OAK RIDGE — The guesswork will finally be taken out of the equation for the Conference USA women’s rowing team champion.
For the first time since the inception of the conference meet in 2010, Saturday’s team winner will receive an automatic berth to the NCAA championships.
That means, no more gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands while awaiting the word from the NCAA selection committee — as was the case the past three years.
Oklahoma is the favorite. Other C-USA teams include Tennessee, SMU, Tulsa, UCF, Alabama, Kansas, Kansas State, Old Dominion, Texas and West Virginia.
Tennessee, which won the title in 2010, is the defending champion.
Preliminary heats, beginning with the Varsity 8 races, are set to begin at 9 a.m. on the 2,000-meter course at Oak Ridge Marina.
C-USA will determine the team champion based on finishes in Varsity 8, Second Varsity 8 and Varsity 4 races.
Oklahoma coach Leeanne Crain said the automatic qualifying status is long overdue and much anticipated.
“We’ve been talking about it since the first day of practice back in the fall semester,” said Crain, who was hired as school’s first rowing coach in 2008.
Texas coach Carie Graves knows well the disappointment in winning the C-USA championship and then being shunned by the NCAA selection committee.
That happened to the Lady Longhorns after winning the 2011 league title.
“It was very disappointing,” Graves said.
“It’s great to now have an equal opportunity conference.”
Graves said the inclusion of the C-USA champion is simply a sign that the conference is catching up to the more established collegiate rowing programs.
“The older conferences that have been around for 35 years have tradition and history,” said Graves.
Oklahoma looks like one of the fledgling programs on the rise. The Lady Sooners enter the event ranked No. 5 in the NCAA South Region.
The Sooners also have the newest rowing program of the 11 C-USA teams on hand.
Crain said it’s flattering to be mentioned as the pre-regatta favorite.
“I guess that’s based on regular-season results and coming off our team win at the Big 12s. But the competition here is going to be strong.
“Tennessee is the defending champion and we haven’t seen them head to head. I would expect them to be very fast and Texas was on our heels at the Big 12 championships.”
Saturday’s winner will compete in the 22-team NCAA championship starting May 31 in Indianapolis.
“All of the teams in the last two or three years have stepped up and gotten a lot faster,” said Crain. “A lot of that has to do with this being a qualifying championship.”
Crain said Oklahoma rowing owes a lot to her first class of recruits, who now are seniors.
“We have 12 seniors here,” said Crain. “With us being a five-year program, they didn’t have any examples when they got here. Now, they are the examples. They kind of laid the foundation.”