Is Midseason Return of Bryce Mefford a Game Changer for the Cal Men’s Squad?

Bryce Mefford -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Is Midseason Return of Bryce Mefford a Game Changer for the Cal Men’s Squad?

After narrowly missing out on retaining its NCAA title last March, Cal pulled out all the stops in the hopes of dethroning Texas on the national stage in 2022. 

The Golden Bears brought in one of the best recruiting classes in the country, featuring one of the top recruits, Jack Alexy, who had just come off a dominant summer, highlighted by taking down a Caeleb Dressel NAG in the 100 free at Olympic Trials. Other notable signings included fast-rising backstroker Ziyad Saleem and Gabriel Jett, who is having a breakout freshman season so far. 

The transfer portal also handed Cal a boost as it added NCAA qualifiers Liam Bell and Will Roberts to its roster. 

Bell, who came to Berkeley after two seasons at Alabama, was the SEC runner-up in the 100 breast as a freshman in 2020. While not at his best in 2020-2021, his best time in the 100 breast (51.39) is NCAA A-final-worthy, while his 200 breast (1:52.93) would land just outside the top-eight. 

Roberts, the former Michigan Wolverine who is taking advantage of the NCAA giving winter sport athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, scored last year at NCAAs in the 400IM and is just a few seconds outside scoring range in the 500 and 1650 freestyles. 

Although seven-time NCAA Champion Ryan Hoffer elected to go pro after the DC Trident drafted him second in the ISL, the Golden Bears were still able to retain stars Trenton Julian, Daniel Carr and Sean Grieshop

Factor in a star-studded group of returners that includes the likes of Destin Lasco, Bjorn Seeliger and Reece Whitley, and the Cal men looked to have a reasonable shot at an NCAA team championship heading into the 2021-2022 season. 

The only issue? Texas brought in a just as strong recruiting class, if not stronger, headlined by high school standouts Anthony Grimm and Tim Connery, and have a breakout freshman of its own in Luke Hobson

Though most of its seniors decided against using their extra year of eligibility, the Eddie Reese-led squad managed to keep hold of Alvin Jiang, the team’s fourth-highest individual scorer at NCAAs last year. 

To top off a successful off-season, the Longhorns added All-American Cameron Auchinachie from mid-major powerhouse University of Denver. 

Already a three-time NCAA qualifier, the Summit League record holder came to Austin with personal bests among some of the fastest in the country in sprint freestyle and backstroke. He has already had an outstanding season so far, being the only swimmer under 19 in the 50 this season. He is also the fastest 50 backstroker and has top-five times in the country in the 100 free and 100 back. If Auchinachie is at his best at NCAAs, he should not only be a massive point scorer for Texas but also provide incredible relay value. 

In addition to the talent the Longhorns already boast, coupled with Reese returning for another season, most expect the Texas men to win its sixteenth NCAA title, and their performances so far this season have backed that up. 

After midseason invitationals, the Longhorns solidified its favorite status, with projected scoring showing them a whopping 208 points ahead of any other team, without diving included. 

Considering the massive gap scoring-wise between Texas and Cal at this point, it seems absurd to think that the Golden Bears have a chance of getting close to the Longhorns come March. 

While Texas undoubtedly outclassed Cal at the Minnesota Invitational, the distance between the two teams is much smaller than the numbers show. 

The Golden Bears were without stars Hugo Gonzalez and Trenton Julian in Minneapolis as they skipped the meet to prepare for the World Short Course Championships. Last season, the pair combined for 90 individual points at NCAAs. With both having breakout summers where Gonzalez secured a European Championship and Julian narrowly missed the Olympic Team in both the 100 and 200 fly, expect their point contribution to increase this year. Also, both should contribute to multiple relays in Atlanta. Julian was only on the 800 free relay at last year’s national championships, but Cal sorely missed a sprint flyer at the Minnesota Invite, so the Pac-12 champion should slot into that spot in the Golden Bear medley relays as well. Gonzalez only featured on Cal’s 400 free relay, but after anchoring the team to an NCAA title last year, he most likely will remain on the squad in 2022. 

While Julian and Gonzalez may not be enough to make a significant dent in the midseason deficit the Golden Bears are facing, the recent announcement of Bryce Mefford joining the team for the second half of the season could potentially be a game-changer. Mefford was Cal’s fifth-highest scorer at last year’s championship and is coming off a big summer where he placed fourth at the Olympic Games in the 200 back and narrowly missed the U.S. team in 100. Considering his massive drops in long course, the Folsom, California native has a great shot of being in the top-three in all of his individual events at NCAAs. Also, with a 1:32 personal best in the 200 free, he provides a massive boost to the Golden Bears’ 800 free relay. 

Combine having Mefford, Julian and Gonzalez back with guys like Lasco, Carr and Seeliger, who have certainly not hit their peaks this season, and that 200+ gap between the two teams at the moment does not look as daunting as it seems on paper. 

Texas does have a strong diving squad, which gives them another edge on Cal, but Jordan Windle seemingly out for the season as a result of his suspension due to allegations of misconduct is a massive blow for the Longhorns. The Tokyo Olympian was Texas’ highest individual scorer at 2021 NCAAs, contributing 50 points to the Longhorns’ championship win. 

Looking at all the facts, from what we have seen this season, Texas absolutely should be and will be the favorite heading into the NCAA Championships. But that does not mean it will be the walk in the park that most expect.

The meet has the potential to come down to a few points, and if it does, Bryce Mefford could be the decisive factor in whether or not the Golden Bears leave the McAuley Aquatic Center with a national title.