WEST WINDSOR, N.J. — Washington’s top-ranked men’s varsity eight cleared another major hurdle in its chase for a fourth straight Intercollegiate Rowing Association championship Saturday, battling gusting winds and a game Cal crew to qualify for Sunday’s final at Mercer Lake.

In the second varsity-eight semifinal, the Huskies finished second behind Cal — suffering their first defeat to a college team since the 2011 season — 5:47.4-5:49.9.

“We know it’s a three-day regatta,” said Washington coach Michael Callahan, acknowledging the need to conserve some effort during the qualifying stages. “Definitely the semifinals are (mentally) tough because everything is on the line.”

Fierce crosswinds pummeled the rowers between the 200- and 700-meter mark of the 2,000-meter race, making for what Callahan termed “rough conditions and a rough row.”

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The strong winds created choppy water conditions that made it difficult for the rowers to gain a clean stroke. The Huskies, who won their quarterfinal qualifying heat Friday, were moved from lane four to the more favorable lane two in response to the windy conditions.

“(Friday night) we told the guys that they were just going to have to keep taking strokes,” said Callahan of the windy conditions. “They’re not going to be perfect strokes.”

The qualifying spot earned the Huskies a spot among a deep field in Sunday’s final that starts at 9:45 a.m. PDT. That includes Cal, whom the Huskies had beaten twice previously, Northeastern, Brown and undefeated Harvard, which beat UW in a head race over 5,000 meters in Boston in the fall.

“They look dangerous,” said Callahan of Harvard. “They have a great stroke and a lot of experience.”

Washington qualified five teams for Sunday’s finals, keeping alive hopes of an eighth straight Ten Eyck Trophy, given to the team with the most overall points.

“This is the youngest team we’ve had in the past four or five years,” said Callahan, whose team features 11 freshmen and only five seniors. “For us, this was a year we wanted to get a lot of experience.

“I think (qualifying five teams for finals) says a lot about our program.”

The last time the Huskies lost to a college team over 2,000 meters was to Harvard in the semifinals of the 2011 championship, according to Callahan. The Huskies won that final. Callahan hopes that Sunday’s race brings more of the same.

“We have to get it done under any conditions,” Callahan said. “That’s kind of a mantra of ours.”