Back in the fall of 2015 when Eva Barinelli first set foot on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the Tewksbury native had recently wrapped up an impressive academic and athletic career at Tewksbury High, finishing in the top ten of her class academically while excelling as a three sport athlete in cross country and track-and-field.
She was certainly a talented athlete, but unfortunately she was not quite fast enough to qualify for the Engineers track teams, so she sought out an alternative to track in order to fuel her competitive fire. Eventually she found herself a home with the Engineers Women’s Rowing team, although she had never competed in rowing in her life.
“I wasn’t fast enough for the track team and I knew I wanted to participate in a team sport, so I thought I would try rowing,” Barinelli said. And since they accepted walk-ons, it made a lot of sense.”
Now, a little over four years later, the former walk-on with no experience is poised to be part of the No. 1 Division 3 Rowing team in the country, after a spectacular weekend that saw her and her varsity eight teammates knocked off two of the best teams in the country.
The Engineers, who were ranked number two in the CRCA/USRowing Coaches Poll coming into the weekend, seem almost certain to move up to number one after two big wins this weekend.
Barinelli and her teammates started their weekend on Saturday by stunning Williams College and the rest of the field to capture the highly coveted Donahue Cup in a race that featured two of the top three teams in Division III, as well as Connecticut College, Rochester and Simmons. Coming into the weekend, Williams had won the Donahue Cup for 14 consecutive years, but the Engineers put an end to their streak, finishing in a time of 7:17.04 to beat third ranked Williams by nearly ten seconds (7:27.56).
It was the second time the Engineers have won the Donahue Cup, while Williams has won it 16 of its 18 years of existence.
Barinelli didn’t realize just how big her and her teammate’s accomplishment was until after the race was over.
“It was kind of funny, because our coach (Jason Steele) had told us that Williams had not lost since 2014,” Barinelli said. “But when we got the cup we realized it was actually since 2004, we realized it was kind of a bigger deal. It was kind of cool to be the team that ended their run.”
And they ended the run in dominant fashion, with ten seconds being quite a large separation. So much so that Barinelli and her teammates knew at about the 1,000 meter mark that they had the race well in hand. The only difficulty then was keeping their composure.
“We knew were going to win about halfway through and at about the 1,000 meter mark we could tell that they were really struggling to keep up and we were still very strong,” Barinelli said. “By 500 meters way behind us, but we had to keep working and not celebrate too early.”
If Saturday's win was historic in that the Engineers ended Williams incredible run of dominance, then Sunday was simply shocking as the Engineers took down the No. 1 Division 3 rowing team in the country when they defeated top-ranked and defending NCAA champion Bates in thrilling fashion on Lake Quinsigamond. They also defeated Wellesley, Trinity and RIT, all of whom also competed in the race. But the story of the day was the victory over Bates.
The race came down to the final ten strokes with WPI claiming the victory by just 0.34 seconds over Bates (6:37.40 to 6:37.74). Wellesley was third (6:43.78) followed by No. 13 Trinity (6:57.73) and No. 11 RIT (6:58.30).
Unlike the dominant win over Williams the day before, Barinelli and her teammates had to wait a few moments after the race before they knew they had won, and it wasn't until later that she saw a video of just how narrow the victory was.
“When we crossed the line we did not know if we had won or not, because it was so close,” Barinelli said. “You don’t really have time to think about it while you are doing it, you just kind of get into a zone. But looking back on it, it was pretty cool to watch it again, and see just how close it was.”
The Engineers may not have know they won, but they knew they were having a great race simply because they were neck and neck the entire way with Bates.
"Going through it, we stuck with them the entire time, which does not always happen, so staying with them was kind of a confidence boost," Barinelli said. "We knew we could do it, but it was just a matter of doing it.
"We brought our stroke rate up four times," Barinelli said. "We were at 33 strokes per minute at the start, and halfway through we were up to 35 strokes and with 500 meter left we were up to 36 or 37 strokes. We made the final turn and our coxswain told us we need to move, so it was just eight girls rowing their butts off"
Even prior to this weekend, Barinelli and her teammates had been in the midst of a tremendous season, having recently been honored as NEWMAC Boat of the Week, for the week ending April 7, after winning the Jennifer McLaughlin Cup back on April 6. The team was honored once again this week as WPI Women's Student-Athlete of the Week for the week ending April 14.
More honors appear to be on the way, The newest CRCA/USRowing Coaches Poll comes out on Wednesday and was not available as the Town Crier went to press, but in all likelihood the Engineers will have taken over the top one spot in the rankings. This is an accomplishment that Barinelli says she and her teammates Madison Healey, Melissa Bazakas-Chamberlain, Christine Hovermale, Kinsey McNamara, Marlies de Jong, Amelia Harvey, Rachel Lia and Caitlin Kean have earned through many hours of hard work and dedication.
"Some of us have been together for three years, so being together and knowing each other definitely helps, but it is also the commitment we have all had to getting better," Barinelli said. "I am not the only one who had never rowed before college, there are actually four of us, but we have worked very hard to improve and our coach has pushed us to be in great condition, so we are at our best every time to get out there."