By Corbin McGuire
Lasts were abundant on Tuttle Creek Lake on Tuesday morning; tears were not absent.
Amidst finals week, with practices spread out to accommodate for test times, a handful of K-State rowing’s 12 seniors savored their last practice on their home water in preparation for the Big 12 Championship on Sunday in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
After a short session of working on starts and technique, they docked and, for the final time, carried their boats up a ramp they could walk blindfolded by now. They took one last photo together with Tuttle Creek Lake in the background. They reminisced on five years in a sport they knew nothing about beforehand. They reflected on a program they left better than they found it.
“We are the strongest we’ve ever been,” senior Selena Wapelhorst said. “I’ve never seen the team with such high spirits and such an intensity to get after it every day.”
The team’s spirits were tested in a unpreparable way before the season, when senior coxswain Samantha Scott passed away suddenly last October.
Nobody knew how anyone on the team would react when it came time to practice, let alone to race. How could they? Grief can be unpredictable, with different timetables for everyone. It can rip people apart easier than it can bring them together.
This team made the latter its mission.
“No one knew how that was going to play out, how we would bounce back, but we came together, and we became closer,” said freshman coxswain Kaitlyn Henke. “That’s just part of a culture that cares about their team and every person on that team.”
“I think that we really bonded together,” senior Kaylin Edwards added. “This season, across all five boats, has been the best season since I’ve been here.”
The results speak for themselves.
The Wildcats won nine of 11 races against Saint Mary’s, Sacramento State and San Diego State at the Hornet Invitational in March. Against a much tougher field, they brought home four medals from the Sunshine State Invitational in April. All five boats medaled at the SIRA Championships two weeks later, including three golds. K-State followed that up by defending the Sunflower Showdown Championship Trophy it reclaimed last year with the program’s first sweep against Kansas in the Sunflower Showdown since 2012.
“We’ve gotten so much better. When I came in, we weren’t bad, but we weren’t able to compete with some of the schools we can compete with now,” Edwards said. “I think everybody’s buckling down and we’re seeing the success, so I think that’s really helpful for the rowers to get a taste of success and want to keep going even more.”
The program’s culture shift, Wapelhorst said, has been somewhat gradual.
This year it was accelerated, partly by tragedy, which turned into unity and a positive perspective. Since she got here, however, she said there’s been a worn-out feeling of being afterthoughts in the rowing scene. It festered and became a driving force to prove otherwise.
Edwards said in past years the team’s mentality going into the Big 12 Championship would be somewhere along the lines of, “Let’s just go see what we can do.” Now? It’s, “We can do this.”
“Everyone is just really excited going into it to show people what we can do,” she said. “The mentality of the girls is so positive. You come, you work really, really hard, and there’s very few complaints. I think that’s a lot different than previous years. I think this year, as a whole, has been super successful and really fun to be part of.”
“Seeing the team dynamic change over the last five years has been incredible. It’s been just a little bit every year, but this year was kind of the capstone,” she said. “I think everybody’s mentality is we’re tired of being counted out. We’re tired of being the underdogs. We’re tired of being the other Kansas school.
“I know last year when we brought the (Sunflower Showdown) cup back to Manhattan, it was a huge turning point for our team. This year, we came back hungry, knowing that KU would be coming after us. We were, like, ‘No, we’re keeping the cup.’ Then, losing Sam and just proving to ourselves and proving to everybody that we could pick ourselves up by the bootstraps, get to work and do it for her and do it for us.”
Source: Kansas State Sports