The College of Charleston sailing program doesn't rebuild, it just reloads.
Despite the loss of several key seniors who helped lead the College of Charleston to a Gill Coed Dinghy National Championship title a year ago, the Cougars are optimistic about their chances heading into this week's ICSA National Championship Series in Maryland.
"We lost some really good sailors from last year, but our expectations are still very high, we want to compete for a national championship," said Charleston head coach Ward Cromwell. "We only have a couple of returning starters from our coed team, but we've got a good many returners from our women's team and we feel like we're going to be very competitive."
Ali Blumenthal, a junior All-American, is the only returning starting from last year's team race and coed national championship lineup. She is one of two team captains, with junior crew Chase Shaw, who will be leaned on heavily for leadership this week.
"We have a really talented team, but we're pretty young," Blumenthal said. "We spent most of the fall just trying to figuring who worked well together in each boat. Once we figured out the pairings, we had a really strong spring season. In the spring we pretty much finished in the top four in every regatta we entered, so we've got a lot of confidence heading into nationals."
The Cougars women's team kicks off the week in Annapolis, Md., as the fifth-ranked team in the country in the 28-team field. The Cougars will be battling top-ranked Yale and No. 2 Dartmouth, who are considered the favorites to capture the Gerald C. Miller Trophy.
The Cougars were runners-up at the Navy Fall Women's regatta in October followed by a third-place finish at the ACC Women's Championship in November. The Cougars won the USF Women's regatta in February and the SAISA Women's Championship in April.
"I think we're peaking at the right time of the year," Blumenthal said. "I think we're sailing our best right now and we've been to Maryland before so we know what conditions to expect."
Clerc Cooper, a junior, will skipper the A-Division with freshman crew Chloe Dapp and senior crew Elizabeth Chambers, while the B-Division will be headed up by senior skipper Grace Lucas and junior crew Morgan Buckley and sophomore crew Charlotte Saxe. Cooper, Chambers, Lucas and Buckley all started last year as the Cougars women placed seventh overall at nationals.
"It's really been to our advantage that we sail a fall and spring regatta up at the Naval Academy each year," Cooper said. "The boats will be new, but we know what to expect. We are familiar with all of the teams that will be there. We have sailed against most of them and know what we need to do to be successful."
The three-day APS Team Race Championships follows the women's regatta beginning Saturday. The 16-team field will be competing for the Walter C. Wood Trophy, while the Gill Coed Dinghy Championship is scheduled for June 3-6 with 36 teams vying for the Henry A. Morss Trophy. Both events will be sailed at St. Mary's College in St. Mary's, Md.
All three national regattas will be sailed in LaserPerformance Z420s - a new lighter and stiffer style 420 - and Club Flying Juniors (CFJs).
The Cougars' team race squad is led by sophomore skipper Jake Reynolds, Blumenthal, sophomore crew Beka Schiff, sophomore skipper Ryan Davidson, sophomore crew Emily Stuart, Shaw, junior skipper Nick Johnstone and Mount Pleasant native Seppie McAdams.
"We've got a really strong sophomore class, but not a lot of them went to nationals last year," Blumenthal said. "I think we're in a really good spot right now as a team heading into nationals."
The Cougars won the SAISA Team Race competition in April preceded by a runner-up finish at the St. Mary's Team Race and fourth-place finishes at the Bob Bavier Team Race, Graham Hall Team Race and Szambecki Team Race - all sailed in the month of March.
Defending the program's national title in the Coed Dinghy Championship will be Reynolds, Blumenthal and Schiff in A-Division and Davidson, Stuart and Shaw in B-Division.
The Cougars are currently ranked No. 5 in the country in Sailing World's Coed Rankings. They won three spring regattas in the SAISA Open in February, the Eckerd Intersectional in March and the prestigious Truxtun Umsted in April.
"We know that teams are going to be coming after us because we're the defending national champions," Shaw said. "It's not something that we think about, but it's in the back of your mind. We know we've got to sail really well to bring back another national title."