Morning Splash: Piecing Together the Top Ten at Women’s NCAA Championships

Photo Courtesy: Stanford Athletics

By David Rieder.

A season ago, Stanford sprinter Simone Manuel and diver Kassidy Cook each took redshirt years to focus on their Olympic preparations, and superstar Katie Ledecky deferred enrollment for the same reason. At the NCAA championships, the 200 free relay team that appeared to have won a national title was disqualified for a false start.

Despite all that, Greg Meehan’s squad fell short of winning the team championship by just 19 points.

The Cardinal lost to graduation Sarah Haase, the 2015 NCAA champion in the 100 breast and a key contributor to a pair of first-place medley relays in 2016, but not much else. Returning are Ella Eastin, Lia Neal, Janet Hu and Ally Howe, and the team adds Manuel, Cook, Ledecky and other freshmen like the versatile Katie Drabot that could contribute immediately.

Yes, they are favored for the national championship this year. This should not be breaking news here.

But on Wednesday, when the latest CSCAA Division I poll was released, the Cardinal had been voted out of the top spot by a narrow 267-265 margin and replaced by Carol Capitani’s Texas Longhorns.

The poll is not designed as a predicator of the final order of teams at the end-of-season championships, as CSCAA Executive Director Joel Shinofield explained. It is intended to measure of who would beat who in a dual meet, with recent performances weighed heavily.

So it makes sense, then, that the Longhorns would have good case for the No. 1 spot—beating the defending national champion Georgia (now ranked No. 3) in Athens for the team’s first home loss in 21 years. Stanford, meanwhile, had not competed in two months at the time of the poll’s release.

This Longhorns team has some talent, for sure—Madisyn Cox remains one of the best swimmers in the country and among the most versatile, and Remedy Rule has made a leap forward in the fly events. In the freestyles, Texas has the services of Rebecca Millard in the sprints and Joanna Evans in the distances, and Claire Adams has joined Tasija Karosas in one of the country’s top backstroke groups.

But aside from Cox, no one in that group has a realistic shot at an individual national championship and the 20 points awarded for first place, and the Longhorns don’t have the sort of depth required to put together national championship-caliber relays.

So where, then, does Texas fit into the spectrum of teams nationally? Well, if we knew, that would take plenty of the fun and drama out of the NCAA championships. But it’s still worth trying to fit the pieces together.

The Longhorns scored 79 points to finish 15th at last year’s NCAA championships but had been projected, based on the psych sheet, to score 142 points, which would have been good for 11th place overall, just 13 points out of ninth.

Texas does return all its NCAA scorers from 2016, and both Adams and freshman freestyler Lauren Case could provide major contributions as well. So, yes, this looks like a team more than capable of a top-ten finish.

As for the top five, that could be a tough battle. The bulk of Georgia’s core, aside from Hali Flickinger and Brittany MacLean, return from last year’s championship team, and Cal has plenty to work with, including Olympians Abbey Weitzeil, Kathleen Baker, Farida Osman and Noemie Thomas. Any top three not including those teams would be a stunner.

Then there’s Texas A&M, which returns 307 out of its 309 points from a fourth-place finish last year. Of course, even significant graduations have not hurt the Aggies much in recent years, as they survived the losses of Cammile Adams, Breeja Larson and Sarah Henry in quick succession.

But while Georgia, Cal and Stanford have dependable points from superstars and relays (assuming no DQs), the Aggies depend on events like the 400 IM, in which they scored 41 points last season with Sydney Pickrem, Bethany Galat and Lisa Bratton. The improved depth of that event could be bad news for Steve Bultman’s team.

Cal was ranked sixth and Texas A&M eighth in the latest CSCAA poll, but both will almost certainly rise within the next two months.

USC, meanwhile, has flown under the radar recently but jumped up to the No. 4 spot in the CSCAA poll this week. Kirsten Vose returns after an outstanding freshman season, but the Trojans will depend on filling up the lanes in consolation finals if they want to equal or better their sixth-place finish from last year.

Virginia, currently No. 5, figures to be in that 4-7 pack when all is said and done, and Michigan could be right there as well. The Wolverines were 10th nationally last season but have had a resurgent campaign, rising as high as No. 1 in the CSCAA poll, with excellent efforts from the likes of Siobhan Haughey, Clara Smiddy and distance swimmers Yirong Bi and G Ryan.

Last weekend, Michigan demolished Big Ten rival Indiana, 211-87, but the Hoosiers have 195 returning points from last year’s NCAAs (including Olympic gold medalist Lilly King), plus diver Jess Parratto returning from a redshirt. After finishing seventh a year ago, anywhere as high as fifth or as low as 12th seems plausible this time around.

The contenders to fill out the last spots in the top ten are plentiful: the young Arizona Wildcats with national championship aspirations in the medley relays, the strong sprint corps of NC State, a Louisville team that won’t suffer as much as some might expect with the loss of Kelsi Worrell and Wisconsin, which adds Olympian Cierra Runge via transfer and reigning Swimming World High School Swimmer of the Year Beata Nelson.

If my math is correct, that makes 13 teams with a legitimate argument for the top-ten, and based on their season performances to date, seven or eight of them could finish in the top five.

As it looks right now, picking a winner of this year’s NCAA championships won’t be nearly as tough as figuring out how the puzzle pieces fit in further down the list.

Dan D’Addona and Price Fishback contributed analysis. All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

5 Comments

5 comments

  1. avatar
    AggieFan

    As a note I know for a fact that Texas A&M actually hasn’t lost any scorers or relay spots from last years NCAAs. They also return 2 redshirt seniors who have both scored at NCAAs in previous years (Ashley McGregor and Frankie Jonker)

    • avatar
      David Rieder

      AggieFan, I have made a correction above. It’s actually 307 out of 309 returning points. The graduated Claire Brandt swam on the 200 free relay that scored eight points. No question, they’re good. But the three teams who were in the top three last year all have Olympic medalists who redshirted/deferred last year coming back.

      • avatar
        AggieFan

        Claire Brandt wasn’t on that relay in finals, so no points were lost (I know for a fact). Just stating a fact not saying it’d make a big difference in the team score.

Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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