Don’t Count Out Cal: Golden Bears Still in Strong Position for National Title Defense

Cal's Destin Lasco -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Don’t Count Out Cal: Golden Bears Still in Strong Position for National Title Defense

For the second time in six weeks, Arizona State’s men defeated Cal. First, the Sun Devils dominated the Golden Bears in a dual meet in Tempe, with ASU winning 211-87. The meet got plenty of attention for Arizona State donning tech suits while Cal wore practice suits, and while that discrepancy surely contributed to the exaggerated final score, Arizona State’s presence as a national contender was no mirage.

Next, Arizona State knocked off Cal at the Pac-12 Championships, with all-world individual medley specialist Leon Marchand leading the way. Marchand swam the fastest time in history in the 400 IM and 200 breaststroke while hitting the second-fastest time ever (behind his own record) in the 200 IM. Jack Dolan (50 freestyle), Grant House (200 free) and Zalan Sarkany (1650 free) all posted individual wins, and Arizona State won three relays, efforts that included the fastest time in the country in the 800 free relay.

But Cal kept it close and made a run on the final evening of the meet as three swimmers posted the fastest times in the country in their respective events: Destin Lasco in the 200 backstroke, Bjorn Seeliger in the 100 free and Gabriel Jett in the 200 butterfly. Cal concluded the meet with the country’s fastest time and a Pac-12 conference record in the 400 free relay.

And it’s thanks to the trio of Lasco, Seeliger and Jett that Cal is still very much a national-title threat. Lasco, sporting a full beard, got better as the meet went along, concluding with a 1:36.94 in the 200 back that came within a second of his personal best. Perhaps this is the year when Lasco knocks off Ryan Murphy’s seven-year-old American and NCAA records in the 200 back.

Lasco also swam the third-quickest mark nationally in the 100 back (44.57), and while his 200 IM was well off the 1:38.21 he swam in 2022, he will be in position for a strong swim in thar events three weeks from now in Minneapolis at the NCAA Championships. In fact, Lasco and fifth-year swimmer Hugo Gonzalez could end up finishing second and third (in some order) behind Marchand.

In the sprint events, Seeliger ranks second all-time in the 100 free and third in the 50 free. Even in tough events featuring Tennessee’s Jordan Crooks and Florida’s Josh Liendo, among others, Seeliger will get his points and lead Cal’s relays alongside sophomore Jack Alexy.

Jett, who topped out at sixth at his first NCAA Championships before an impressive summer ended with a U.S. Nationals win in the 200-meter fly, will arrive in Minneapolis as the top seed in the 500 free and 200 fly. It would be surprising if Gonzalez repeats as national champion in the 400 IM, but he will score big points in three events. Reece Whitley is back for a fifth year in the breaststroke events. Cal won’t score points in diving, but even in weaker swimming events like the 100 fly and 1650 free, the Bears will have contenders on their roster.

Yes, Cal is 0-2 against Arizona State so far this season, but the trend for Dave Durden’s teams at the national championship meet is undeniable: Cal shows up every single year. One of the most telling stats about Cal is the team’s streak of top-two finishes at the NCAA Championships. In Dave Durden’s previous 15 seasons at Cal, the Bears have finished first or second 12 times. The only exceptions were Durden’s first two years in Berkeley and in 2020, when the NCAA Championships were cancelled.

And in half of Cal’s 12 championship or runnerup performances, the Bears did not win the conference title. Before Cal’s first two titles under Durden in 2011 and 2012, Stanford won the meet then known as the Pac-10 Championships (the final two years of the Cardinal’s 31-year conference winning streak). USC won the conference in 2015 before Stanford won in 2016 and 2017. So there’s plenty of precedent for Cal making huge strides in the final three weeks of the season.

This year’s men’s meet looks like the most competitive in five years, since the last edition of the NCAA Championships to be held in Minneapolis. That meet, best known for Caeleb Dressel becoming the first man under 18 in the 50 free and under 40 in the 100 free, had four teams still in contention on the final day. In the end, Texas ended up winning by just 11.5 points over Cal, with Indiana another 15.5 points behind, with NC State just falling off the in the last few events.

In 2023, there will be Arizona State continuing its best season in decades, a Florida team loaded with sprint talent and a Texas team with holes but still featuring Carson Foster and Caspar Corbeau. NC State cannot be discounted, either. But nothing has transpired so far during championship season to change the notion that Cal will emerge from the chaos as national champion for a second consecutive year.

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Rick Valentine
Rick Valentine
9 months ago

Miguel Santos says Cal Bears!!

9 months ago

Manually scoring the meet before the round of last chance swims, going into the last relay:

Florida 393
Cal 391
ASU 391
NC State 292
Texas 158.5
Pac-12, SEC and ACC were stiff competition that produced fine swims by the studs for the top 4 teams, whereas the Texas studs were not pressed at the conference meet but have a history of doing well at NCAA, plus their dive points will likely put them in the midst of the Top 5.

IU, Stanford and Tennessee have some clear strengths as well.

Gonna be fun.