Is the T.C. Williams' girls crew courting defeat by rowing against Washington-Lee for a fourth time this season Saturday? Is it pushing its luck as hard as Katie Bair, the cocaptain, who sits in the seven seat, pulls an oar through the water?
Three times this year the Titans, Northern Virginia's strongest girls crew team, have beaten Washington-Lee, the region's second strongest team. In Saturday's regatta on the Occoquan -- the Northern Virginia championships -- they will meet for a fourth time. For Williams, this is the race that counts.
"At T.C., we have a rule," said Bair. "Our school won't pay for us to leave the area and compete at the Stotesbury in Philadelphia and the nationals at St. Andrew's unless we qualify. Essentially, your season ends if you don't win the Northern Virginias."
Said Coach Dee Campbell: "If we don't win that, we don't go any further. That can stop us from Stotesbury. That (the Northern Virginias) is as big as the nationals or bigger."
So, forget that Williams handily beat the Generals in their first encounter on the Occoquan this season. Disregard the St. Andrew's regatta when the Titans held on to nip W-L by seven-tenths of a second. And dismiss their third race two weeks ago when the Titans won by 7.9 seconds at the Occoquan Sprints.
Remember one thing. The Generals rowed that last race in a spanking new Kashper Vac shell -- a fiberglass boat that they had been in only two times before.
W-L Coach Tom Chisnell doesn't make excuses, but he knows that in a sport in which balance, timing and precision are as important as strength and stamina, a crew needs time to grow accustomed to a new, $7,000 (price includes delivery from Canada) shell, especially when it has been rowing in a wooden tub.
While her teammates were poised for the start of their most recent race, Williams coxswain Melissa Goldblatt got a good look at the W-L shell.
"Because we row in a Vespoli," she said. "We felt we had an edge because it's lighter. But now, not only can they row well, but they've got a good boat to row in."
Goldblatt also recalls the problems she and her teammates had when they first got into their carbo-craft a year ago. "We had a lot of trouble with our shell," she said. "We weren't used to the slide and the riggers came undone. This year we haven't had as many problems. Knock on wood."
"It takes a while to get used to it," Chisnell said, "like new tennis shoes. It's more than a new pair of tennis shoes. It's the way it moves through the water. But it also takes people inside the boat to make it go."
Presently, Williams' girls are the most successful inside the boat. In the stern, stroke Alice McGinn, and Bair, have controlled the cadence. When they beat the Generals two weeks ago in the Occoquan Sprints, McGinn, who strokes from the port side, and Bair, from the starboard, kept the rate at 33 strokes per second but raised it during the last 500 meters of the 1,500 meter course. Elizabeth Brown and Vicki Bassett, who sit in the fifth and sixth seat, respectively, have been, in Campbell's words, "the engine room."
Bow through four, Campbell has used Barbara Harper, Delaine Harris, Katie Ellsworth and Willa Mulhollan. All are juniors except Ellsworth, who is a senior.
Since this is a sport in which a slight error in timing or an equipment failure -- a broken oarlock or a busted slide in the middle of a race -- can dethrone a proven champion, isn't Williams inviting an upset by rowing against the Generals for a fourth time?
"There are always those elements," said Chisnell. "The possibilities are always there."
Since this is a sport in which success is determined by something as precarious as a crew's ability to balance oars six inches off the water, hasn't W-L gained a marginal advantage? They have been rowing in their sleek, Canadian shell for two weeks now, compared to two days when the crews last met.
"I feel confident we can beat them," said Goldblatt. "Our boat is extremely experienced. We've been working intently. I don't think we're cocky 'cause they were so close to us at St. Andrew's. Dee said don't sell anyone short."