As we approach the 2012-2013 NCAA season, we’re counting down the top 12 men’s and women’s teams from last year’s NCAA Championships. Check them all out on the category page here.
Key Losses: Jenny Connolly (31 NCAA points/4 NCAA Relays), Kirstyn Colonias (NCAA Qualifier)
Key Additions: Faith Johnson (NC – Sprint Free), Mary Griffith (CA – Mid D/Fly), Anna DeMonte (MI – IM/Back), Harper Bruens (FLA - Free), Caroline Finkbeiner (PA – Free), Amanda Carner (VA – IM/Back), Madison Hahn (VA – Back), Cherelle Thompson (Trinibad & Tobago – Sprint)
2011-2012 Lookback: Usually, when teams have a breakout season like Tennessee did last year, it’s on the back of a special senior class of some sort. The Tennessee women last year tied with Auburn for 7th at NCAA’s with 249 points, and placed 2nd at SEC’s after finishing 4th at the previous three editions.
But this Volunteer team didn’t fit that mold. Out of their 11 NCAA qualifiers, only two were seniors, including just one scorer. This was a team that did it with a lot of middle-year talent (sophomores and juniors), and so with the exclusion of one huge piece in Jenny Connolly, the group will return largely intact.
Roller Coaster Summer: This summer, the Volunteers have been on quite a journey. In replacement of former men’s coach John Trembley, who was released from his position mid-season last year, the Tennessee Athletics Department merged the two programs under the leadership of women’s head coach Matt Kredich. That means that his attention will be divided this year between the two squads.
What’s more is that he has had to basically start his staff from scratch, which is a huge challenge after admitting that he would have to trust more responsibility to his assistants this season.
Floyd Money: Even through all of this turnover and turmoil, though, the Volunteers thrived at this summer’s Olympic Trials meet. In the great Tennessee butterfly tradition (Christine Magnuson, Mel Stewart, etc.), Kelsey Floyd was the latest incarnation after finishing 4th in both the 100 and 200 butterflies in Omaha.
Last year at NCAA’s, she placed 3rd in the 100 in 51.67, just ahead of her teammate Connolly. She ended up in the same position in the 200 fly in 1:54.28. Next year as a senior, it will be tough to jump A&M’s Cammile Adams to win the 200 fly, but Floyd probably enters as the favorite in the 100.
Medley Relays: Last year, Floyd focused on two individual events and participated in all 5 relays, and as a result these relays were huge for Tennessee last season. In a weak-ish field, the Volunteers came away as the SEC Champions in both the 200 and 400 medley relays. In the 200, they had the second-fastest time in the country all-inclusive, last season, and at NCAA’s placed 3rd in both.
Those relays were centered around Floyd’s butterfly legs, but she wasn’t the only big piece. Two newcomers filled in huge holes in this lineup last year.
Breaststroke Breakout: One was freshman breaststroker Molly Hannis, who filled what could have been a gaping hole last year. She didn’t score individually at NCAA’s, but the sprint breaststroker was a 59.60 at SEC’s to win the NCAA Championship. That’s a final that had 6 freshman in it and was without Auburn’s Micah Lawrence, but she was the only swimmer under a mintue.
At NCAA’s, she had big relay swims. She was under a minute in both rounds of the 400 medley, and in finals of the 200 medley she was under 27 seconds (which is sort of an articficial barrier between “good” and “really good” in that distance).
Huge Transfer: Another spot where this team looked like it might be in trouble was in their freestyle anchors, but again a newcomer stepped up to fill that in. Freestyle anchor Caroline Simmons came to the Volunteers as a junior transfer last season from Buffalo. She was a great mid-major sprinter before last year, but her 50 and 100 times (22-high, 49-mid) indicated that she was just maybe a nice free relay piece.
That, however, was far short of what she became for this team. She finished 8th in the 50 free in 22.18 and 12th in the 100 in 48.62 at NCAA’s, and gave this team a whole different dimension on their relays that was lacking the year before.
They had the extremely versatile Lindsay Gendron on the roster already, who can swim anything from a 50 to a 1500, but she had been focusing on the longer end of that range. Connolly’s freestyles were very good as a secondary stroke, as were Floyd’s. But the Volunteers were missing a true sprint freestyler until Simmons’ emergence. That was big for this team both on points, and mentally to take some of that weight off of these other swimmers who were trying to reach a bit outside of their comfort zones.
Lack of Sprinters No Longer a Problem: Having to look around for relay anchors isn’t going to be a problem for Matt Kredich and this Tennessee program, at least for the foreseeable future. In addition to Simmons’ senior season, the Volunteers hit the recruiting trail hard this offseason and loaded up with freestyler after freestyler after freestyler.
That group of sprinters is led by Faith Johnson from High Point Christian Academy in North Carolina. If one elite sprinter is good, two is better. Johnson comes in as one of the top sprint specialists in the class of 2012 with yards bests of 22.4/49.1 in the 50 and 100 freestyles.
Her performances in yards during her senior season weren’t great, but her Olympic Trials meet (including a 25.75 in the 50 free) showed that she’s still on an upward trajectory. Even as a freshman, she should be able to slide right into the free relay spots that were vacated by Connolly’s graduation (all other pieces of those relays returned) and help them return to top-8 finishes.
With a 1:47.3 in the 200 free, she could make that relay better too; she’ll battle with returning juniors Alexandria Frasier and Marykate McNeilis for the 3rd and 4th spots on that relay that was 10th at NCAA’s last year.
Also in the freestyle group, more toward the middle-distance end and battling for spots on the 800, Kredich has brought in Harper Bruens, a Florida State Champion for Boca Raton High School, with bests of 23.2/50.3/1:49.4 in the short freestyles; that leaves her one good season away from three relays herself. Caroline Finkbeiner from the WSY in Pennsylvania is another very good middle-distance freestyler, with bests of 1:49.8/4:53.5 both as a senior. Amanda Carner has a best of 4:50 in the 500 free, and Mary Griffith was the California San Jouaquin Section Champion in the 200 free with a 1:47.58.
Tennessee also brings in a very interesting name in Cherelle Thompson out of Trinidad & Tobago. This is very much a project recruit, but she’s got good experience and good potential. There’s not a ton of times easily available for her, but she did swim the 50 free at the 2011 World Championships in 27.4. She’s also proven to be very good in short course; in 2010 she was a 25.83 in the same even over 25 meters. T&T isn’t the bottom of the totem pole in Carribean swimming, but she’s still got a lot to gain by training at a program like Tennessee. Don’t be surprise if she’s going 22′s in her 50 free by the end of her freshman year.
Replacing a Superstar: It’s not going to be easy for Tennessee to replace Jenny Connolly, and freshmen and sophomores certainly aren’t going to cover her leadership or experience. But Tennessee is going to have one of the deepest backstroke groups in the country this season, all of whom will try and combine to replace their graduated star.
The incumbents are juniors Lauren Solernou and Kate McNeilis, who were 52.7 and 53.5, respectively, last season. They’re both good 200 backstrokers as well with 1:54′s. The two, if they hit their tapers at the right time, could combine for as many as 15 individual points at NCAA’s this year.
Arden Pitman, who only swam in two dual meets as a freshman last year, was a 53.8 in the 100 back in high school and is a big talent if she can stay in the pool. She was a 12-time Tennessee State Champion in high school.
Then there’s a big group of freshman who will be working to fill this spot down the road, including Anna Demonte out of Michigan. She named former assistant Jennifer Woodruff as one of the major reasons for her commitment; and though Woodruff stepped down before this season, Demonte maintained her decision. That’s great for Tennessee, because she’s a bona-fied star. She was a 5-time state champion in high school and is the Michigan Division I record holder in both the 100 back (54.56) and 200 IM (1:59.67). The IM is probably where she’ll contribute most immediately. The IM’s are one of Tennessee’s weakest events, but Demonte should finish in the top-part of the B-Final at the SEC Championships next year, at least.
They bring in another State Champion/Record holder in the backstrokes in Madison Hahn out of Virginia. She is a two-time state champion in the AAA 100 back, and the state record holder as well with a 54.22. Carner, aforementioned as a good middle distance freestyler, holds the Virginia State record in the 200 back with a 1:56.72.
Biggest Need: Tennessee is an extremely well-balanced team, and their incoming class improved their depth almost everywhere. They could definitely use another breaststroker, though Hannis is young enough that that’s not a huge immediate concern.
A big focus this year, though, will be finding a second for the butterfly group behind the senior Floyd. Last season, the Volunteers’ only real butterfliers either graduated, or will graduate after this season. They have a few swimmers who can fake it pretty well (McNeilis) but would be much more valuable in other spots.
Freshman Heather Kiger comes in with some potential (56.22), but it looks like the freshman Griffith is going to have to add a butterfly focus to her time spent on the middle-distance freestyles (though Tennessee just lists her as a freestyler). She’s got a best of 53.51 in the 100 fly, so look for her to really work on developing that to take over this spot next season.
Diving: One of the reasons that nobody saw Tennessee’s great season coming last year is that everyone forgot about their divers; they have one of the best diving coaches in the country in Dave Parrington, which can be invaluable in a conference where diving is nowhere near the level of the swimming.
That is doubly true for Tori Lamp. She will be the top returning SEC diver in all three disciplines this season (though Georgia transfer Laura Ryan will still give her some big competition), but it was easy to forget that the Tennessee junior was once the future of American diving. Her first two years of college were wiped out with various shoulder injuries and illnesses, but in high school qualified for several major international teams, including the 2009 World University Games squad (though again, injury there cost her a trip). She’s a Knoxville native, and last year exploded and finished 2nd at NCAA’s on the platform. If she stays healthy, she’s another big weapon for the Volunteers.
She was just the tip of the iceberg for this diving group though. They also return Jodie McGroarty, a British senior who made B-Finals on both springboards last season. Expect another 30 points this season out of the divers.
2012-2013 Outlook: With so few losses, the Volunteers will be experienced this coming season. They won’t be able to replace Connolly’s individual points, though if Floyd can win a National Title that will help a lot.
There are plenty of spots for swimmers to move up, but also places where maybe they seemed to overperform last season. Their 800 free relay should be better, but they’ll probably see an equal slide in the medleys.
The biggest challenge for this team will be adjusting to the new coaching staff and to being a joint program. The men’s and women’s programs in the past had very different cultures, and now will be medling into one. The women will also probably see less hands-on coaching from Kredich, and will have to adjust to working with the new assistant coaching staff as well.
Auburn, with whom Tennessee tied last year, lost a superstar as well and so will be in the same boat as Tennessee, as did number 9 Texas. The only team who improved this offseason significantly enough to jump the Volunteers is probably Florida, though they have a big deficit to make up as it is. The Volunteers could finish next season anywhere from 7th-10th, but a best guess would be again at the top-end of that range.