As college swimmers are pushing-off for post-Christmas training trips or returning to campus from some time spent training at home with their club teams, it’s time to re-set on the first half of the season. The latest Power Rankings run through and incorporate all of the mid-season invites, and should serve as a good first-half wrap-up for the best teams in the country and an overview of how their fall semesters went.
The debate for who will win the national title still rages between Cal and Georgia. Many fans and observers took the results of the Georgia Invitational, where the Bulldogs topped Cal, as further indication that Georgia is the favorites at NCAA’s. Others, seeing some key absences from the Bulldogs’ roster (who in some cases may, and in other cases won’t be back this season) as one more notch up the ladder for Teri McKeever and the defending champs.
The Texas A&M women are probably the “hottest” team in the country right now, though they still haven’t shown enough depth in the sprints to make the leap from top-4 to top-3 contention.
The biggest jump in this round of polling is the Virginia Tech Hokies, which is as much a function of oversight of how good their diving crew has been early this season. The only change in our top 5 is the Arizona Wildcats sliding up one spot, as despite their transfers, the team looked very good at their mid-season rest meet.
1. Cal Golden Bears, Pleasant Surprise: Rachael Acker (Last Poll: #1)
The Cal women are continuing to truck along, though a little bit of a concern has popped-up: the lack of pure sprinters. Thanks to the versatility of swimmers like Cindy Tran, Liz Pelton, and especially Rachel Bootsma, all five of their relays are ranked in the top three nationally anyway, but a lack of sprint depth could be creeping up on them just a touch. Consider that as of now, Bootsma is on all 5 of those fastest relays. If they can’t find one more relay piece, then it’s going to cost them quite a few points at NCAA’s one way or the other. In the least, Rachael Acker, who collegeswimming.com had the lowest-ranked in this class of 5 top-50 recruits, has swum very well. She’s already right on top of her best times and history wouldn’t indicate that Cal has tapered at all (they were maybe on a few days of light work before the Georgia Invite).
2. Georgia Bulldogs, Pleasant Surprise: Melanie Margalis (Last Poll: #2)
In a perfect-swimming world, I think I’d probably have Georgia number one. The gap has certainly tightened considerably in the last year, especially after Megan Romano went to the World Championships and took home silver in the 100 free. Georgia also thoroughly handled Cal at their home invite a few weeks ago. Georgia, however, is battling some injuries (like Amber McDermott’s wrist), and with five swimmers on that Short Course Worlds squad (Romano, Vreeland Schmitt, and Margalis, plus van Landeghem for Canada) they’ll have to probably rebuild their yardage and then try to taper off again before NCAA’s. The loss of All-American Jana Mangimelli is a blow as well. The good news for those three is that all of them are probably into NCAA’s already and can swim right through SEC’s if they so choose. The Bulldogs’ medley relays, though, l0ok as good as we’ve seen them in years. With Schmitt swimming butterfly and Margalis finding incredible new speed in the 100 breaststroke, they could be top-5 at NCAA’s with van Landeghem and Romano on either end. Margalis is an All-American in the IM’s and the 200 breaststroke, but had never been faster than a 1:00.78 in the 200 until this year. Now she has been a 59.34. That’s huge.
3. USC Trojans, Pleasant Surprise: Kasia Wilk (Last Poll: #3)
The Trojans have been swimming very, very well this year. That’s what made it impossible to move them down, even with the excitement behind #4 Texas A&M. Kasey Carlson is healthy again and swimming as well as she ever has at USC. Kendyl Stewart is swimming as well as anybody in the backstrokes, and she’s just a freshman. Andrea Kropp has been focusing on expanding her versatility, and while we’ve only seen hints of that so far, her primary 200 breaststroke has been very good. Stina Gardell and Meghan Hawthorne, in combination, are making up for Katinka Hosszu, and Jasmine Tosky is the front-runner for Freshman of the Year. It’s a fragile team though; one missed taper at NCAA’s, and their stock falls pretty far. Kasia Wilk, a 5’10″ freshman from Poland, has been a pleasant surprise addition for this team. it wasn’t widely-publicized that she would join the team, but having been 22.5/49.3 in the 50 and 100 free (she’s under 55 in long course in the 100), that could be the last sprinting piece this team needs for another top-three finish.
4. Texas A&M Aggies, Pleasant Surprise: Kelli Benjamin (Last Poll: #4)
When deciding what to do with the Aggies, I was a bit uncertain of the emotions I was feeling about them. Obviously, they had a better mid-season invite than anybody in the country. There’s little doubt about that. They still don’t have the horses to beat Cal and Georgia on the free relays, so I feel comfortable leaving A&M behind those two. But are they worthy of jumping USC? Nobody expected them to be that good at the Hansel Invite in Houston – crushing American Records, Sarah Henry almost getting NCAA Records, Lili Ibanez going 22-lows in her 50 free – but some of this expectation was built-in to the previous ranking I think, so for now they’ll stay put at 4. Some of the other performances, however, were not. Cammile Adams looking so good in the 500 free and 400 IM; Tess Simpson putting up an NCAA top-8 worthy 200 backstroke; freshman Claire Brandt finding a new race in the 200 backstroke; Sammie Bosman and Meredith Oliver already going best times in the sprints just by taking it easy for a few days. Maybe most surprisingly, Kelli Benjamin took her 100 backstroke from a 55.6 to a 53.1 and leads the team there. If she continues to develop that (and this is a team that usually drops again at the end of the year), it could mean both individual points at NCAA’s and maybe even a small upgrade to their medley relays (or at least some prelims-finals options).
5. Arizona Wildcats, Pleasant Surprise: Alana Pazevic (Last Poll: #6)
Here comes the first movement in this month’s poll. Arizona, thanks to Megan Lafferty coming up to speed very quickly and looking like a true ace for this team, is looking better-than-expected after all of their transfers. Their relays, which scored so many points for this team last year, should be all top 3 at NCAA’s (save for the 800 free, which we can’t find any record of them having even swum this year at all). Bonnie Brandon, a former high school rival of Missy Franklin, is performing just as well on the international stage – having won a silver medal in the 200 back at Short Course Worlds. There could be some holes in this lineup at NCAA’s in the races 200 yards and longer (other than Brandon in the 200 back), but they should have enough depth in the sprints to overcome that for a top 5 finish. That’s especially with junior transfer Alana Pazevic on deck. She’s already been a 49.6 in the 100 free this year, and has supplanted Monica Drake (for now) on the Wildcat 400 free relay. That’s going to be an important leg at NCAA’s this year, and yet another contributing transfer for this team.
6. Florida Gators, Pleasant Surprise: Ashlee Linn (Last Poll: #7)
Freshman Natalie Hinds, who we listed in our last rankings as the key swimmers for the Gators, has lived up to billing (and then some). She leads the team in both sprint freestyles (22.3/48.91). Ellese Zalewski has also been proving the sort of impact she can have on this team after missing NCAA’s last year for Australian Trials (22.8/48.9 in the sprint frees, plus 52.2 in the 100 fly). Gregg Troy’s team, from Lochte to Beisel to Bohunicky and everyone else on the roster, is swimming very fast and very fresh early this year. Take Beisel, for example, who is already a 4:00 in the 400 IM – a time she doesn’t usually get to until SEC’s. The one area for this squad to be concerned about is their breaststroker; Hilda Luthersdottir has only been a 1:02.2 in the 100. Still, that would actually be about perfect for her in another year, but by comparison to how quick her teammates have been in-season it’s a bit of a headscratcher.
7. Stanford Cardinal, Pleasant Surprise: Megan Fischer-Colbrie (Last Poll: #5)
We have to recalibrate this team under a new coach, Greg Meehan, and consider that they’ve probably not had much rest, if any, to this point of the season. Their top two freestylers, Maddy Schaefer and Andi Murez, have been great; but they still are pretty thin there (those are the only two who have flat-started under 50 seconds in the 100 free). Their breaststrokers are looking very good, with freshman Sarah Haase giving incumbent Katie Olsen everything she can handle in the 100 (both are 1:00.4 this year). The Cardinal are still looking for where more individual points are going to come from, and one spot is junior Megan Fischer-Colbrie. She was a big recruit out of high school, but slid somewhat as a freshman. She’s already been a 1;56.1 in the 200 back this year, a personal best. If she hits a big taper, she could very well be a scorer at NCAA’s.
8. Tennessee Volunteers, Pleasant Surprise: Arden Pittman (Last Poll: #9)
Remembering that last year, Tennessee’s sprinters didn’t really come on until right at the end of the year, the Volunteers don’t have a single 50 freestyler who has broken 23 seconds this year (freshman Faith Johnson is their best at 23.01). There’s only two other teams from the top 20 at last year’s NCAA Championship who have that distinction this season, UNC and Indiana. Here’s why they moved up anyway: they’ve got four girls at 23.0′s or 23.1′s, and their fastest at this point last season was just a 23.5; yet last season they still placed 6th in the 200 free relay at NCAA’s. Advantage: 2012 team. There’s more depth on this squad than we’ve seen before thanks to a high-performing freshman class. Arden Pittman is back and swimming well after missing most of her freshman year. Sophomore Molly Hannis has been on a rocket in the 100 breaststroke (though that’s the one area where they’re still really hurting for depth). Maybe most importantly, their veteran divers have been killing it this season – they’ve gone at least 1-2 at every meet this year, save for the 3-meter at the Tennessee Invite. They’re going to get huge diving points this year.
9. Texas Longhorns, Pleasant Surprise: Skylar Smith (Last Poll: #10)
Carol Capitani looks like she’s got things on the right track in her first year in Austin. The biggest indicator of that success is Laura Sogar, who shortly before leaving for Istanbul crushed her own School Record in the 100 breaststroke with a 58.3 and the 200 breaststroke with a 2:05.0. The hugeness of those times can’t be underestimated. Arizona transfer Sarah Denninghoff is swimming very well too (52.55 in the 100 back, 1:44.9 in the 200 free); and a three-woman crew of butterfliers in Ellen Lobb, Kelsey Amundsen, and Gretchen Jaques have been fantastic as well. Lobb’s been great in the 50, with a 22.28 (her best 100 time is only 49.80 – not quite as good) and if she can continue to emerge as their hammer, it looks like the Texas sprint relays will be among the best in the country again. Going fast in season has never been the problem for the Longhorns, though. I think there’s going to continue to be surprises on this team if they’ve got their season lined out well for NCAA’s: don’t forget how highly-ranked some of their past recruiting classes were. Skylar Smith, for example, has almost dropped a second already in her 200 IM this year to go a 1:57.6.
10. Auburn Tigers, Pleasant Surprise: Alex Merritt (Last Poll: #8)
Olivia Scott has been a monster early this year. She’s already gone a 51.8 in the 100 fly and a 49.0 in the 100 free (though Auburn will still need more from her in those sprints if they want to again place high in the free relays at NCAA’s). Olympic Micah Lawrence, back from a one-year redshirt, has already been under a minute in the 100 breaststroke (though that’s happening more-and-more often these days). The Norberg Twins, Lindsay and Lauren, have also been 1:00′s, giving the Tigers depth there. The Tigers’ backstroke group is their real strength; they’ve got three swimmers 53.7 or better in the 100, and 1:57.7 or better in the 200. Freshman Alex Merritt has been a real surprise in the 100 and 200 fly. She’s hit best times in both events already midway through her freshman year (something she didn’t do as a senior in high school in the 200 fly).
11. Minnesota Golden Gophers, Pleasant Surprise: Tess Behrens (Last Poll: #12)
We haven’t learned a whole lot about the Gophers since the last poll, as they had their big fall rest meet, the Minnesota Grand Prix, prior to its release. The Gophers continue to impress with the depth of their freestyle group that is headed by Tess Behrens. The junior was a known quantity in the backstrokes, but before this year had never flat-started faster than 50.90 in the 100 free (though she had some pretty good relay swims). This year, she’s already been a 49.35 to lead the Gophers in the race. History says she usually has a huge taper for Big Ten’s; she could be an individual scorer in the 100 free this year if she can hit that at NCAA’s instead. The Gophers could very well put all five relays into the top 8 at NCAA’s this year.
12. Virginia Cavaliers, Pleasant Surprise: Shaun Casey (Last Poll: #11)
Lauren Perdue, after a great Olympic performance, is back and at full-strength for the Cavaliers this year and has been great early on. In late November, she was a 22.3 in the 50, a 49.00 in the 100, and a 1:43.6 in the 200 freestyle. There’s a lot more depth and balance in the ACC this year than in season’s past, and because of that the Cavaliers only have the top time in 4 of the 14 individual events; the team also has a big hole in the breaststroke events. They are so talented and deep in the butterfly and backstroke races, however, and have such a good anchor in Perdue, that it shouldn’t matter much. Rachel Naurath continues to have a resurgent year individually (don’t undervalue her importance as a sprinter for relays either), and sophomore Shaun Casey has really broken out. The former Steve Lochte swimmer went lifetime bests in the 500 (4:44.45), the 100 fly (53.66), and the 200 fly (1:56.97) at the Georgia Invite, placing 4th in the latter of those events. She also was decent on the breaststroke leg of the Cavaliers’ 200 medley relay. She’s going to be an important piece of this team’s NCAA success.
13. UNC Tar Heels, Pleasant Surprise: Katie Nolan (Last Poll: #14)
With McDermott’s injury, Stephanie Peacock becomes a favorite in the women’s mile at NCAA’s, though USC’s Haley Anderson should be able to easily best the 15:43 she was in the race at NCAA’s last year, so it is still a two-woman battle. Her overall point-scoring abilities could be hurt, however, by how much overall depth there is in the 500. Though she’s been a 4:34.42 already this year, which would’ve won NCAA’s in 2012, with Allison Schmitt, Anderson, McDermott (depending on how quickly she can come back) and Sarah Henry all capable of breaking the NCAA Record this year, it’s not going to be a cake-walk. The Tar Heels and the Hoosiers are actually very well matched. Peacock probably outscores Vrooman; Smith and Snodgrass are probably close to a wash; if the Carolina 800 free relay continues to look this good (they’ve got 7:03 potential), that will give them a huge edge for this 13th spot at NCAA’s.
14. Indiana Hoosiers, Pleasant Surprise: Cynthia Pammett (Last Poll: #13)
Either the Hoosiers or the Tar Heels (#13) could easily establish themselves as the favorite against the other at NCAA’s if they could find a sprinter to step up. The Hoosiers didn’t score in either the 200 or 400 free relays at NCAA’s last year, and have similar relay issues that their men’s team has had in the past. Freshman Brooklyn Snodgrass was pretty good at NCAA’s on the relays, with a 22.6 split in the 50 free for example, but even with that, this team has a lot of work to do to get either free relay to a scoring level at NCAA’s. With their medleys are looking good though, with Haley Lips posting good early butterfly teams (54.89 in the 100) and a pair of breaststrokers having already gone 1:00′s.
15. SMU Mustangs, Pleasant Surprise: Isabella Arcila (Last Poll: #17)
After watching this team swim at the Phil Hansel Invitational, they are really a good-looking squad. We knew that junior Nina Rangelova was going to be their star this year, which is exactly what she has been, but outside of her there’s been a lot of really good surprises for this team. Sophomore Isabella Arcila is quickly helping make up a possible hole in the backstroke group with bests of 53.3 and 1:54.6 already (though after her, the times drop off a cliff in those races). Nathalie Lindborg, a former Cal Bear, has been 49-low in the 100 free, and was on track for 48 before fading in the last 15 yards (after a redshirt year maybe still getting her legs back under her). Rachel Nicol is having a very good follow-up year in the breaststrokes after setting CUSA Championship records in both distances last season; if Erica Donadon finishes the season as well as she did last year there’s some depth there as well. Freshman Danielle Villars is a 54.2 in the 100 fly. This team is very, very young, but if things fall into place they’re every bit as good as the team that was 16th at NCAA’s last year.
16. Virginia Tech Hokies, Pleasant Surprise: Kelli Stockton (Last Poll: Unranked)
Yes, this ranking is mostly on the basis of Virginia Tech’s diving program. Between Kaylea Arnett (undefeated on the springboards this season – including beating Georgia All-American Laura Ryan), Logan Kline, and Kelli Stockton (who has already broken the school record on platform this year), the Hokies have three NCAA scorers in diving – not as easy of an accomplishment as it might seem like. But lest we forget one of the big surprises of last year’s NCAA Championship meet, senior Heather Savage is on form again with a 53.5 in the 100 fly and already a 1:57.24 in the 200 fly (faster than she was at NCAA’s). There’s an outside chance that with Katarina Filova and Emily Ryczek swimming well, along with sophomore Alyssa Bodin’s 1:01.48 in the 100 breaststroke, that this team could squeeze out a few relay points. Even without them though, the Hokies look good for another top-20 finish, easily.
17. Arizona State Sun Devils, Pleasant Surprise: Cassie Morrice (Last Poll: #15)
Shannon Landgrebe is having another very good year for the Sun Devils, having already been a 1:45.8 in the 200 free. In a huge swing from last year, though, the Sun Devils are very thin in the breaststroke races. Sophomore Tory Houston (1:02.5) has some potential, but there’s just not very much in the training group, period. If Houston can do anything at year’s end, the Sun Devil’s have the other three legs of a medley to go with her. Their 800 free relay could be very good again as well; even though Mattie Kukors left the program, Cassie Morrice looks ready for a big senior year and Juanita Barreto is having a good season too.
18. Missouri Tigers, Pleasant Surprise: Anna Patterson (Last Poll: #18)
Cassie Cunningham is proving to be the real-deal as the replacement for Shara Stafford in the role of top-sprinter for this team. She’s destroyed her best times in the 50 (22.5) and 100 (48.9) and has also been a 52.5 in the 100 back. Freshman Anna Patterson is having a very good year for the Tigers as well and leads the team in both the 200 fly and the 200 free. It will be tough for her to score at NCAA’s in either of those events this season, but she well could be a future star for this team. With Cunningham and sophomore Dani Barbeiea both swimming 52′s in the 100 fly, and Dominique Bouchard (52.2) doing her thing in the 100 back, the Tigers have some options for a good medley relay. Their top diver Loren Figueroa dominated the springboards at the Missouri invite and is undefeated on the 1-meter this season.
19. Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Pleasant Surprise: Kim Holden (Last Poll: #20)
I’ve developed a bit of a swim-crush on this Notre Dame team. They just keep getting better and better, and they looked great at the Ohio State Invitational. Super-sophomore Emma Reaney put up NCAA Automatic Qualifying times in the 100 breast (59.3), 200 breast (2:07.6) and 200 IM (1:55.0). In total, she broke four individual school records in the meet and had a performance that made the country sit up and take notice. Led by her on the breaststroke, Notre Dame’s 400 medley relay is ranked 10th in the country. Kim Holden and Kelly Ryan look great in the backstrokes; freshman Cat Galleti is really coming around in the freestyles, and Holden looks very good in the butterflies. This is a quality team that could pick off Louisville to regain their spot atop the Big East this season before both squads look toward the ACC. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a Notre Dame team that looked this strong.
20. Penn State Nittany Lions, Pleasant Surprise: Alyson Ackman (Last Poll: #25)
Lost among the 1 vs. 2, Cal vs. Georgia showdown in late November was a really impressive performance by the Penn State women. Canadian freshman Alyson Ackman wasn’t on anyone’s radar coming into this season, but she’s already had a great season by leading the team in 49.0 and 1:46.1 in the 100 and 200 freestyles. Among freshman, only Florida’s Natalie Hinds has been better than that in the 100. Combined with Paige Whitmire and Carolyn Fittin (one of the huge transfers from the dismantled Maryland program), these sprint free relays could be the real deal this season. Amy Modglin has looked very good in the backstrokes (a tough year to be a good backstroker) and Merritt Krawczyk is building off of her Olympic Trials success with some good early-year times. If the Nittany Lions can put some things together, and Ackman continues to improve, this is going to be a hot-ticket team headed into February and March.
21. Wisconsin Badgers, Pleasant Surprise: Ivy Martin (Last Poll: #16)
In our first round of polls, we said that Ruby Martin was the key to this team’s success. She’s been pretty good this year, having swum a 49.9 in the 100 free, but her little sister Ivy is really having a breakout season. In the 50, Ivy is already a 22.4 this season. The Badgers usually have a very good taper at year’s end, but they need one more swimmer to “pop” in those sprints. Aja van Hout is a good candidate (she finished the 2011-2012 season with some good relay swims) but she’s been swimming a whole lot of 400 IM’s this year. She’s got the size at 5’10 to be a really good sprinter, despite coming to Madison with more of a distance focus; if she can really spend the sprint semester buckling-down and working on sprinting, it could pay off big for this team.
22. Florida State Seminoles, Pleasant Surprise: Kaitlyn Dressel (Last Poll: #21)
The Florida State women have not only the fastest, but the two fastest 100 freestylers in the ACC this year with Tiffany Oliver (48.57) and Kaitlyn Dressel (48.79) of the fightin’ Clay High School Dressels. That’s a great start to strong relay points at NCAA’s. Diver Ariel Rittenhouse has looked much better this year than she did at NCAA’s in 2012 as well, meaning badly-needed points on the boards for the Seminoles. There’s still not the overall depth needed to compete for the ACC Championship, and their relay performances in many spots haven’t lived up to the level of their individual swims. If they can get things pulled together in March though, there’s a chance at a top-8 400 free relay.
23. Louisville Cardinals, Pleasant Surprise: Abby Chin (Last Poll: #24)
In the last power rankings, freshman Kelsi Worrell was right on her lifetime bests. Now that the Cardinals have made it through mid-season (they had an early rest meet), she’s blown them away to the tune of a 49.3 in the 100 and a 1:46.6 in the 200. Plus she’s added a 53.0 in the 100 fly. Tanya Kyllianen and Gisselle Kohoyda have started to come around, which will be a big relief to Louisville fans after a rocky start to the season. Sophomore Abby Chin has looked really good through the mid-distances, with a 4:46.0 in the 500 free and a 4:11 in the 400 IM – both of which destroy her best times from the 2011-2012 season.
24. Arkansas Razorbacks, Pleasant Surprise: Shana Lim (Last Poll: Unranked)
The Razorbacks weren’t happy to be left out of our first poll of the season, but based on that which they returned, the numbers justified it. Now, after the Phill Hansel Invite in Houston (lots of teams swam well at that meet) where they crushed school record after school record (6 events in total), they’ve definitely given good cause for a spot in the top 25. This team has always gotten it done in the distances, but under new coach Sean Schimmel, their stroke groups have really exploded. Nikki Daniels was a 1:00.1 in the 100 breaststroke, Shana Lim is a 53.6 in the 100 back, freshman Anna Mayfield has been outstanding in the 100 and the 200 backstroke and has a 1:46.7 in the 200 free (another top-notch freshman 200 freestyler). Susanna White has been really good in the sprint freestyles, though they’d surely love for her to get her 100 fly from a 55 down into the 53. This is a young team that looks like it’s moving-and-shaking.
25. Columbia Lions, Pleasant Surprise: Kristina Parsons (Last Poll: Unranked)
Katie Meili is the show for the Columbia Lions, as she single-handedly was 25th at NCAA’s last year. This season, she’s way ahead of her pace in her three primary events, with a 59.7 in the 100 breaststroke, a 2:12.7 in the 200 breaststroke, and a 1:57.4 in the 200 IM. That’s not a surprise after the huge taper she had last year and the great summer she put up in long course, but it’s still very encouraging to see. Her team, though they’ll be hard-pressed to get any other NCAA qualifiers, has still been performing very well. After having never been below 55 seconds in the 100 fly before, Kristina Parsons swam a 54.6 at Winter Nationals.
A note on Purdue: The Boilermakers dropped out of this round of polling after an injury to breaststroker Emily Fogle following a school-record breaking swim. They still could be a top-25 team, but we just don’t know yet how they’ll look. We haven’t heard a lot from their divers this year either, though Mackenzie Tweardy has looked good.