Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Each of the past three years, Texas has dominated the men’s NCAA swimming championships—and on all three of those occasions, California has finished second. Going back even further, in the past eight seasons, Texas has four titles and three runner-up finishes, while Cal has won three times and been runner-up on the other five occasions.
What’s the secret? Well, Texas and Cal recruit good swimmers and make them faster. And somehow, when really good swimmers graduate, the teams are still really good.
2018 is yet another year when few would be surprised if the Longhorns and Golden Bears again occupy the top two spots at NCAAs when all is said and done—which is a little bit crazy, when you consider who’s not on these teams anymore.
Ryan Murphy won NCAA titles in both backstroke events each of the past four years for Cal, and he was also a key contributor in the 200 IM and on four relays each year. He’s graduated. Texas, meanwhile, graduated Will Licon, Clark Smith and Jack Conger, a trio that combined for 10 individual national championships over the past three seasons.
And yet, they’re both still really talented teams, Texas with its remaining superstars (Joseph Schooling and Townley Haas) and Cal with an impressive collection of depth, particularly in the sprints.
For just a minute, forget about all that. It’d be easy to become green in the face trying to analyze which team is better and how Florida, Indiana and NC State will factor into the equation come late March—and rest assured, we will. Right now, the key point is the freshmen.
Freshmen rarely decide a championship, but it’s hardly uncommon to see first-years emerge and steal some national titles. Remember, Schooling was not yet a superstar when he won his first two NCAA titles in 2015, and neither was Haas one year later.
So far this season, only two schools have multiple men ranked among the top-ten in Division I in an individual event—Texas and Cal. Austin Katz and Sam Pomajevich have been standout freshmen for the Longhorns, while Cal’s Ryan Hoffer, Daniel Carr and Sean Grieshop all have top-ten times under their belt.
Katz currently owns the top time in the country in the 200 back at 1:38.49 and the No. 2 time nationally in the 100 back (45.32), while Pomajevich ranks fourth in the 200 fly at 1:40.82. Both Katz’s 200 back and Pomajevich’s 200 fly would have been good enough to qualify for A-finals at last year’s NCAAs, while Katz’s 100 back would have put him in the B-final.
Two potential freshman A-finalists? That would be big, especially for a team that lost so much from last season, and Texas actually had no freshman swimmers make a single championship final at that meet.
As for the Golden Bears, none of their freshmen have so far recorded times that would have placed in the top-eight at NCAAs last year, but Hoffer could certainly reach that level if he gets back to his best times from high school. His season-bests this year are 19.13 in the 50 free and 42.28 in the 100 free, but his lifetime bests are 18.71 and 41.23, respectively.
Of course, it’s tough to imagine anyone beating Caeleb Dressel in either sprint, but the only other current NCAA swimmer with a best time quicker than Hoffer in either event is Ryan Held. So, yes, definite big-point potential here.
Carr has been as quick as 1:40.65 in the 200 back this season, while Grieshop swam a 3:43.30 in the 400 IM. Both those times would have qualified for consolation finals in 2017. Carr’s 100 back (45.96) and Bryce Mefford’s 200 back (1:40.84) would have just missed scoring.
From all that information, you would think that Texas and Cal should end up with similar freshmen scoring outputs—individually. But in the relays, the big advantage goes to the Golden Bears.
First off, Hoffer. Even if he’s slightly off his best times come March, that’s still a huge piece for Cal’s 200 and 400-yard relays—all currently ranked No. 1 in the country. Alone, Hoffer is excellent, but he could be deadly when teamed with the likes of Michael Jensen, Justin Lynch and Pawel Sendyk.
Then there’s backstroke, where Cal has a Murphy-sized hole to fill. Carr is not Murphy, and expecting him to reach that level is simply unreasonable, but he’s an upgrade over anyone else the Bears had on the roster last season.
On the other hand, neither Katz nor Pomajevich will figure heavily into Texas’ relay plans at NCAAs. It’s possible Pomajevich ends up as a piece on the 800 free relay, but John Shebat will likely handle the backstroke leg on both medley relays after finishing second to Murphy in both individual events in 2017.
So when it comes to freshmen, advantage Cal. Most of the Bears’ first-years (aside from Hoffer) have no shot at finishing in the top-three in an individual event, but this year’s Cal team is not a superstar-driven unit.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say they have a ‘best swimmer,’” Murphy said. “It’s a lot easier to rally the troops when you have a bunch of guys who are like, ‘Alright, Ryan’s not here, so let’s all do this. Let’s all step up our game.”
The former Golden Bear then added, “I’m excited to see how they progress.” Well, if Cal’s freshmen keep on their current course, that could put them in the hunt for a national title.