By Jason Marsteller
PHOENIX, Arizona, March 30 WITH the 2011 NCAA Championships now behind us, it is always a good idea for me to look back on how I did when it came to predicting the NCAA Division I Women's Championships in our March issue of Swimming World Magazine.
The assignment, as always, is pretty difficult as John Lohn (men's) and I (women's) must pick out top 10 team finishers by a mid-January deadline due to the production schedule. Usually, picking the winner and getting the rest of the top 10 picks in no particular order means a successful selection. This year, I should have gone with my initial gut feeling, as I would have picked the winner and the top 10. However, I let some of the numbers talk me out of my initial feelings.
Here's a review of my picks in the order I picked them to finish:
Finish: #2 (394.5 points)
Coming into the 2010-11 season, Georgia had some serious firepower returning to the team with nine point-scorers back. After losing in a close battle in 2010, I believed that Georgia would have enough depth and returning experience to score the team title after comparing the points returning (299.5) and points lost (43.0) to California's (281.0/82.0).
Verdict: Close enough; Georgia nearly pulled off the victory, but could not counter the impressive freshman class of the Golden Bears
Finish: #1 (424 points)
This is one of the spots where I should have trusted my first instinct. I texted Teri McKeever very early in the process to tell her I was planning on picking Cal to win, and UGA and USC in the top three. But, that I still was going to do some more research. If I would have made it easier on myself, I would have nailed the pick! Sometimes, when doing predictions, hunches are better than research. Look at the March Madness bracket right now. Only two people at ESPN.com picked the Final Four for men's basketball.
Cal's incredible freshman class lead by NCAA titlist Cindy Tran and Deborah Roth definitely made the difference with upperclassmen being fairly equal with Georgia.
Verdict: Close enough
Finish: #3 (351 points)
The Women of Troy had an absolutely fabulous meet, and might have contended for a national title if both California and Georgia had made mistakes. Dave Salo's crew just never had that door opened for them. However, compared to where the team has been in recent years, USC is definitely moving in the right direction by ascending to third overall – not to mention NCAA Swimmer of the Championships Katinka Hosszu is slated to return for a senior season.
Finish: #4 (272 points)
The Cardinal might have lost superstars in Elaine Breeden and Julia Smit, but the squad had a strong enough team returning with seniors Kelsey Ditto and Kate Dwelley, along with some incredible freshmen like Maya DiRado adding some serious points, to do some major damage this year. The team just did not have enough firepower to challenge for a national title like it did a year ago.
Finish: #7 (226)
The defending champions, even with the addition of Olympian Elizabeth Beisel, just lost way too many points to even return to the top five after the Gators' improbable victory in 2010. The team lost an astounding 204 points from last year's team, including dominant swimmers like Gemma Spofforth and Jemma Lowe. Also, while Beisel definitely had some big swims at the meet, she explained in interviews throughout the competition that the NCAA meet was like nothing else she'd ever experienced.
Verdict: Close enough
Finish: #8 (202 points)
While Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace did her part for a possible push into the top five with a sprint freestyle sweep, Auburn did not have enough in the tank to match the sixth-place finish I'd predicted. The Tigers relied on strong relays to push them into the top 10.
Finish: #10 (182 points)
In one of the most inspiring coaching performances of the meet, Steve Bultman weathered the loss of 206.5 points to graduation, including NCAA titlists Julia Wilkinson and Alia Atkinson. He has one primary person to thank for it, an unheralded freshman named Breeja Larson. Larson, to me, was the story of the meet – even with Hosszu winning three individual events. Larson, who began competitive swimming as a senior in high school had an astonishing progression in the breaststroke events from her first step on campus in College Station. She finished the year with a pair of runner-up performances in the 100 and 200 breast, and had an unfathomable time drop in the 200 breast. She began her freshman year with a 2:22 lifetime best, and ended with a 2:06.18 to enter the top five in the all-time performers list.
Verdict: Miss; Without Larson putting on one of the most incredible rags to riches stories in recent memory, the Aggies fall out of the top 10
Finish: #9 (192)
Minnesota relied heavily on breaststroke specialists Jillian Tyler (100 breast champion) and Haley Spencer (200 breast champion) as well as NCAA Diver of the Championships Kelci Bryant to hold down a spot in the top 10. The breaststroke events, surprisingly, proved to be some of the most exciting to witness, especially Spencer's surprising victory in the 200 breast that witnessed four swimmers all turning in 2:06s.
Verdict: Close enough; When you have three national title contenders, you should finish in the top 10.
Finish: #13 (105)
The final two picks wound up costing me a top 10 sweep in no particular order primarily because I did not trust my instincts when it came to Arizona and Texas. Virginia returned the most points out of the teams outside the top eight with 78 points, and I felt that would be good enough to get them into the top 10. It wasn't meant to be in Austin.
Verdict: Complete miss; Missing on Arizona and Texas by definition means I missed on two teams. Virginia was one of them.
Finish: #12 (148 points)
Tennessee's selection is a case of garbage in, garbage out. I gambled on two performers being available by NCAAs, and both of them wound up not competing. 2010 NISCA Diver of the Year Tori Lamp, who redshirted her first year in 2010 due to a knee injury, had another injury this year that caused her to miss the bulk of the season. She may be looking for a sixth-year when all is said and done, but she is as close to a lock for diving points as there might be. Additionally, Molly Hannis, a Swimming World six-star recruit did not get on campus until January, leading Tennessee to the decision to redshirt her first year. That was a pair of pointscorers I counted on as part of my prediction for the meet.
Top 10 Misses
In the end, I picked eight of the top 10 in no particular order. Arizona (#5, 266) and Texas (#6, 232) represented complete misses on my part. I even alluded to not being comfortable leaving the two teams outside of the top 10 in my predictions article.
Initially, I'd planned on picking Arizona and Texas. Who would pick against Frank Busch? And, Kim Brackin just kept loading up on talent and was swimming at home. But, Arizona lost 307 points from its 2010 team, leaving the Wildcats with only 52.5 points returning. I never would have guessed Arizona would nearly win the first relay out of the gate with an all-freshman cast of Margo Geer, Kait Flederbach, Grace Finnegan and Aubrey Peacock. The cupboard is definitely full for whoever takes over the helm from Busch, who is now the USA Swimming National Team Director.
Texas, meanwhile, has been one of the toughest teams to predict for me in the past few years. With the amount of talent UT has routinely recruited to Austin, I truly believed an NCAA team title would have lit the tower by now. But, with Kathleen Hersey sitting out this year with the likelihood to never swim for the collegiate team at Texas ever again, I wasn't sure how the team would respond. That turned out to be my mistake, as the Longhorns performed well in their own pool.