Following two years under interim head coaches, North Carolina Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham announced in July that former UNC all-American rower, Erin Neppel, would be the third head coach in the program's history.
Neppel came to UNC from the University of Virginia, where she worked as an assistant coach and helped the Cavaliers to three consecutive ACC titles. She is no stranger to success in rowing and coaching, and after training under her guidance for the fall semester, the Tar Heels are beginning to see the impact of her mentality.
“Erin really showed us what our program should be about, and we worked really hard the entire season,” senior Sarah Catherine Niles said. “It was such a new feeling because we had never had that stability before and her points of view on things gave us new life in rowing.”
Under Neppel’s guidance, the Tar Heels took the fall semester as a building season and only attended one race, the Rivanna Romp, in mid-November. With the new coaching staff taking over, she was focused on each rower getting acclimated to the changes and staying focused on what was in front of them.
The goal of the team's sole race in the fall was to shrink the time margins against teams the Tar Heels had previously competed against, and the early results were promising.
“They did (shrink the margins) really well,” Neppel said. “They succeeded, we called it a win, but we had to keep moving forward because the fall race was fun, but the real work has been done over the winter and spring.”
A busy schedule looms as UNC races four times this spring, beginning with the UVA Invite on March 25-26. The Tar Heels will then travel to compete against Bucknell and finish off the regular season by co-hosting the Lake Wheeler invite with Duke in Raleigh before the ACC Championships on May 13 at Clemson.
The opportunity to race to close so home makes the Lake Wheeler Invite in Raleigh a team favorite.
“It’s a really good race to have before ACCs because it has a really good set up and we’ll get to see a lot of schools that will be at ACCs, and it will be great to have a home crowd,” senior Alessandra De Vito said.
Traveling back to Virginia to compete against her former team will also be an important experience for Neppel and her new athletes.
“Those guys (at Virginia) are the gold standard right now in the ACC, they’re nationally relevant and they do a great job,” Neppel said. “It’s really important to put yourself in those positions, you don’t want to go and race people that you are comfortable racing.”
As for their expectations for the spring, many questions remain. Neppel said the team doesn’t have a baseline for what will define a successful season.
“We don't have a really good benchmark because everything is so different, so even with this team of kids, it’s like comparing apples to oranges," Neppel said. “By the end of this year, if they’ve had an experience where they feel really proud, that’s number one."
As the team looks to set a standard this season– many questions are left unanswered, but one message seems to be true — the future is bright for UNC rowing.
“I am also just really excited to say in five or 10 or 20 years, ‘I rowed for (North) Carolina,'" Niles said. "It is so exciting to be the beginning of a legacy.”
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