Breakout Performers During the First Round of College Midseason Invitationals

ellen walshe tennessee

Breakout Performers During the First Round of College Midseason Invitationals

As usual, the first week of midseason invites brought several fast swims. 

Stars like Kieran Smith, Alex Walsh, Kate Douglass, and others were on top form as expected, posting multiple NCAA-leading times. 

In addition to their stellar swims, we also witnessed breakthrough performances from numerous athletes. Whether it was an athlete who has never scored at NCAAs who swam times that put them in the mix for an A-final or medal contention or a swimmer who has never made a postseason meet who has all but secured an NCAA berth, we saw a mix of everything last weekend. 

Here are some breakout performers during the first round of mid-season invitationals:

Women 

Ellen Walshe, Tennessee

While the Ireland native was a top recruit heading into the season, with the exception of the 200 IM, none of her converted meters times would have even scored at NCAAs this past year. Even so, other than 2021, she would have only barely snuck into the 200 IM B-final in previous championships. 

At the Tennessee Invitational, she had a Maggie MacNeil-esque breakout meet. The Tokyo Olympian established herself not just as one of the top freshmen in the country but as a star within the entire NCAA. Producing one of the swims of the weekend, Walshe posted the second-fastest time ever by a freshman in the 100 butterfly when she dominated the field in Knoxville to win in 50.24. The swim is best in the NCAA so far this season and makes her the 14th-fastest performer in history. 

To add to her spectacular weekend, she posted the third-best time in the nation in both the 200 IM and 200 fly. She probably would have been in a similar position in the 400 IM had she swam it in finals. 

Now a firm favorite to win the 100 fly at SECs and a contender in the 200 fly and 200 IM, Walshe’s rise could be crucial for a Tennesee team looking to regain its conference title. She will be a top point scorer and relay contributor at the NCAA level, as well, with the Lady Volunteers aiming to improve on last season’s 10th-place finish. 

Missy Cundiff – William and Mary 

The College of William and Mary has been thick in the spotlight over the past couple of years. 

missy-cundiff-william-and-mary

Photo Courtesy: William & Mary Athletics

A little under two years ago, school record holder and Tribe swimming legend Colin Wright became the first swimmer from the school to qualify for the NCAA championships since Ron Good in 1963. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was unable to participate in the meet. He finished the season ranked fourth in the nation in the 50 freestyle and became only the fourth mid-major swimmer to break 19 seconds. 

More recently, the team dominated headlines last September when the school announced that it was cutting both the men’s and women’s programs at the end of the 2020-2021 season. After current swimmers and alumni launched a campaign to save the program, coupled with a possible Title IX violation, the school reinstated the women’s team a month later. Further pushback brought the men’s team back until at least the end of this season. 

Missy Cundiff, who became well known in the swimming community last year when she released a Save Tribe Swim rap in an effort to save the program, brought some more good news to the Williamburg institution with her 50 free performance at the West Virginia Invite last weekend. The senior shaved over three-tenths off Katie Radloff’s 12-year-old school record to become the first William and Mary woman to break 22 seconds in the sprint event. 

More significantly, her 21.98 ranks 10th in the nation and puts her well on her way to qualify for her first NCAA Championships. Having a 22.50 personal best heading into the season, Cundiff’s swim in Morgantown was a massive breakthrough performance. 

Already set to become only the Tribe women’s third swimmer to qualify for NCAAs, she will want to go one step further and be the first swimmer from the school to score at the meet. If she can match her time or go faster, she most certainly will do so. It has surely been a meteoric rise for a swimmer who was just 23.1 coming out of high school.

Madelyn Moore, University of Northern Colorado

Bermuda national record holder Madelyn Moore has had a bittersweet year so far. 

Having a phenomenal 2021, she looked to set to qualify for the Toyko Olympic GamesAlthough FINA awarded her a universality spot for the Games by virtue of being her country’s top female swimmer, the Bermuda Olympic Association refused to accept the invitation, barring Moore from competing at the Olympics this summer. 

She seemed to fuel her disappointment into swimming as, immediately following the controversial decision, Moore set three national records at the Central American and Caribbean Championships (CCCAN) in June. Building upon her outstanding summer, she has had her best season yet in the NCAA. 

At the Dixie State Trailblazer Invitational, the senior sped to school records in the 50 and 100 free and 100 fly. While all her swims were impressive, the one that stands out is the 50 free. Her 22.20 cuts three-tenths from the school record she set as a freshman at the Western Athletic Conference championships and ranks her 19th in the nation. 

Like Cundiff, Moore has consistently been one of the top swimmers in her conference, but has never made it to the NCAA meet. Her time in Utah is a touch faster than what it has generally taken to qualify for NCAAs over the past few seasons. Considering the speed in women’s Division I swimming this year, she may need to drop a few hundredths to secure her ticket to Atlanta in March. 

If she can make the cutoff time for the meet, she will become the first Nothern Colorado swimmer to qualify for the NCAA Championships. 

Andrea Sansores, University of Arkansas 

After dipping under 53 seconds in the 100 backstroke for the first time at the Missouri Invitational last year, Arkansas senior Andrea Sansores qualified for her maiden NCAA Championships. While she could not replicate her performance from 2020 in Greensboro, she certainly took confidence from her experience. 

The Cancun, Mexico native shocked many when she dropped over a second from her best time to finish runnerup to Olympian Rhyan White at the Tennessee Invitational. With her 51.87, she ranks 10th nationally, and is in SEC A-Final and NCAA B-Final scoring range. 

Having gained her first individual conference points last year as a C-finalist, looking at her midseason results, Sansores is primed for a big conference meet in February and NCAA Championships the following month. 

Celia Pulido, Southern Illinois University

Southern Illinois University women’s swimming and diving has been in the news for the wrong reasons in recent years. In 2018, after their diving coach conducted and arranged impermissible tryouts and workouts for prospective student-athletes and two incoming international students, the team was placed on a three-year probation and had their scholarships reduced. The NCAA ruled that the head swimming and diving coach “both failed to monitor the diving coach and did not promote an atmosphere of compliance.”

Right after their probation ended, the team was back in the limelight, but for the right reasons this time as freshman Celia Pulido made waves in the mid-major NCAA. The Mexican National Team member chopped a second off a year-old school record in the 200 back during her debut for the Salukis against Missouri State in early October. She only got faster from there, breaking her own record a week later in a meet against Missouri. 

Given how quickly she acclimated to college swimming, she was riding high on confidence heading into the A3 Performance Invitational. At the meet, she crushed her best times in the 100 and 200 back, grabbing the school record for the first time in the latter. 

While her 200 (1:54.26) is just off what it took to qualify for NCAAs in the past few years with the exception of this past season, her time in the shorter event (52.46) is under the invite time for the past three championships. While she should easily win Missouri Valley Conference titles in both events, her focus will be getting to Atlanta in mid-March. 

If she can go any faster, it would solidify Pulido becoming the first Saluki swimmer to qualify for NCAAs in 12 years. 

Men 

Ben Dillard, University of Southern California 

Ben Dillard USC

Photo Courtesy: Ben Dillard

One of the best young breaststrokers in the country when he committed to USC, sophomore Ben Dillard had lofty expectations behind him as he headed into the NCAA. He did not end up competing for the Trojans during his freshman year due to COVID reasons, and in the few meets he swam for his club team last spring, he was miles off his best. 

Dillard finally moved to Los Angeles this summer, and it immediately paid dividends. At the Speedo Summer Championships – West, he finished second in the 200 breast, chopping over two seconds from his personal best to break Steven Stumph’s Trojan record from 2015. 

Seeing his progress over just a couple of months at USC, the two-time NISCA All-American seemed destined to crush his short course best in the event this fall. He almost did so in his Trojan debut, clocking a 1:54.98 to dominate the competition at the USC Invitational in mid-October. The time was a little over two-tenths slower than the 1:54.74 he posted to win Winter Junior Nationals – West in 2019. 

Victories against Arizona and Arizona State also boded well for what to expect from the Folsom, California native at the Art Adamson Invite. In prelims, he cracked 1:54 for the first time to take the top seed in the 200 breast with a 1:53.93. Certainly having more in the tank, Dillard crushed his hours-old best time to win the event in 1:52.44. With his swim, he tied Notre Dame’s Josh Bottelberghe for the top time in the nation. 

He competes in a Pac-12 Conference loaded with star breaststrokers, but given his form this season, Dillard has the potential to shock some of his more experienced competitors. 

Jordan Crooks, University of Tennessee 

Despite being one of the top sprinters in the Caribbean, the Cayman Islands National Team member did not have much fanfare behind him heading into Knoxville. While he had impressive times entering his freshman year, he was not necessarily a marquee addition for the Vols. Additionally, he had a lot of unknowns surrounding him in terms of how he would adapt to yards since he had not swum in the format before. 

If one can take anything from his Tennessee Invite performance, it is that he has defied all expectations. 

At the meet, Crooks notched wins in the 50 and 100 free in 19.39 and 42.41, respectively, upsetting SEC champ Matt King in the process. He was even faster leading off the 400 free relay, touching in 42.33 to edge defending ACC champ Matt Brownstead. In addition to taking down some of the best sprinters in the country, he broke into the Tenessee all-time top 10, ranking fourth in both events. 

His scintillating performances did not stop there. He finished fourth in the 100 back in 47.30 (47.25 in prelims), ninth in the 100 fly in 47.12, and eighth in prelims of the 200 free (did not swim it at finals). As a result, he was Tennessee’s top male point scorer at the meet and named SEC Freshman of the Week. 

Crooks’ rapid rise bodes well for the Vol men, who are looking to close the gap on Florida and Georgia in the SEC and improve on their 20th-place finish at NCAAs last year. Within half a season, he has gone from someone maybe seen as a relay option to possibly the most valuable member of the Tennesee men’s team. 

Ben Sampson, Colorado Mesa University 

I do not think anyone on this list has had a more meteoric rise to prominence than Ben SampsonBefore heading to Grand Junction, he was a 52.3 100 backstroker and 1:58 in the 200 back. The COVID-19 pandemic layoff seemed to do him wonders as the sophomore exploded onto the scene at the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Championships (RMAC) last year. 

After never breaking 22 in high school, he won the 50 free title in 20.01, just a hundredth away from the school record. He followed that win up with a 48.02 in the 100 back. Interestingly, his winning swim was his first time racing the event in college. Sampson closed out his breakout meet with a school-record 44.53 for a runnerup finish in the 100 free. 

In just a few months, he went from being an average Colorado swimmer to one of the top sprint backstrokers in Division II. Unfortunately, Sampson could not replicate his performances from the RMAC meet at NCAAs and did not score in any event, but that did not take away from the phenomenal freshman year he had. 

He has picked up right where he left off this year, breaking 48 for the first time in the 100 back with a 47.64 400 medley relay leadoff leg at a tri-meet against Colorado School of Mines and Augustana University last month. While that swim was impressive, it was his performances at the A3 Performance Invitational that stood out. 

Sampson produced the sixth fastest 100 back ever by a Division II swimmer when he stormed to a 46.46 to win the event in his home pool. The swim ranks him No. 1 in Division II and 18th across all divisions. Significantly, the time is slightly off what it has taken to be invited to the NCAA Division I Championships in recent seasons. 

A clear favorite to win the 100 back at NCAAs, Sampson will be looking to bring home his team’s first national swimming title. 

Given his rapid improvement and talent across multiple events, it would not be surprising to see Power Five teams trying to pick him up for next season. 

Tanner Nelson, Brigham Young University

Although Tanner Nelson headed to Provo, Utah as a top recruit, he has taken his swimming to another level this season. At the Dixie State Trailblazer Invitational, he put on a clinic, scoring victories in the 500 and 1650 free and the 400IM, all in school-record fashion.  His swims came with massive time drops as well. He cut almost seven seconds from this 500 free, eight in his 400 IM, and a whopping 23 in his mile.

Miles ahead of anyone in his conference in the previously mentioned events, he certainly has three individual Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) championships in the bag come February. 

His primary focus, though, will be trying to qualify for NCAAs. Nelson has an outstanding shot in all three of his best events. As of now, the 400 IM seems to be his best bet, with his 3:44.8 at Dixie State only a few tenths from the aggregate invite time over the past three years. He is not far off in the 500 and mile either, and with some minor time drops in the events, he could be looking at NCAA invites in three races. 

Watch out for Nelson in the second half of this season and seasons to come. He will be a critical component for a BYU team transitioning to being a Power Five school in two years time as a member of the Big 12. 

Brady Samuels, Purdue University

Considering that he was a top-ranked recruit heading into college, Brady Samuels is not as much of a “breakout star” compared to the other men on the list. What gives him the nod is his rapid improvement despite coming in as one of the best swimmers in the freshman class. 

Before Purdue, Samuels had never broken 47 in the 100 fly. He signaled that big things were to come when he was within two-hundredths of his best time at a dual meet against Missouri and Michigan earlier this month. With some rest for the Purdue Invitational, he skipped straight past the 46s and unleashed a 45.66, winning the event and defeating Olympic bronze medalist Federico Burdisso in the process. 

His swim broke Andrew Langenfeld’s 12-year-old school record, and he became the first Boilermaker to go sub-46. The time ranks him 10th in the country and first in the Big Ten. In a matter of months, Samuels has gone from a B-final scorer at the conference level to a title contender. He’ll be looking to upset guys like Indiana’s Tomer Frankel and Brendan Burns to win the event in his home pool.

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