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Heavy hitters

Harvard (front) heads for the finish in the men’s championship eights, overtaking Washington (back) for its victory. Harvard (front) heads for the finish in the men’s championship eights, overtaking Washington (back) for its victory. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By John Powers
Globe Staff / October 24, 2011

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Harvard’s heavyweight crew may have collected enough shiny keepsakes over the past century and a half to fill Shreve’s from ceiling to floor. But the Crimson had won the Rivah’s biggest prize only twice - on a shortened course in 1969 and in 1977 when the Rude ’n’ Smooth’s boisterous vibe still was reverberating throughout Newell Boathouse even after their departure.

“Who can remember?’’ coach Harry Parker joked yesterday after the resolute autumnal version of his varsity dethroned defending champion Washington and outraced a competitive US boat to win the championship eights title at the Head of the Charles regatta for the first time in 34 years with a 14-minute-17.68-second clocking that was the third-fastest winning number since 2002.

“It’s fun to win, I’ll say that.’’

After last year’s two-second shortfall against the Huskies, who went on to beat the Crimson again at the IRA championships, it was a satisfying bit of payback and a suitable anniversary celebration. The college has been around for 375 years and Parker is in his 50th at the helm, still feisty and focused while undergoing cancer treatments.

“Harry’s had a rough time these last few months but he’s handling it with his typical persistence,’’ said stroke Patrick Lapage. “It means the world to us to do it for him.’’

His oarsmen thought they had a grand chance last year when seven men from the Henley champion boat returned. But they had to play dodge ’em all the way up the 3-mile course after starting 15th, and when the Crimson clicked oars with Penn AC amid a logjam at the Eliot Bridge, their chances vanished.

This time Harvard was ideally positioned, starting behind Washington and ahead of Cal. That allowed coxswain David Fuller to open the throttle early. “That was a big help,’’ said 7-man Matt Edstein. “About a mile down, Dave said, ‘We’re moving on Washington.’ That gave us motivation.’’

As the Crimson kept motoring, they kept gaining on the Huskies while they watched the Golden Bears recede. By the time the crews came around Dead Man’s Curve with less than a mile to go, Harvard was closing fast and finally drew even. Going by was another matter.

Washington didn’t win the title twice in the last three years by waving rivals past them, and they didn’t do it yesterday. “Absolutely not,’’ said Lapage. “Once we got up to them they dug in and we dug in.’’ Though the Huskies pulled away before the finish, Harvard had made up enough ground that it knew that it likely had the victory under the elapsed-time format.

The margin was nearly six seconds over the second-place US entry that included half of the boat that won the gold medal last week at the Pan American Games in Mexico, with Washington nearly three more seconds behind. “It’s pretty special,’’ declared Edstein, one of four veterans from last year’s varsity. “It would have been nice to do it last year, but it’s even nicer to do it this year.’’

So it was, too, for the University of Virginia’s women, who were beaten by more than eight seconds last time by Princeton, which was the first collegiate crew to win in a decade.

This time UVA returned the favor, passing the Tigresses (who finished sixth) en route to a 16:11.52 effort and an eight-second triumph over Radcliffe, which drew bow No. 14 but artfully picked its way through the crowd with a spirited run. “It’s great to come back and get it done,’’ said coach Kevin Sauer after Virginia had won its first women’s crown.

It was the first time since 1979, when Wisconsin completed a three-peat, that US women’s varsities had won consecutive titles at the Head and the first time since Navy took its fourth straight in 1983 that men’s college eights had managed it. “It’s a tough event to win,’’ observed Parker. “There was a long stretch when US national crews dominated. But Washington set the example that the college crews could win, so that gave our guys confidence.’’

The time when coaches threw together “buddy boats’’ for enhanced recreational rows amid the foliage is past. Washington, which stages cutthroat pairs races to determine who makes its Head boat, is in it to win it - always.

The Huskies have found that winning here in October is a launching pad, especially when they can beat archrival Cal and the Crimson.

Those three schools have won 12 of the last 13 national championships and finished 1-2-3 last season. Odds are that’ll be the finish - in some order - next June in New Jersey. They’ll be in adjacent lanes then as opposed to single file yesterday, and all of them happily would exchange a Head trophy for the Varsity Challenge Cup. “The ultimate goal on the season is to win the IRAs,’’ Lapage said as his seatmates collected their gold medals. “But this is a good start.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.