Minus Two Key Relay Cogs, Alabama Women Still Hope to Contend

GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 20: The Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after winning the 400 Yard Freestyle Relay during the Division I Women’s Swimming & Diving Championships held at the Greensboro Aquatic Center on March 20, 2021 in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo by Mike Comer/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Photo Courtesy: Mike Comer/NCAA Photos

Minus Two Key Relay Cogs, Alabama Women Still Hope to Contend

The postseason relay equation for Alabama coach Margo Geer isn’t exactly what she had hoped for when the season started.

The Crimson Tide women set four NCAA A cuts in the fall invitational season, from a program that has become a national contender in recent years. But they approach this week’s SEC Championships without two of the key pieces in those teams.

Without fifth-year Morgan Scott, who injured her shoulder, and Cora Dupre, who elected not to return to Tuscaloosa for the second half of her senior year citing health issues, Geer and her swimmers have had to adjust on the fly.

“It’s been a challenge,” Geer said via Zoom on Monday. “I think for us, knowing the importance of relays, knowing that we still have some firepower on the women’s side, that I view as it’s just people have to step up now. We’ve got some spots that, especially on the freestyle legs, we’re going to need people to step up and fill. But I still feel very strongly that we can have some really strong relays.”

Alabama has grown tremendously through the last two NCAAs, overseen by Geer, first as an interim coach in 2021 and then as the full-time coach. It capped NCAAs in 2021 by winning the 400 freestyle relay, a foursome that included both Scott and Dupre. It was quite the statement by the Crimson Tide, after finishing sixth in two relays and ninth in two.

Last year brought Alabama’s best team finish in program history, scoring 288 points at NCAAs to land fourth. It had been third at SECs, just five points behind Kentucky, but the haul from relays jumped them above the Wildcats and Tennessee at NCAAs. Alabama finished in the top six in the four short relays, including second in the 200 free and third in the 400 free.

Scott was part of all four top-six finishers, swimming fly in the medleys. She also led off the 800 free relay that finished sixth in 2021. Dupre was the Tide’s go-to anchor. The duo held the top two times in program history in the 50, 100 and 200 free. Scott was part of all four A-cut relays this year, and Dupre was on both of the freestyle ones.

Their loss will be felt, especially with one of the NCAA’s top backstrokers in Rhyan White for the medleys and a third stellar sprint option in Kalia Antoniou. But Geer is optimistic in how she views the changes, as accelerating the timeline that graduation was going to enforce on the program eventually. And the way the American former sprint star has built the relay depth, it’s less a matter of a few bodies than a program she hopes will continue to churn out top performers.

“The way has been paved, is what we’ve talked about,” Geer said. “There’s a foundation that has been set, and now it’s time for the people that came here – we’ve got people who are freshmen and sophomores that when they were recruited, they came here to be on those relays eventually. Sometimes in life, timing of things doesn’t turn out exactly the way you’re planning or exactly the way you think, but at the end of the day, that’s why they’re here at Alabama, to step up and be on those relays and contribute when we need them.”

Avery Wiseman remains the stalwart in breaststroke for the medley relays. Antoniou’s workload will increase. Diana Petkova led off the third-place 400 free relay at NCAAs last year. Scott’s butterfly may prove the most difficult to replace, with freshman Emily Jones and sophomore Kailyn Winter vying for that role. Junior Gracie Felner is another depth contributor who’ll have more on her plate.

One asset they possess is veteran savvy. Scott has remained involved as one of those athletes who’ve paved the path – “The impact Morgan has had on the program is huge,” Geer said. In White and distance star Kensey McMahon, the program has two reliable grad students to pile up points and help cope with pressure. (Antoniou is also a grad student.)

Both McMahon and White made Team USA for the Short-Course World Championships in December, though an illness forced White to withdraw. They’re both adept at balancing their individual goals with the team priorities, and the relay considerations are an extension of that.

“They’re very special athletes and special people,” Geer said. “Their vision, they’re very laser-focused, and they think long-term, which is a great thing. As coaches, we want to walk them through that and navigate them through the long-term but also keep them focused on the now and the present. That’s always a fine line with the two of them, because they are such forward thinkers and that’s what makes them great. But keeping them here and present in this week’s meet is going to be really important because at the end of the day, we think they can swim really fast now, they can swim really fast and NCAAs and looking at their season as a whole, they’ve had some pockets where they’ve repped the international stage and we need to prepare them for that as well.”

Geer and her staff have mostly tried to take the changes in stride.

“There’s always going to be different challenges within every given season, and this happened to be ours for this season,” she said. “But don’t feel like that’s anything to hold us back. I think in a lot of ways, it’s going to help us be better. That’s how we viewed it.”