NORMAN — Leeanne Crain made a promise. It’s something coaches do with recruits all the time. Whether it concerns playing time or an opportunity to start, coaches are known to make promises.
However, Crain’s promise was a little different. In her first season as Oklahoma’s new rowing skipper, she told Nicole Furmanek that by the time she graduated, the Sooners would be Big 12 Champions and make it to the NCAA tournament. At the moment Crain made that declaration, OU didn’t even have a full rowing team to call its own.
Yet, four years later, Crain has proven to be clairvoyant. The Sooners not only won the conference championship for the first time in the program’s short history, they also earned a spot in this weekend’s NCAA rowing championships, which begins today in Indianapolis.
“I am really proud of this group,” Crain said. “It was a goal we set five years ago. It’s nice to achieve it. It’s a credit to the team and all the hard work they have put in. We are excited.”
The path Oklahoma has taken to reach this point seemed unimaginable when it started five years ago. When Crain accepted the coaching job, the Oklahoma river didn’t even have water in it.
Despite that, Crain said she had faith in the school to provide what she would need to build a top-notch rowing team.
“That was an easy decision,” Crain said. “Starting a program at the University of Oklahoma, knowing the resources that would be available, knowing the commitment that the president would make to our athletic programs. When I interviewed on campus, I knew I wanted to be a Sooner.”
Convincing Crain to take the job was easy. Convincing recruits to come to a school just starting up a program was much harder. That first year the squad was made up completely of students who had never rowed before but Crain provided them a chance to compete.
When Crain began bringing in recruits like Furmanek and Carly Schueler during that first year, she had to get the athletes to use their imagination and not see the program for what it was, but what it could become.
“Coach Crain said to me, by your senior year, we want to be Big 12 champs and we want to go to the NCAAs,” Furmanek recalls of her recruiting trip to OU. “I was really kind of blown away by that. She was so firm about that. She was like, we can do this and we will. We want you to be a part of this. She 100 percent sold me. I didn’t even want to look at any other schools.”
Under Crain, the Sooners have progressed steadily. They battled for titles in both the Big 12 and Conference USA, but lost out to more established teams.
That all changed this season as that first recruiting class became seniors and everything Crain had been telling them came to fruition.
“Been here for four years and this is a great way to finish off our senior season,” Schueler said. “ Going to the NCAAs is something we’ve been dreaming about. It’s great that it’s finally a reality. This was our goal from the beginning. We expected it to happen. We made this our large goal to get here after four years. I don’t think I’m surprised. I’m happy.”
More important to the program’s future, Crain began snagging some of the top high school recruits in the country. Along with the OU rowing training center being built on campus, it was a sign that Oklahoma was no longer a newcomer. It had arrived.
“This was the first year that we’ve seen the A-level recruits looking at our program without us having to go out and solicit,” Crain said. “We’ve started to attract that type of athlete. The class we’ve signed this year is exceptional. Their stats would put them in our top 12-15 athletes on the roster now.”
The Sooners head into the NCAA’s ranked No. 17 out of the 22 teams. Crain admits the goal for the team when the season started was just to make it to the championships. But now that they are actually there, she wants to see how far they can go.
Oklahoma will be facing a group of teams that have a long history in the sport. So this will be as much of a learning experience as anything. But it’s also another building block to where the program wants to be in the near future.
“The teams that are competing for a national title year in and year out are teams that have tradition,” Crain said. “So we are building our tradition here at OU. This is a new starting point for us. Next year, our goal will be to be in the top 10. Every year to step it up a bit. The next five-year plan is to maybe get to the point where we are actually competing for a national title.”
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