By Travis Feldhaus
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Angela Bumstead and coxswain Kenna Harris were among those aboard UT’s fourth varsity eight boat back at the 2012 Big 12 Championship in Oklahoma City. Still new to the sport after joining the team on a whim just months earlier, the two freshman walk-ons helped the Longhorns 4V8 win the race with room to spare. Harris held up a pair of “Hook ‘em, Horns” hand signals and belted out, “We are Texas!” as the boat crossed the finish line at 2,000 meters.
Three years later, the same tandem found itself on the 11th-ranked Longhorns’ second varsity eight boat at the 2015 Big 12 Championship in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The results were the same, but the mantra had changed.
“Here comes Texas!”
Indeed. Here came Texas, not only to the top of the Big 12 Conference, but for the first time as a team to its sport’s pinnacle, the NCAA Championships.
“It wasn’t easy for any of us,” said first-year UT head coach Dave O’Neill. “There were some hard days, hard conversations, some tears and some highs and lows. We tell them, ‘Don’t let the highs get too high and the lows get too low. Keep plugging along and keep getting better and better.’ We enjoyed the struggle, but it certainly didn’t happen right away.”
For the first time in Big 12 rowing history, the league champion was assured of an automatic bid to compete at the NCAA Championships. The regatta field, which the NCAA will unveil Tuesday afternoon, will be comprised of 11 automatic qualifiers and 11 at-large teams. Win your conference and you’re in. Take down some of the nation’s top rowing schools, and you’re in.
This spring, Texas put forth a substantial at-large résumé loaded with individual boat wins against stiff competition. The two eight boats made a habit of defeating top-20 foes in regattas across the country, from San Diego east to Clemson, South Carolina and to the Midwest in Bloomington, Indiana.
That said, Texas was not going to leave anything to chance. The plan all along was to control the team’s destiny the best way it could, by winning the Big 12 Championship.
“I remember Coach (O’Neill) saying one day last fall that we were closer to last year’s Big 12 Championship than we were to this season’s Big 12 Championship, but we had think about the next championship every single day,” said junior starboard Victoria Bujala. “Everyday we worked really, really hard and thought about this championship coming up. Now, here we are and, it has happened. It’s just crazy to think about this journey.”
Texas’ third varsity eight boat set the tone in the day’s first race and thundered to victory with a 15-second cushion to spare. The second varsity four followed suit and engaged in a tight race through 1000 meters before pulling away to the win in open water.
A year ago, Rachel Fleming was wrapping up a standout tennis career as an all-district player at Richardson High School outside of Dallas. She played four years of volleyball, too. The freshman swapped her tennis racquet for an oar last fall and, after a strong first semester on Lady Bird Lake and elsewhere, Fleming worked her way into varsity-level boats.
On Sunday, Fleming joined coxswain Emily Walker, newcomers Natalie Guzikowski and Allyson Hite and former novice rower and current senior Carmen Hargis-Villanueva to give Texas a 12-second victory in the varsity four grand final.
Harris came from her native Houston to the Forty Acres having never played a sport in high school. Bumstead planned to soak up campus life in her hometown and possibly join UT’s Longhorn Band. She has the chops for it, after all. But here they were as seniors, as key members of the Longhorns’ second varsity eight boat that defeated several top-20 foes throughout the spring. Away they went in Sunday’s grand final, and Texas won in 6:52.18, over 10 seconds ahead of second-place Tennessee.
“We had big plans coming in, and it was a great race for us,” Harris said. We were really focused and fired up, and we fueled our energy and feelings into 2000 meters. As a crew, we moved forward.”
“Crossing that line first was so surreal, just knowing that this was the race we’ve been pushing for every single day in practice,” Bumstead added. “Since day one, we knew we were working to win the Big 12 Championship. It was really emotional and I couldn’t be happier how we ended up today. It’s been amazing.”
Four years ago, Katie Betsill of Glen Rose High School was an all-district shortstop who also found time to compete in track and field. On Sunday, she found herself in the coxswain’s seat of the varsity eight with Casey Redman sitting directly in front of her.
Redman rowed on the Texas V8 at the previous three Big 12 Championships, but the V8 fell just shy of victory each time. Redemption was sweet on Melton Hill Lake when Texas cruised through the 2,000-meter course in 6:31.16, over 16 seconds ahead of second-place Oklahoma.
“Our boat has been focusing on making ourselves better, making our boat the best we can possibly make it,” Redman said. “We started off strong, and we got to the 1000m mark and got even stronger. We made it to 1500 meters and gave it everything we had across the finish.”
Texas won all five races to sweep the Big 12 Championship, and the NCAA automatic-qualifier standings finalized themselves with the Longhorns on top. Texas had sent varsity eight boats to compete individually at the 2003 and 2004 NCAA Championships, but Sunday’s win broke new ground. Texas made history with its final strokes at the Big 12 Championship and locked up the program’s first invitation as a team to the national championships.
“We’re trying to set the bar really high,” Bujala said. “This means from here on out we’ve set the tone for the future of the program. That’s a really amazing thing. We also set four Big 12 records in our boats here. Next year, we want to go get all five of them and keep raising the bar.”
California-bound for the NCAA Championships is a resilient group of Longhorns who won’t just be happy to be there.
“It’s time to go make a statement,” Harris concluded. “Just come out as an underdog, dial in and do our thing. Here comes Texas!”