Over the next few weeks, as the Long Course season closes out, new freshman are arriving on campus, and fans everywhere ramp up for another exciting NCAA Season, we will be running a team-by-team preview of the upcoming NCAA season. Starting with the no.12 teams and finishing with the defending National Championships (Texas men and Florida women) we will work our way down the top finishers from last year’s NCAA teams, and will also jump into some rising teams that we expect to break into the top tier this season. Click here to see the other women’s previews, and click here to see all of the previews, Men’s and Women’s.
Key Losses: None
Key Additions: Tess Behrens (sprint free, back), Hailey Szews (distance free, IM), Erin Caflisch (sprint free), Kaela Anderson (middle-distance free/fl/bk/IM), Sarah Keefer (diving)
Team Overview – Last year, Minnesota was a team dominated by youth. At the 2010 NCAA Championships, the Gophers’ 12-member contingent was relatively inexperienced, without a single senior and only 4 juniors in the group.
But that story has changed in a huge way. The Gophers didn’t lose a single NCAA-Qualifier, and now have 9 swimmers on the roster with at least two NCAA Championship meets under their belts.
Best in the Breast – The Gophers’ strengths have been mainly concentrated on their breaststrokers and distance freestylers. Minnesota returns the strongest breaststroking crew in the nation, led by senior Jillian Tyler, who was a 2008 Olympics semifinalist representing Canada. At last year’s NCAA’s, Tyler finished fourth in the 100 breast (59.63) and a disappointing 19th in the 200, where she hoped to A-final. Tyler is joined by sophomore phenom Haley Spencer, who last year was 11th in the 100 and 5th in the 200, and fellow senior Molly Belk, who qualified for Nationals in both breaststroke events last season.
The distance group is anchored by the Steenvoorden twins: juniors Ashley and Kristen. Ashley, who is the more decorated of the two, finished 9th in the mile at NCAA’s last year and 18th in the 500. Loren Brandon is the next in line to take the torch for this group. As a freshman last year, she finished 27th in the mile.
Senior Kaylee Jamison will provide the Gophers with some firepower in the butterfly events. She had an amazing summer, including breaking the 11-year old school record in the 200 LCM fly at 2:15.00 and coupled that with a 1:00.80. These times convert to roughly a 1:58.40 and 53.33 SCY. If she can carry this success over into the collegiate season, she has definite top-16 potential in both events. Jamison is also a sub-23 50 freestyler who is a big help on relays.
Ride the Aqua-Jet to Gophertown – The Gophers have a great freshman class coming in. The star is Tess Behrens (no relation to Ricky Berens) from the Aquajets swim club in Eden Prarie, a southwestern suburb of Minneapollis. There, Behrens anchored two USA-Swimming 15-18 national records in both the 200 and 400 yard medley relays. Along with Behrens will come Hailey Szews, who was the butterflier on both of those relays.
Behrens is a sprint freestyler and backstroker, which were two of the biggest holes for the Gophers last season. If she continues to develop, she should improve the Gopher relays as a freshman, and could challenge for a B-final spot in the 100 backstroke, where her best time is a 54.47. Szews, who is a distance freestyler and IM’er, will also likely qualify for NCAA’s as a freshman.
The real notable point for the Gophers with these two recruits, along with several other current swimmers from Eden Prarie, the team seems to have developed a serious pipeline to Southwestern Minneapolis, which is rapidly becoming one of the best swimming areas in the nation. The grand prize at the end of that tunnel is Szews and Behrens’ former Aquajets teammate Rachel Bootsma, who qualified for the USA’s Pan-Pacific team this summer at only 16 years-old.
Minnesota has two other big recruits as well. Kaela Anderson is a true mid-distance swimmer and excells in every 200 yard race except for breaststroke, as well as the 500 free. Her 1:49.63 200 free should add some depth to the Gophers’ 800 free relay which finished 12th at NCAA’s, and long-term is a potential NCAA finalist. Anderson swims at the St. Croix swim club for former Gopher All-American Olga Splichalova.
The best pure sprinter of the group might be Erin Caflisch. She has gone sub-51 in her 100 free, and more importantly seems to still be rapidly improving. She could develop into one of the better sprinters in the nation by the time she graduates.
Bryant is Golden for Gophers – Kelci Bryant was monstrous for the Gophers at the 2010 NCAA Championship, scoring 37 out of the Gophers’ 102 points. Bryant transferred from Miami before last season to work with her long-time coach, and USA-Diving National Coach, Wenbo Chen. She was the 3-meter national champion, and the runner-up on the 1-meter, and is a legitimate threat to win both titles this season. When Chen was hired in April of 2009, Minnesota instantaneously became one of the top diving programs in the nation, and so the Gophers were a logical choice for two-time Minnesota State Champion Maggie Keefer. Although diving is obviously very subjective, Keefer’s top 6-dive score of 318.45 and is already good enough to score at Nationals, and she will only improve under Chen’s watch. He has also recruited two other very good divers in Sarah McCrady and Sara Axness, creating an atmosphere of competitiveness and excellence for the diving program.
Path for Success – The really exciting part about this team is the way it has been built. Co-head coaches Terry Nieszner and Kelly Kremer are entering their 7th year in Minneapolis, and have developed Minnesota into a Big Ten powerhouse. But even more than that, Nieszner and Kremer have executed a clear plan to sustain their program’s success for many years to come. The Gophers have firepower in every class, but are not so dependent on any one year that they will be dented by graduations. They have recruited their own state extremely well, and have developed positive reputations with most of the state’s elite programs. They keep Minnesota’s top swimmers in-state (4 out of the top 5 in-state recruits are headed to campus this year), which is an accomplishment when the warmer weather in Florida, Texas, and California comes calling.
Prospectus – Minnesota will be better this year, if for no other reason that they are not losing anything to graduation. They effectively get a 40-point head start over most of the other top-10 teams thanks to their divers. The Golden Gophers will definitely be one of the top-2 teams in the Big Ten, and a top 10 finish at NCAA’s should be a yearly expectation so long as the coaching staff can keep them on the path to success.