Anchor Leg: Men’s NCAA Swimming Championships Revisited

NCAA Swimming Championships
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick NCAA Swimming Championships

Commentary By Michael J. Stott

The last swimmer into the wall at the men’s NCAA swimming championships was Indiana’s Sam Lorentz. His 42.88 split cemented an eighth-place finish in the 400 free relay and seventh place team finish for the resurgent Indiana Hoosiers. In reality, there were no losers at the four day aquatic festival in Indianapolis. Given that, just making the field with the most stringent qualifying times ever was a victory in itself.

Surely the Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” can apply to 2017 championship. The athletes paraded around like Greek gods. They carried physiques molded by hours in the weight room and pool. While the PGA may allege “These guys are good,” the NCAA can counter with “These guys are ripped.” If there was an ounce of fat to be found, or a BMI over 1.0, it was not on display. Six packs were everywhere. In the extreme, Ryan Murphy had one on his back.

Entries into the pool (especially on relays exchanges) were flawless. Streamlines were extended and breakouts precise. The result was records galore including four in six swimming events on Saturday night.

Overlooked in all the fast swimming was the shuffling and upward mobility of teams vying for permanent residence in the top ten. Indiana, Arizona State, South Carolina and Wisconsin all showed improvement over 2016 in either position, points or both. Even NC State, who suffered significant graduation losses, managed to maintain its fourth place showing from 2016 thus solidifying its reputation as a player in this annual dogfight.

NC State

Former Wolfpack All-American Braden Holloway is now in his sixth season as head coach in Raleigh. He has brought an aggressive toughness to the once-proud program. His men and women have bought into his philosophy and rigorous training that this year produced ACC championships for both squads, a seventh place NCAA finish for the women (highest ever) and another fourth for the men.

The Pack men opened the meet Wednesday with a U.S. Open and pool record 6:06.53 in the 800 free relay – and faltered a bit after that. “The meet has been a mixed bag for us,” Holloway saidafter the meet. “Obviously we wanted to be better overall. On the season we had some bright spots and some challenges. That first relay on Wednesday was special. Going as fast as we did gave us an awesome start.

“We poured out a bunch of emotion for that race and we had a hard time maintaining that. We had a few guys that weren’t completely on and that made it a little bit harder. But overall it was a good week. We want to keep moving forward. I think every team here probably always wants more. We’re no different.” – Braden Holloway, NC State Head Coach

Holloway attributes the ascendency of his program to a number of things.

“It’s a team effort. I’ve got a great staff that works hard, a sport staff that extends all the way to the administration and a great history with alumni and parents. The support is always there and it builds every year. When we started this journey six years ago we made some pretty hard decisions about how we wanted things run.

“We want to create a culture of excellence, great decision making and do good old fashioned hard work. Now, our men and women don’t know any different and it just builds on itself. These days we get more and more people considering us as an option when they get out of high school. We just have to keep building the name NC State, get better and have fun doing it.”

Indiana

The Hoosier men are beginning to look like the Indiana swim teams of old having placed seventh in each of the last two NCAA men’s meets. Diving under coach Drew Johansen continues its unbelievable run. Olympian Michael Hixon and James Connor were double finalists in the 1m and 3m and Cody Coldren was 15th on the platform. A week earlier, Indiana’s women finished eighth, which was their second-highest placing ever.

Swimming connoisseurs are beginning to notice the turnaround, though not quickly enough for Ray Looze, a U.S. Olympic coach in Rio who is now in his 12th year in Bloomington.

“People these days say ‘Indiana, they were never any good.’ No one knows our history — that we were great (six consecutive NCAA titles under Doc Counsilman, 1968-1973). “You remember,” he said. “We need to teach them.”

The lesson is taking. Neighbors took early notice. Purdue coach Dan Ross is in his 32nd year as head man at Purdue and coached against Counsilman in his final years. He remembers the legacy and the not-so-good years in between.

“Being a Purdue guy, you’d think we would never even talk to those guys. We get along really well. I get along with Ray Looze. [Associate head coach] Dennis Dale s my best friend in coaching. I have known him forever.

“I think what is happening there is Ray is doing a good job. He has a unique personality. [Co-associate head coach] Mike Westphal is the anchor, concrete, the brick wall and does an unbelievable job coaching consistently. Plus they are starting to get athletes that are at that level (think Lilly King, Cody Miller, Ali Khalafalla, Blake Pieroni, et. al). Ray being an Olympic coach has helped them. Dennis has been a key player in the last few years with his attitude towards winning and human touch. The swimmers would do anything for him,” – Dan Ross, Purdue Head Coach

“Ray is obviously the linchpin. Mike Westphal is his sergeant-at-arms and does an unbelievable job of coaching the middle distance and group. They have great divers, but you can’t just have divers. They are getting guys in relays now. This year the Hoosiers placed ninth, tied for seventh, sixth, 13th, seventh. When you get a Lily King and a Blake Pieroni, those are the people who put you over the top. You have to have a system, an attitude and what not over the years. Mike and Ray worked together at Pacific so they are a great team,” Ross said.

Wisconsin

The Badgers remained in 18th place this year boosting their point total from 53 to 63 thanks in part to a strong 24-point final session. Senior Matt Hutchins was fifth (14 points) in the 1650 after posting a time that would have been good enough to win the 2016 NCAA title in the event. Wisconsin’s 400 free relay of Cannon Clifton, Ryan Stack, Ryan Barsanti and Brett Pinfold closed the meet in 12th place, good for 10 additional points.

“We’ve had a really good year. Our conference meets were outstanding, the best since I’ve been here. The men were fifth with 763 points and women third with 1101.5. We crushed it. We had a little bit of bad luck with sickness last week with the women. No excuses, just reality. The men have done a nice job. We have fought and competed for everything. Every point is meaningful and that is pretty special in its own way.” – Whitney Hite, Wisconsin Head Coach

The 2017 success helps set the table for 2018, but as Hite pointed out, “you are only as good as your last meet so we’ll make some adjustments, get back to work and be better,” he said.

South Carolina

The Gamecocks added 28 points to their 71 from a 19th-place finish in 2016 finish to land in 15th this time around in Indianapolis. Head coach McGee Moody has assembled an outstanding staff and their expertise is paying big dividends. Former Virginia head man Mark Bernardino’s influence was again evident in the distance and IM events.

In the 500, South Carolina amassed 27 points with the fifth and sixth-place finishes from Fynn Minuth and Akaram Mahmoud. Three top-16 finishers in the 1650, Mahmoud (third), Cody Bekemeyer (13th) and Tom Peribonio (15th), added 22 more. Peribonio earned nine with a ninth in the 400 IM.

Nils Wich-Glasen, an All-American from Germany, has benefited from training with coaches Kevin Swander and Erin Mullins. In Indy, Wich-Glasen captured two additional individual All-American honors and scored 24 points with sixth and eighth-place showings in the 200 (1:52.87) and 100 (51.92) breaststrokes, respectively.

“We came in with pretty high expectations. We surpassed even what we had in mind. Our guys almost maxed out what we are capable of doing. I have a coaching staff that is as focused and hard working as any I’ve ever had. They care about our athletes and the progress of this program.” McGee Moody, South Carolina Head Coach

“We’ve got some strong freshmen coming in, ones that will be in, and score points, in this meet next year. The big thing is we’ve got to get some speed swimmers, 50 and 100 guys. We’ve got developing athletes currently but in the present landscape if you don’t have an 18 point relay or a 42 anchor at the end of the medley relay you are going to be out of the game. The last piece of the puzzle is getting the rest of our relays here and continuing to move up that point ladder. We are going to keep working, but we still have work to do.”

Led by Swander, South Carolina recruits internationally with considerable success. The 2017 Gamecock roster sports athletes from Germany, Israel, Egypt, Spain, and South Africa. “Next year we’ve got a Hungarian and Colombian coming in. We’re excited about it,” said Moody.

Arizona State

Bob Bowman spent more than 15 years at North Baltimore Aquatic Club shepherding Michael Phelps and national level swimmers. He also coached at the University of Michigan from 2005-2008. Now in his second year at Arizona State, he is resurrecting the Sun Devil swimming tradition. The results have been almost immediate.

“We are actually ahead of schedule. I am very proud of these boys. They work super hard, they’ve bought into our system and are starting to believe they can compete on this level. We have some people with talent. Most of them were already here when I arrived. We just had to raise their level.” – Bob Bowman, Arizona State Head Coach

Bowman’s incoming personnel hails from all over the United States as well as internationally.

“We’ve pretty much covered all the bases and that’s what I want to keep doing. We are just trying to take it a step at a time. We have a long way to go. We are not competitive in this meet at the top level, but we are in the meet. A year ago we scored two points; this year 100. So we are doing a little better,” Bowman said.

Coach Speak

“All momentum is is your next swim. It’s a word you guys made up.”

“Speed is directly related to strength.”

  • Texas head coach Eddie Reese in comments to the media

“He had a great conference meet, but here he’s starstruck. He needs another year.”

  • Anonymous

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Dan

    Great summary!