Between the changing leaves, sunshine and spectators in maize and blue, the shores of Belleville Lake looked like an idyllic fall scene on Saturday as rowing fans waited for the scrimmage between Michigan and Ohio State. On the water, the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different to begin. 

Wind whipped across the lake as junior Annika Hoffmann started her race in the first pair. Tasked with steering the small boat, Hoffmann dug in her heels, fixing her eyes on a tree on the opposite shoreline and she let her mind go blank. Only one thing went through her mind: I have to go fast

The pair took an early lead which they were able to hold through the remainder of the piece — despite the choppy waters.

Despite being at home, the Wolverines were in unfamiliar territory when it came to the race configuration. The day was split up into two pieces in which fours and pairs raced with staggered starts.

Michigan claimed the top times in both the four and pair races in the first piece, but the Buckeyes came back to even the score in the second piece, besting the Wolverines’ boats by nine and 14 seconds, respectively. 

But for Michigan coach Mark Rothstein, holding the fastest times of the weekend against its biggest rival in the Big Ten was never the main goal.   

“At the end of the day, the results aren’t all that meaningful for either team — it’s early,” Rothstein said. “It’s a scrimmage, but it’s really good development to go through that process.

“(Ohio State is) a really good team, really well coached, so it was good to get out early in the year and see where things stand. Or at least have that challenge.”

With a better idea of where they stand, the Wolverines can turn their attention to Head of the Charles next weekend and, more broadly, the approaching start of spring racing. Michigan has a long road ahead in hopes of defending the Big Ten title. Only three athletes from last year’s nationally-ranked eight have returned, while six of eight from the Buckeyes’ top boat are back on the roster. 

“This weekend sets us up really well in that it reminds us of the challenge of racing and how much work we have to put in to win a race,” Hoffmann said. “Racing against someone the caliber of (Ohio State) really gives you an insight to the fact that everyone is working hard and in order to achieve the things that we did last year, we have to keep on taking steps forward and keep building on the work we’ve done so far.”

While it may will take time for Rothstein to reconfigure the lineup, the Wolverines have lots of talent to draw from. Last year’s team had depth across the lineups with the 2V8 and first novice eight each winning their event at the Big Ten Championships. It will be a test not so much in whether they can rebuild a team as it will be in whether the rowers can adjust to their new roles. 

Last year’s senior class was widely regarded as a powerhouse, not just for their rowing ability, but for the leadership they brought to the underclassmen. While the team is still feeling the loss, others have stepped up to 

“It’s early days, but (this year’s seniors) started the year really strongly and building on what last year’s seniors made,” Hoffmann said. “I think this year’s going to be amazing because this year’s seniors are so committed to building on that legacy and making sure that sort of experience becomes the new normal — that we don’t get complacent.”

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