John Pieper could have taken the safe choice out of high school and attended Air Force, but there was something intriguing about Drexel and its fledgling rowing program.

"They'd only had their varsity program for a couple of years," Pieper, now a senior with the Dragons, said Thursday.

"They had no big titles, no big names in rowing. In one sense, it definitely was a gamble choosing Drexel. But what I saw was a young team that had a lot of passion behind it. The athletic department was putting a lot of time, energy, money, and resources into the program."

The Dragons have come a long way since Pieper arrived from his hometown of Cincinnati. At the 2013 Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta, he was part of their winning men's varsity eight boat, a race that propelled the team to its first overall championship and men's team title.

Drexel's men and women return to the Schuylkill for the 76th Dad Vail Regatta, the nation's largest intercollegiate rowing meet, as the teams to beat. The Dragons last season advanced all 12 of their boats past the first round; six of them took the podium, with four earning gold medals.

The Dragons are entering 13 boats this year through Friday's qualifying heats. The semifinals and finals will be Saturday morning and afternoon.

Director of rowing Paul Savell steadily has built Drexel's crews since taking the job in 2007. He conceded that the task of getting good rowers to join his program in the early years was a difficult one.

"At first, it really wasn't easy to talk somebody into coming to Drexel," he said. "But the faster we got success, it kind of got easier to get the better athletes to start taking a look at your school.

"I knew the commitment from the university was different from what it had been, so that was a starting place. We were just confident that we could build something pretty special here."

Of course, with success comes the desire of some of the 115 competing colleges and universities to knock the Dragons out of first place.

"Going in ranked No. 1 adds stress and pressure, and we have a big target on our backs," Pieper said. "Last year, we were able to slide under the radar, and we caught some people off guard. But that was last year; it's not like this year. We feel confident, but we don't want to be cocky."

Drexel also is eager to make a run at the women's team title. The Dragons won the women's second varsity eight race last year and hope to be in contention for more titles in the next two days.

"We actually feel pretty good about it; we've been talking about it all week," said senior Colleen Delaney, a Mount St. Joseph graduate who will row with the second varsity eight. "We feel pretty good about how much speed we've gained over the season. So everyone from the freshman eight to the varsity eight, the main goal for us is to try and dominate just as much as the men have done."

Grand Valley State won the women's competition last year and took second overall. The Lakers are expected to be a factor this weekend along with Bucknell, Michigan, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Florida Institute of Technology.

Savell expects some stiff competition but likes the way his men and women have been rowing.

"I think it's always hard to try to repeat, but the team has been working really hard with the Dad Vails in mind," he said. "I feel good about where we are."

Dad Vail Regatta

What: The Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta is the largest collegiate regatta in the United States, with more than 100 teams from the United States and Canada competing in the two-day event.

Where: The Schuylkill.

When: Friday and Saturday. The first of 178 races begins at 7 a.m. Friday.

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