When future members of the North Carolina women’s rowing team celebrate success, they’ll know exactly when it all started and exactly whom to thank.
Erin Neppel was hired as the team’s head coach last fall, and has been able to turn the program on its head throughout the early part of her tenure.
Though Neppel served as the assistant coach at Virginia for four years prior to coming to UNC, she is Tar Heel bred. A three-time All-ACC rower at UNC, she is one of only three All-America honorees in the school’s rowing history.
The team had been navigating rough waters after former head coach Sarah Haney resigned in 2019 following a University Title IX office investigation into the program. COVID-19 exacerbated a lack of clarity regarding new leadership, as the team fielded two different interim coaches.
Despite the turbulence, Neppel is resolute in her visions for the team. Senior rower Kate Burgess said Neppel and her assistants have defined a new standard of excellence since taking over the program.
“(Neppel is) great, and everyone that she brought with her when she came is great,” Burgess said. “She came in and immediately defined what the standard was. And I think we really needed that guidance, and it's really gotten us on the right foot to start transitioning into a new normal.”
Neppel brought three assistant coaches with her, including Jason Bernard, who previously served as the head coach of the men’s club rowing team at Clemson for 6 years and the novice coach of the women's rowing team for one.
Bernard described Neppel as a “tremendous leader” and noted that, together, they pride themselves on being transparent with the team.
“We're going to celebrate the wins,” he said. “We're going to be brutally honest whenever we know we're not measuring up. But, you know, we're all in this together.”
With this transparency came a jolt of realization for the team this season. After finishing last in the ACC rowing championships last season, Bernard said Neppel and her crew are ready to win now.
“We're driven people. We love competing,” Bernard said. “We breed competition into everything that we do because of that. It makes them better, makes them faster.”
Bernard said that he’s cautiously optimistic and that he and Neppel know that rebuilding the team is a going to take time.
“It's a long process and it’s going to have its bumps in the road. But we'll get there eventually,” he said. "Right now it's just all about enjoying kind of where we're at in the process and just the wins along the way, whatever form they may take.”
The team is also focusing on performance metrics. Neppel noted that, the team lost to opponents by smaller margins last season and the first varsity eight crew won the petite title at the ACC Rowing Championships in May.
With a season under their belts, Bernard and Neppel know how they want the team to look and what it will take to get there.
“I think they got a little bit of their swagger back,” Neppel said. “I want to beat somebody this year and I think we all have kind of agreed on that.”
In the Rivanna Romp on Nov. 14, the team's final event of the fall season, UNC beat out several other team's boats. The team is hoping to build on these results when the spring season kicks off.
Burgess said that Neppel has big aspirations, and that the coach's unwavering confidence has allowed her to revolutionize the way the team perceives itself.
“She just started demanding better for us, and I think that our team had been getting used to being stagnant and not demanding more for ourselves,” Burgess said. “She came in with a loud voice and was not afraid to make it heard.”
The team has had to adjust to the absence of several seniors and graduate students from last season who had been not only strong athletes, but strong leaders, too. When Neppel came into a team with varying experience levels and new expectations, some people were thrown back on their heels.
After making progress under the radar, Burgess and her teammates are looking forward to scaring teams they haven’t been a threat to lately and proving they are a force to be reckoned with.
“I'm really hopeful,” Burgess said. “I'm excited for the future. Even when I'm no longer on the team in the future, I'll be in the front row cheering louder than anyone when the success does come to fruition.”
For Neppel and her team, the future of North Carolina rowing is just getting started.
“I'm most excited to get into spring racing and just to see these guys light up,” Neppel said. “Between now and (spring), there's lots and lots and lots to be done. But it's always pretty sweet at the end to see where you've gotten yourself over the year.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.