GOLD RIVER, Calif. -- With one race left Saturday at the West Coast Conference Rowing Championships, Saint Mary's found itself outside the top three and needing a big effort to even get back in the discussion for a medal spot.
The Gaels still had a chance, and they had the right boat in the water.
A clutch performance by the First Varsity 8 saw Saint Mary's narrowly edge Loyola Marymount at the line for third place, vaulting the Gaels into a tie for third as a team and wrapping up a fantastic rally by the entire SMC team at Lake Natoma.
Gonzaga won the overall title and the WCC's first automatic bid to the NCAA Championships. San Diego finished second.
"It was a team effort today. They raced really hard and I'm really proud of their performance," Saint Mary's coach Nicole Younts said. "Congratulations to Gonzaga on a great day and good luck to them at the NCAA Championships."
A bit of bad luck in the first race of the day saw Saint Mary's resolve tested.
After establishing themselves solidly in third place for the first few hundred meters, the Gaels Varsity 4s caught a boat stopping crab near the 1,000 meter mark, causing them to slow.
Once momentum was restored, the Gaels had dropped to sixth, where they would finish with a time of 8 minutes, 15.5 seconds.
Next came the Second Varsity 8, where the Gaels battled to the line to finish fifth in 7:19.0. Meanwhile, Portland edged Loyola Marymount for third for the second straight race, which meant that if Saint Mary's could finish third and the Lions topped the Pilots in the First Varsity 8, the Gaels could rally for a third-place team finish.
That battle moved from theory to reality from the very beginning of the First Varsity 8 race.
Eventually, Saint Mary's and Loyola Marymount would separate themselves from Portland, with the Gaels leading by a seat or two as they tore towards the line. That advantage never got any wider, and the two hit the line fractions of a second apart.
After a few minutes to sort out the photo finish, Saint Mary's time of 6:52.9 was announced, just three-tenths of a second to the better of the Lions 6:53.2.
With the Gaels third, Loyola Marymount fourth and Portland fifth, the three finished in a tie for the bronze medal spot with 23 points apiece.
"We knew it was going to be fast and we knew it was going to be a really deep field this year," Younts said. "Give a lot of credit to the Varsity 8. Them finishing third really made a big difference in the team championship."
"They got faster throughout the year," Younts said. "They're the stern pair, they really drive the boat and they love to race."
Final standings: Gonzaga 41, San Diego 37, Saint Mary's 23, Loyola Marymount 23, Portland 23, Creighton 15, Santa Clara 6.
Varsity 4: San Diego 7:35.9, Gonzaga 7:37.8, Creighton 7:57.6, Portland 8:00.2, Loyola Marymount 8:06.9, Saint Mary's 8:15.5, Santa Clara 9:19.7.
2nd Varsity 8: Gonzaga 6:51.6, San Diego 7:01.6, Portland 7:12.6, Loyola Marymount 7:16.6, Saint Mary's 7:19.0, Creighton 7:28.1, Santa Clara 8:00.3.
Varsity 8: Gonzaga 6:39.6, San Diego 6:40.9, Saint Mary's 6:52.9, Loyola Marymount 6:53.2, Portland 7:00.2, Creighton 7:07.4, Santa Clara 7:43.0.