Key Losses: Ashley Steenvoorden, Hannah Whitehead
Key Additions: Kierra Smith (Canada – breaststroke); Lauren Votava (MO – freestyle); Haley Pietila (WI – sprint free); Samantha Harding (NM – distance freestyle/IM); Lauren Zima (IL – butterlfy); Marina Spodina (CA – backstroke)
2011-2012 Lookback: This was a very young Gopher team in 2012. Even most of their “veterans” were only sophomores, and their incoming freshman class was solid, but nothing that college swimming fans were salivating over.
However, in what was very much the theme of last year’s college season across the country, the young swimmers stepped up big. The veteran stars were there (Senior-to-be Haley Spencer, the now-graduated Ashley Steenvoorden), but the contributions from the freshmen and sophomores are what kept this team in the top-12 at NCAA’s, and even moreso what gave them the depth to pull off a Big Ten title upset to end Indiana’s three-year dominance of the conference.
Big Under Pressure – There were a lot of standouts in the freshman class for Minnesota, but the first we’ll recognize is butterflier Rebecca Weiland. She swam pretty well at NCAA’s in the individual 100 fly with a 53.3 – after a regular season where times indicated a small bit of plateauing it was at least a good sign that she went a lifetime best. But in the Gophers’ 12th-place 400 medley relay is where she really shone (where arguably, it counted the most). She ripped a 52.59, 8-tenths better than her best flat-start, to keep the Gophers in the mix in the B-Final.
She’ll need to continue to develop if that relay, with all four members returning, wants to move to the next level, but considering that she was one of only two freshmen trusted with the butterfly leg of one of these 400 medleys in the finals, that is a great first-year result.
Tess Behrens also broke out as a sophomore, leading off that same medley relay and placing 19th in the individual 100 back with a 52.96. She’s even better, though, in the 200 where she swam a 1:55.51 and finished 14th in the country. While Weiland and relay anchor Erin Caflisch (another sophomore) tend toward the sprints on the back-half, Behrens and Spencer are both better in the 200′s. That leaves the Gophers’ 200 medley relay a hair weaker than their 400, but in yards those sprint-distance differences aren’t as significant.
The aforementioned Caflisch had a great sophomore season in the sprint freestyles. Although at NCAA’s she focused exclusively on relays, between Big Ten’s as a freshman and Big Tens as a sophomore, she went from a mediocre 23.38 in the 50 free to a very good 22.6 as a sophomore. And now she’s showing even more of that at the U.S. Open. She didn’t swim great at the Olympic Trials, but this week in Indianapolis, she won the B-Final in the women’s 100 free with a long course time of 56.01. That’s really fast for a swimmer who last year hadn’t broken 50 seconds in yards.
What Caflisch is going to give the Gophers next year is a hammer-of-a-relay-anchor that they’ve missed since Stacy Busack and Meredith McCarthy graduated after the 2009 season. In fact, this whole Minnesota sprint crew is looking better than they have since then. Even though the 200 free relay was 17th at NCAA’s, they have four swimmers under 23 seconds in the 50 from a flat-start: aside from Caflisch, the Gophers got 22-highs from Behrens, Weiland, and freshman Blake Zeiger. That group has two more seasons to develop together, and if not next year, the season-after they should surely be an A-finalist relay.
Middle-Distance Tradition - Minnesota will lose the services of Ashley Steenvoorden next season, but sophomore Kiera Janzen will have an opportunity to at least fill in part of that role. She was a best of 4:41 last year in the 500, which would have been in the top 20 had she done it at NCAA’s. This summer, Janzen seems to have focused on the longer races with great success. She had about a two-second drop in the 400 long course, but a huge drop in the 800 (to the tune of 27 seconds from last summer to this summer). During the collegiate season, she was about 10 seconds away from final’ing in the mile at NCAA’s, and should be well able to grab a few points there as well. Senior Lauren Weis is also an NCAA qualifier in the mid-to-distance disciplines.
Without many people realizing it, the Gophers swam to a 5th-place finish in the 800 free relay. That includes a 1:45.6 on a rolling start from Weis, and a 1:45 leadoff from freshman Jessica Plant. Plant, part of a history of success for Canadians at Minnesota, was a big-time recruit last season that was mostly overlooked, however she showed that she’s definitely a future star in her first season.
The biggest decision, however, was using freshman Tori Simenec on this relay. Senior Hannah Whitehead was a 1:45.7 in the 200 free at Big Tens, but Kelly Kremer instead installed Simenec, who hadn’t swum an individual 200 free all season. That decision paid off, as the young Simenec posted their fastest split in 1:44.4.
Breaststroke Tradition - The biggest tradition at Minnesota, however, is the breaststrokes. A few years ago it was Jillian Tyler. Then in 2011, Haley Spencer won the 200 breaststroke NCAA title as a sophomore. She was more than a second slower last year as a junior, but still had enough of a margin to place 2nd overall. Nothing gets easier for her, as Cal’s Caitlin Leverenz was unstoppable last season and Texas A&M’s Breeja Larson now has the Olympic experience behind her (in the 100), but the Gophers should anticipate at least 15 points from her in that race. This season, she’ll hope to add big points in the 100 as well – a bad prelims swim there left her out of the final.
Her 2011 training cycle was interrupted a little bit by an appearance at the Pan Am Games in the fall, but without that to worry about this season the times should tick back upward.
The next generation of Minnesota breaststrokers comes in as a freshman this season in Canadian Kierra Smith. She was a finalist at Canada’s Olympic Trials in the 200 breast in a 2:26.7, which would have finaled in the United States as well. That 200 meter time is as fast as either Larson or Leverenz swam in Omaha – impressive names to be situated among. That should imply a pair of A-finalists for the Gophers next season in the race. Like Spencer, she’s better in the 200 than the 100, but with a 1:09.0 in the 100 long course, she’s got plenty of speed as well. What’s more, Smith has proven to be just as good, if not better, in short course in her career (generally 25 meter races, as compared to the collegiate 25 yards) so she should translate well to the NCAA.
More Freshmen – Aside from the above-mentioned Smith, the Gophers have a few other really strong additions coming in next season. Lauren Votava is partially home-schooled, and didn’t compete in high school swimming. That has left her time to focus on her training with the Rockwood Swim Club in Missouri.
In her primary events, the three shorter freestyles, she hasn’t been a best time since 2010. The numbers she put up as a young swimmer show how much promise she has, though. Her best in the 50 of 23.23 actually came all the way back in 2008, and in 2010 she was a 50.21 in the 100 free and 1:48.88 in the 200 free. The only relay where there’s room for a replacement is the 5th-place 800, where Steenvoorden the anchor will be gone. Janzen will have the inside-track on that position, though.
Still, in a conference where freestyles are not the strong suit, Votava has an opportunity to score big points at the Big Ten Championships. She’s also a solid butterflier, with a 100 yard best of a 55.3.
Haley Pietila is another solid freestyler, with bests in the 100 and 200 of 50.81 and 1:49.90. She also has some potential as a 200 IM’er: she swam a 2:03.7 as a junior, but didn’t attempt the race as a senior. It speaks volumes about the increasing recruiting pull and influence of Minnesota swimming in the Midwest that Kremer was able to sign a 5-time state champion from one of the best high school programs in the nearby state of Wisconsin, which has an on-fire coach of its own. The Gophers’ head man described Pietila as having “a fiery personality,” high praise before she even arrives on campus and a valuable tool in a collegiate, team-oriented program.
Zima is a butterfly specialist from St. Charles, Illinois. The last butterflier the Gopher women recruited from that program: school record holder Kaylee Jamison, who in 2010 led the team in scoring at the Big Ten Championships. Zima comes in a bit better in the 200 fly than the 100, with bests of 2:02.6 and 56.2, respectively.
Samantha Harding is a great distance freestyler with bests of 4:47 in the 500 free and16:20 in the mile, which should make her an NCAA qualifier as a freshman; and Spodina is a late signing out of Mission Viejo with a 56.0 in the 100 back.
Diving - Even after graduating an NCAA Champion the season before, the Gophers continued to perform on the boards in 2012. Junior Meg Keefer is best on the springboard, in true Minnesota fashion, but did manage to score in all three disciplines at Nationals last year. In total, she picked up 28 points, which represented over one-fifth of the Gophers’ overall program scoring.
Her class-mate Sarah McCrady made big improvements last year to find herself at the National Championship meet as well. Her highest placement was on the platform, where she was 21st overall. That’s probably her best shot at scoring this season.
2012-2013 Outlook - If their young freestylers continue to improve, this Minnesota team can only get better. They don’t have any major holes either, though maybe another sprint backstroker would be nice. The challenge in moving up, and this is tough for everyone on the women’s side of the country, is that with so much youth around the country, nobody’s really getting worse. Still, I think the Gophers can hit their taper a little bit better and move up, so the potential for a top 10 finish is there. The best guess, though, is that they’ll probably sit in a similar location – 10th or 11th.