By John Lohn
ASTON, Pennsylvania, November 9. THE finest swimmer walking around the University of Michigan campus doesn’t wear the Maize and Blue of the Wolverines. Well, at least not in competitive fashion. As a professional, Michael Phelps long ago forfeited the opportunity to compete at the collegiate level and chase NCAA titles. Still, there’s no reason to believe Michigan will not be a top-three contender when the NCAA Championships are held in late March.
When Bob Bowman decided to leave his coaching post at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club and accept the head role at Michigan, there was little doubt as to the likelihood that Michigan eventually would contend for top honors at the NCAA Champs. After all, Bowman had molded the finest swimmer in the world in Phelps and his lofty profile, certainly, would help in recruiting. Now, with the collegiate season in its early stages, it appears as if the Wolverines will make a push for NCAA glory as soon as 2006, just around the corner.
Prior to Bowman taking the reins at Michigan, the Wolverines were guided by the legendary Jon Urbanchek. The molder of countless NCAA champs and Olympians, Urbanchek led Michigan to an NCAA title in 1995 and numerous top-10 finishes. During his tenure, he sculpted the careers of Mike Barrowman and Tom Dolan, among other elite performers. In his final year, the Michigan 800 free relay claimed victory at the NCAA Champs.
Now, it is Bowman running the show and searching for a way to land the Wolverines on top of the collegiate world. A year ago, his first as coach, his squad finished sixth at the NCAA Championships. Bowman then went out and recruited a spectacular crop of freshmen who are sure to make an immediate impact. Factor in the returning talent and there’s good reason to consider Michigan as a contender for a top-three finish. Are the Wolverines viewed as the favorite? No. As three-time defending champ, Auburn deserves that nod. Meanwhile, Stanford and Florida are also high on the chart.
Nonetheless, there is enough firepower to suggest that Michigan will be in the running, particularly with the duo of Peter Vanderkaay and Davis Tarwater leading the way. A 2004 Olympian and gold medalist in the 800 free relay, Vanderkaay is the defending NCAA champ in the 500 free and will be relied on for major scoring in the middle and long-distance freestyles, along with relay duty. As for Tarwater, he placed fourth at last summer’s World Champs in the 200 fly and will certainly score high in the 100 fly. Additionally, Chris DeJong is among the top 200 backstrokers in the country.
While three big-time names are a great way to start, they certainly don’t possess enough firepower to lead a program to a team championship. That’s where the freshmen come into play. In Bobby Savulich, Christian Sprang and Matt Patton, the Wolverines possess a triumvirate that should bolster the lineup in fast fashion, and unquestionably for the next few years. Patton is the reigning Junior Pan Pacific titlist in the 800 and 1,500 freestyles and won silver in the 400 free.
The major problem facing the Wolverines and their potential for a top-three finish is their lack of elite sprinting, typically a necessity in the year-end college meet. But, look for the Wolverines to slightly offset that weakness with depth and top-flight power from Vanderkaay, Tarwater and DeJong. And, expect Bowman to recruit some primetime sprinters in the next few years.
Bottom line: A year ago, Michigan finished sixth at the NCAA Champs, inarguably a solid finish. But, with Bob Bowman at the helm and attracting elite prospects to his program, look for the Wolverines to emerge as an annual contender for the NCAA team crown. Maybe not this year, but for the future.