the beauty of it -- it was so bad," Bryans said. "It didn't look that much worse on paper but I knew how bad it was.
"And I knew if we didn't correct it, we would not be having this conversation right now (about returning to this season's NCAA championships) because we wouldn't be good enough.
"We talked to every single person who was coming back and we got their feel for what they thought had happened (last year) and everybody was pretty much on the same page.
"There wasn't any one thing to put your finger on other than there are times when you have to do your job and stop thinking about other people's jobs. They sort of lost track of that."
The quality of the competition, Bryans, promised, will be awesome this weekend. "Ohio State is primed to make a run at repeating," she said, adding the Buckeyes are "really fast and confident."
But she's not anxious about seeing how her team will compete as much as she's confident.
"It was reflected at the Big Tens," Bryans said. "The varsity eight didn't have the race it wanted to and that was a disappointment. But it wasn't for a bad reason.
"They're just so young and it was the first real championship in that boat. They've got that under their belt now and I'm really confident that they're not going to let it happen again.
"They're going to be faster. I didn't have that feeling last year at all. They're really excited about it (nationals) as opposed to being worried about it."
It's no secret that she's counting on better results.