The summer of 2011 will feature a huge meet in the FINA World Championships, but that doesn’t mean it’s too soon to begin looking at the 2012 NCAA season. Over the next few months, we will count down the top 12 teams from last year’s NCAA Championships, along with a few teams that we expect to break through, until we finish with the two defending National Champions from Berkeley. To keep track of all of our season previews, we’ve added a link in the menu bar, just click “College Previews” at the top of the page.
Key Additions: Jared Markham (free/back/IM), Alec Cohen (Mid D/Back/IM, Derek Onken (distance free/IM)
Key Losses: Bill Cregar (36 points, 3 NCAA Relays), Mark Dylla (26 points, 2 NCAA Relays), Matt Bartlett (13 NCAA Points, 3 NCAA Relays)
2010-2011 Lookback: 2011 was an exciting year for this Georgia program. Bill Cregar became the 10th man to win an individual title when he won the men’s 400 IM, and in one of the great stories of the 2011 NCAA Championships, Mark Dylla followed that up with a national title in the men’s 200 fly. In 2008 and 2009, Mark Dylla was the runner-up in that race. In 2010, he was first to the wall but was DQ’ed for a one-handed touch. Entering 2011, with Tom Shields having freshly-minted the 200 fly national record, it looked like Dylla might be a bridesmaid again, but a gutsy final lap carried the Bulldog to a long-awaited National Title.
Swan Songs: The challenge about the great end to the season in 2011 is that the two big moments both came from seniors in their last meet. Altogether, the Bulldogs will be graduating 75 out of 105.5 individual points, and 8 out of the 12 relay spots. Matt Bartlett was kind of the unsung hero of this group, since besides his 13 individual points, he was the key leg of both of Georgia’s scoring relays (the 400 medley and 800 free). That’s a lot of scoring to make up if the Bulldogs want to stay in the top 10 in 2012.
Getting Over the Hill: Though it will be impossible to replace all of those points (mathematically) with just one swimmer, sophomore Jameson Hill will go a long way towards covering their tracks. The Georgia native, who spent his last two years of high school living and training with his coach Rick Benner in Virginia, came to Georgia before last season with a lot of hype as a two-time National Youth teamer. Throughout most of the season, he looked the part and entered the NCAA Championships with an 11th seed in the 200 free and a 9th seed in the 500 free. His NCAA performance didn’t live up to the seeds, and he ultimately didn’t score any individual points, but he has definitely shown that the talent is there in a big way. If he hits his taper this year, he seems to be at least a 25-point individual scorer.
Need for Relay Speed: The Bulldogs’ 10th place finish was even more impressive by the fact that they did it with only two scoring relays: a 10th-place 800 free and a 14th-place 400 medley. Both the 11th and 12th place teams had a full five scoring relays. The Bulldogs’ two best swimmers, however, had primary events not well-suited for relays. Therefore the team had to force some pieces into unusual positions due to the fact that they only earned one invited relay. This might be a bit of good news for them this year, as this will be an area where they can make some huge improvements.
Michael Arnold, the Bulldogs’ top sprinter, had bests last year of 19.7 in the 50 free and 43.3 in the 100, and despite being the school record holder in the latter, he missed out on an NCAA invite by just .06 seconds. Having just him at Nationals could have improve their 400 medley relay placement by two spots and put their 400 free relay into a final (it finished 21st and last). The Bulldogs’ 2nd and 3rd best sprinters, Martin Kata and Kevin Frankenfeld, are both graduating, but they roo that they were left off of the NCAA roster.
Hill should also get back on track, though his 100 freestyle split on the medley was still pretty decent last year at NCAA’s (43.52). He’s likely good for a 42-split this season. Two other lead candidates who can make a big difference for the Bulldogs are sophomores Richmond Green and Doug Reynolds, though neither had a great summer of long course.
The medley relays will likely see Arnold on the butterfly leg and Hill on the freestyle leg, with Reynolds taking the backstroke duties and junior Brett Roberson swimming the breaststroke.
Ultimately, the ability to qualify scoring relays is going to be a huge key for Georgia’s success this season, though it’s not clear if they have the guns to do so, considering they will have to replace two-thirds of their relay places from NCAA’s.
Distance Gurus: An area where Georgia will have no problems this year is the distance freestyles. Junior Martin Grodzki, a German National, took 2nd in the 1650 last year for the second-straight year (14:34.80) as well as 10th in the 500 (4:18.42 – though he was capable of a top 4 finish in this race too). As good as his NCAA season was, he had an even better summer, including taking 14 seconds off of his long course 1500 time and 2 off of his 400 time. He could easily be good for 30 points at NCAA’s if he continues that kind of swimming, and should be able to make a great contribution to the 800 free relay as well.
Beyond Grodzki, the Bulldogs also have sophomore Will Freeman. Last year, he was the third-best freshman miler in the country (11th – 14:54.58) and 6th-best freshman 500 freestyler (26th – 4:21.76). He’ll be a double-digit NCAA scorer as well.
Should He Stay or Should He Go: Andrew Gemmell left the program in the fall to head to the National Center of Excellence in Fullerton (FAST) to train for an open water spot at the FINA World Championships in Shanghai. He earned that spot, and swam very well, including a gold medal in the brand new team-10k event. He also is the newly-minted USA National Champion in the 1500 free in long course, in a 6-second time drop, done last week in Palo Alto. He’s also a great 400 IM’er, and should A-final in that race as well. If he comes back, he’ll be good for at least 30 or 35 individual points, and probably an 800 free relay spot.
200 Butterfly: This 200 fly is becoming a real area of strength for the Bulldogs. Though they’re graduating all 24 points they scored in this event last year (between Dylla and Bartlett), they won’t be left totally empty-handed. Senior Todd McGraw was 18th at last year’s NCAA Championships (1:45.28) and will be a scorer this year, as may Peter Benner, who scratched this race at NCAA’s but had a season-best of 1:46.66.
Freshman Class: With big graduations last year, and a lot more coming after this year, coach Jack Bauerle needed to bring in some serious replacements. As many men’s programs (Big Ten, I’m talking to you) expand, Georgia continues to keep its roster compact. For example, their entire men’s squad next year will be about 24 including divers; Michigan brought in an entire freshman class that was bigger than that before last season.
Though it’s a small class, it’s a powerful class that is headlined by Jared Markham, the nation’s 3rd-ranked recruit, out of Colorado. Markham is very versatile in both distance and stroke. He will immediately fill huge roles on the relays with bests of 45.36 and 1:36.79 in the 100 and the 200. He will also be an immediate scoring threat in the distance freestyles since he currently has career-bests of 4:21 in the 500 and 15:10 in the mile. He also enters as the team’s best 200 backstroker, and along with the aforementioned Benner would compete for the top IM spot on the squad (200 IM – 1:46.7 in altitude, and 400 IM – 3:48.0). Both of those marks would have just missed B-finals at NCAA’s last year.
In the long term, there’s plenty of options for how to go with Markham. In the short term, he’ll need to be really good in the 100 and 200 freestyles.
The other big get is Alec Cohen from nearby Marietta. He’s another very versatile swimmer with a focus on the middle distance freestyles – 1:37.8 and 4:25.9 in the 200 and 500, respectively. That 200 time is very similar to what Hill came in with last season, and if Cohen can show a similar improvement, this Georgia 800 free relay could be very good. As a third event, in the long term he could also have a big impact in the 200 back (1:48.4), 200 IM (1:49.9), or 400 IM (3:55.4).
Nic Fink is one of the best breaststrokers in this class, and seems destined to quickly become one of the best breaststrokers in the country. He is the National High School short course meters record holder in the 100 breaststroke. His yards bests are 54.0/1:58.9. That 100 time puts him very close to a B-Final already, and with his summer spent traveling to the FINA World Youth Championships, he’s got some great experience under his belt as well. He’s also a pretty decent sprint freestyler with 20.7/45.6 freestyles. He could fight to make either or both Georgia free relays.
Derek Onken comes in as more depth in the distance group, with a 4:29 in the 500 free, but is also an above-average IM’er, featuring a 3:55.4 in the 400. Luke Upchurch out of Atlanta will fight for relay spots, with a 21.2 50 and 45.6 100, but he also projects in the long term as either a very good 100 backstroker (49.2) or 100 butterflier (49.6).
Markham appears to be the only freshman ready to score significant points from day 1, but Cohen and Onken fit right into Bauerle’s wheelhouse, so don’t be surprised if one of them sneaks into a B-Final either. More importantly, this group will build into at least half of all three free relays, if they manage to qualify for NCAA’s.
Diving: Georgia’s lone impact diver is senior Alex Owen, who last year placed 6th at SEC’s on the 1-meter. He missed NCAA’s last season, but is lined up to qualify this year. No word yet on any freshman recruits yet, though there seems to be at least one spot open based on graduation. With a strong in-state crop of high school seniors next year though, they may look to hold off on adding another diver until the class of 2012.
2011-2012 Outlook: The Georgia men have finished in the top 10 each of the last three seasons at NCAA’s. With what they’re losing, that’s going to be a tall task to pull off again. It’s going to have to come from relay points, specifically by scoring at least 4 relays, I would imagine. Still, 75 points is a ton of points to make up, even with two extra scoring relays. Hill’s improvement will help, and any points from Markham will push them closer, but that’s still a lot of ground to make up. Depending on how things shift around them, specifically with regard to Ohio State, Georgia should finish somewhere in the 10-14 range. Gemmell’s return gives them a big boost, and effectively replaces the loss of one of their big-guns, so I’d peg them about 11th or 12th.