California Golden Bears Come Up Just Short Despite Historic Performance

ryan hoffer, california golden bears, 2021 men's ncaa swimming championships
Cal's Ryan Hoffer and Bjorn Seeliger celebrate their 1-2 finish in the 50 free at the men's NCAA championships -- Photo Courtesy: NCAA Media

California Golden Bears Come Up Just Short Despite Historic Performance

No swim team was more impressive at the men’s NCAA championships than the California Golden Bears. They scored a whopping 568 points, the most of any swim team. Ryan Hoffer was one of just two swimmers to win three individual events, and he led his team to first-place finishes in both the 200 and 400 free relays. Destin Lasco was arguably the most impressive freshman at the meet, recording three top-three finishes and almost stealing a national title in the 200 back. Veterans Reece Whitley, Hugo Gonzalez and Trenton Julian all posted massive performances.

And yet, as we cannot forget, this was the swimming and diving championships, and Texas scored 83 points in diving, good enough to vault the Longhorns past the Bears. Cal has now scored the most swimming points in seven of the past 11 NCAA championships, but on three of those occasions (2010, 2018 and now 2021), Texas diving has made the difference.

This time, Cal’s point total was by far the highest of any runnerup finisher ever at the men’s NCAA championships, easily surpassing Stanford’s total of 501 from the 2002 championships (where, coincidentally, the Cardinal finished second to Texas). Moreover, Cal scored more points than any team, champions included, since 2004.

Let’s repeat that: more points than any other team in 17 years, and it wasn’t enough to win a national championship.


Golden Bears Sprint Star Fulfills Huge Potential

ryan hoffer, california golden bears

Cal’s Ryan Hoffer won the 100 fly at the men’s NCAA championships — Photo Courtesy: Luke Jamroz Photography

So it’s hard to ask what went wrong with the Golden Bears over the past four days. Hoffer, in particular, fulfilled his potential on the NCAA level. Cal coach Dave Durden has brought in a collection of magnificently talented recruits over the years, but Hoffer was one of the best, with times of 18.71 in the 50 free and 41.23 in the 100 free that made him the fastest high school sprinter ever.

Hoffer never quite lived up to that hype his first two years, despite winning the 50 free national title his sophomore year, and the NCAA championships were cancelled his junior year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But this year, Hoffer was masterful: he moved to second all-time in the 50 free behind Caeleb Dressel with his 18.33, and his wins in the 100 fly (44.24) and 100 free (40.90) each moved him to fifth all-time. It wasn’t until Saturday that Hoffer finally surpassed his previous 100 free lifetime best from 2015.


Freshman Stud and More

Next up, Lasco: he was another heralded recruit, a many-time NAG record setter from New Jersey, but no one could have predicted this sort of explosion as a freshman. He finished third in the 200 IM, dropping more than four seconds from his lifetime best in the process, and then finished third in the 100 back in 44.49.

And then, on the final day, he nearly stole the 200 back NCAA title from heavy favorite Shaine Casas, taking the lead with 50 yards to go before finishing just two tenths behind. Lasco touched second in 1:35.99, becoming just the third man to ever break 1:36 in the event. He threw in relay splits of 1:32.13 (800 free relay) and 41.74 (400 free relay) for good measure.

reece-whitley-california

Reece Whitley finished second in the 200 breast and third in the 100 breast at the men’s NCAA championships — Photo Courtesy: NCAA Media

However, some of Cal’s other stars were not perfect. Whitley swam well early in the meet, up through his third-place finish in the 100 breast, but his split on the 200 medley relay (23.57) was slowest of the top nine as Cal finished a disappointing third. And then, in the 200 breast on the final day, he could not get past Minnesota’s Max McHugh, an especially bitter pill to swallow considering his season-best time of 1:48.53 was faster than McHugh’s performance.

Gonzalez? He threw down a 1:39.99 for second place in the 200 IM and a 1:51.20 for third in the 200 breast. He also had the fastest 400 IM of the meet, a 3:36.73—except it was in the B-final. A disappointing morning swim left him maxed out at nine points for ninth place.

Julian? Again, great swims left wanting more. On Thursday, he took a risk by going out fast in the 500 free and led convincingly through 400 yards, only to pay the price down the stretch and fade to fourth in 4:09.78. After taking third in the 200 free Friday, Julian again led almost the entire way in the 200 fly, and he held a lead of seven tenths with a 50 to go. But again, he faded slightly to second behind Louisville’s Nicolas Albiero, whose winning time (1:38.64) was a bit slower than Julian’s season best (1:38.53).

Freshman Bjorn Seeliger proved to be an enormous addition for Cal, as he finished second in the 50 free and fourth in the 100 free and provided a huge relay boost. Senior Sean Grieshop took third in the 400 IM and seventh in the 500 free, moving up significantly from his pre-meet seed times, but he couldn’t muster higher than 14th place in a last-ditch effort in the 1650 free on Saturday.

Cal’s two backstroke seniors, Bryce Mefford and Daniel Carr did their part in individual events and added some significant relay splits. Senior transfer Zach Yeadon finished sixth in the 1650 free and won the B-final of the 500 free. And who could forget Nate Biondi’s anchor split from the 200 free relay, where he held off Florida’s Eric Friese by just 12 hundredths?

So this was an incredible performance. The Golden Bears just came up against one of the deepest and most complete NCAA swimming squads ever.

“We finished the meet great,” Seeliger said after Cal’s 400 free relay triumph. “We might not have some numbers, and we might need to hire some divers, but all of the guys put their heart into it this weekend. We all stepped up, and I am proud of that.”


What’s Next for Cal?

So where does Cal go from here? Obviously, there’s an Olympic season coming up with many Golden Bears postgrad swimmers expected to qualify for the Olympic team and several members of the college team expected to be in contention. But next year, Cal loses a lot—Hoffer, Julian, Grieshop, Mefford, Carr, Yeadon and Biondi. Some of that group could choose to take advantage of the NCAA extension on eligibility, but if not, that’s six individual scorers and one critical relay piece.

Cal brings back just five scorers in Lasco, Whitley, Gonzalez, Seeliger and sophomore Colby Mefford, younger brother of Bryce and the 13th-place finisher in the 200 back on Saturday. That’s a daunting rebuild looming, but Durden could not have achieved 11 straight top two finishes at the NCAA championships without some brilliant coaching, so Cal will undoubtedly be back.

Indeed, the Golden Bears have a nine-man recruiting class coming to Berkeley in the fall, including talented New Jersey sprinter and backstroker Jack Alexy, Swedish freestyler and World Junior Championships runner-up Robin Hanson and Iowa freestyler Trent Frandson. Some from that group may make an impact on the national level as soon as next season.

But for now, California fans should be proud of their Golden Bears, an outstanding team that just happened to come up against this Texas squad. Make no mistake: Texas won this championship far more than Cal lost it.

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