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 finsh with the two defending National Champions from Berkeley. To keep track of all of our season previews, we’ve added a link in the menubar, just click “College Previews” at the top of the page.
Key Additions: Aja Van Hout (free/IM), Ivy Martin (sprint free), Hannah Ross (Back/IM – Transfer)
Key Losses: Maggie Meyer (35 NCAA points, 4 relays)
2011 Overview: 2011 was a big year for the Wisconsin women’s swim team. They received more National hype than they’ve received in years, and had their first-ever women’s swimming National Champion in the form of Maggie Meyer. At the 2011 NCAA Championships, Meyer went out in one of the gutsiest opening-100’s you’ll ever see, and then dug deep for every last yard of training she’s ever done to hold off a hard-finishing Dominique Bouchard. Ultimately, the Badgers finished 11th overall, which is their highest NCAA finish in 5 years, though they only had 5 swimmers at the meet.
Treading in Shallow Water: The Badgers return 80% of their NCAA qualifiers from last year, but as I mentioned that means only 4 out of 5 swimmers. Wisconsin’s lack of depth was exposed big-time at the Big Ten Championships, where they finished 7th, despite being the second-best Big Ten team at NCAA’s.
Former coach Eric Hansen was wont to hold a relatively small roster in Madison, but with him gone to Arizona (and former Arizona assistant Whitney Hite coming in exchange as the new head coach), that is wont to change. Hite has already signed himself on a sizable coaching staff that includes four assistants: more than Hasen held. One would presume that this implies an expanded roster in the years to come.
But for now, Hite will have some strong pieces to build a long-term program around. Returning for her senior season will be USA Swimming National Teamer Ashley Wanland, who finished 6th in the 100 breaststroke at NCAA’s last season, but disappointingly failed to score in the 200.
Also returning is 21-year old sophomore Rebecka Palm, who was a rock for all four relays at NCAA’s last year (the Badgers didn’t send an 800). The only individual race she didn’t scratch at NCAA’s was the 100 fly, where she placed 19th in 52.90. She’s definitely got high-B or low-A final potential in that race, as well as possibly a few points in her for the 200 free (where she had a season-best of 1:46.9 without a full-taper swim). Palm is especially valuable in the 200 medley, as she swims a typically-European killer 50 fly: in the 200 medley last season, she had the 2nd-fastest split in the field (23.01) behind only Champion Colleen Fotsch’s 22.88.
That means Wisconsin will still be very strong through the middle of their dangerous medleys, which finished 2nd and 5th, respectively.
The anchor is no concern for the badgers, and they even have some options there. Beckie Thompson followed suit and, like Palm, scratched all but one of her individual events, but in the 50 free she finished 15th in 22.52 –after a prelims swim of 22.27. The veteran, who’s going to be a senior next season, is even a little better in relays – she anchored the 200 medley in 21.47 to chase down USC for 2nd-place. They’ll also have the option of junior Ruby Martin in the sprints; she was as fast as 22.2 and 49.0 at NCAA’s on relays.
So the big question-mark that leaves, for relays, is the backstroke legs. The next in line is senior Amie Osten, who was as fast as 53.85 in the 100 back at Big Ten’s. While that’s a pretty good time, and she should make an individual appearance at NCAA’s this year, she’s going to have to step up her game in a big way this year. If she doesn’t, then Wisconsin (who might have the 2nd-best 2-3-4 in the country behind Cal) could be left in the B-final in both medleys.
Also playing a roll here could be Hannah Ross, who will be transferring from Arizona to join Hite at Wisconsin. This is not a huge surprise, as she already followed Hite from Washington to Arizona after Washington killed their program following her freshman season. This would be a big help in terms of points, as she finished 11th in the 200 back at NCAA’s (1:54.00) and 16th in the 200 IM (1:58.95, off of a 1:58.18 in prelims). Her textile-best in the 100 back is a 53.70 from 2010. This should create some great competition for the relay spots.
Besides the lack of general depth, Wisconsin also had a bit of an issue with event bredth last season. They have quite a few swimmers with good potential in a single event, but their lineup doesn’t allow for a whole lot of flexibility.
Distance Breakout Candidate: Wisconsin only has one big-time distance swimmer, and that is Danielle Beckwith (who was their only entry in the mile at Big Ten’s – 16:20.28). She swam very well in the 2009-2010 season, but in 2011 didn’t quite continue the progression as she might have hoped, especially in the 500 free (4:46.68). I think that as much as anyone on this Wisconsin roster that Beckwith could be the beneficiary of the new coaching staff in 2012.
IM’ers: Laura Miller: didn’t make NCAA’s last year, but she’s a solid, versatile piece that Hite would be smart to place as a focal point of the new roster. For starters, she’s the incumbent candidate to fill in Maggie Meyer’s spots on the free relays, and should be at the least on the A-squad in all three. Besides that, she’s also a good 200 IM’er, with a 2:00.68. She’s a former Junior Nationals finalist in the 100 free, and I feel like she’s got another big improvement in her.
Home Cooking: Wisconsin didn’t bring in a big class this year, though Hite may change that in future seasons, but they also didn’t have to look very far for the swimmers they did get. Their top two recruits, Aja Van Hout and Ivy Martin are Madison natives who swam for the Badger Aquatic Club during high school.
Van Hout is precisely the type of swimmer that I alluded to earlier with a lot of versatility – she’s got Summer Nationals cuts in eight different events, and Olympic Trials cuts in two. She’s probably one of the top 3 or 4 Wisconsin prep swimmers of all time.
She could be huge for the badger sprint relays with bests of 23.2/49.5 from this March, which are phenomenal times for a high schooler. If she chooses to go the distance freestyle rout, her 4:47.7/9:49.2 in the 500 and 1000 freestyles would give Beckwith someone to really push her in practice, and would take both swimmers to higher places.
She’s also got great IM times – as a sophomore, she cruised to the Wisconsin state title in the 200 IM in 2:00.06, but never quite got back to that same time (though she continued to improve in other events). In the 400 IM, she’s got a best of 4:14.86, and placed 4th at this year’s NCSA Junior Nationals. She’s also shown a glimmer in the 100 breaststroke, with a best of 1:02.54 as the B-final Champion at NCSA Junior Nationals.
She could probably swim a lot of different events if the Badgers needed her to, but my guess is that they’ll use her primarily as an IM’er and middle-to-distance freestyler, which will fill two huge areas of need.
The other local, Martin, should have a familiar-sound name. That’s because she’s the little sister of Ruby Martin, who we discussed earlier. Hite has to be very excited about this freshman, as Ivy is faster than older sister Ruby was when she came to Wisconsin. She enters her college career with a best of 23.10 in the 50 free as the defending Wisconsin State Champion. She’s got a lot of work to do in distances beyond the 50, but even as a freshman she could contribute to the 200 free relay.
These two are part of both Wisconsin State Record holding relays, and if they can recapture that chemistry at the University, then they could be the start of something very good for the Badgers.
Coaching Crew: Not to be overestimated is the quality of the coaching staff that Hite has assembled at Wisconsin, which is a big carryover from his time at Arizona, where they always had one of the best staffs top-to-bottom in the country. The lone holdover from the Hansen era is Carry Nixon, who was the head coach at Notre Dame for four years and will be in her 4th year in Madison. From Stanford he poached Shane Whildin, who has been an assistant there for six seasons, during which time the Cardinal never finished lower than 5th in the country. He also brings in Dan Schemmel, from Big Ten rival Michigan State, with whom Hite previously worked at Arizona while Schemmel was a volunteer assistant there (Arizona volunteer assistants have an impressive history of excellence). Lastly, he’s added Evan Bernier from the University of Seattle. Bernier was a captain while Hite was the head coach at Washington, and broke 11 different school records. If this team doesn’t succeed over the next few years, it’s certainly not for lack of quality coaching.
Diving: The last regime at Wisconsin seemed resigned to the fact that their resources weren’t well-spent trying to compete in the diving-rich Big Ten. Though Hite will have two returning divers on his roster, neither scored at Big Ten’s last year. An announcement of the new diving coach will come next week, hwoever, and though Arizona never invested much in diving, especially on the women’s side, in recent years, Hite has told us that he takes building a diving program in Madison very seriously.
2011-2012 Outlook: This all comes down to how long it takes Whitney Hite to work his magic in Madison. Meyer’s loss is going to hit the Badgers in a lot of different ways – they lose her big-time individual points; her leadoff on the medleys, for which there is little backup; and they even lose her as one of the team’s best sprint freestylers. The teams directly behind them (Tennessee and Virginia) will both be chomping at their heels, and I don’t think Wisconsin can hold them both off. A slide of a spot-or-two at NCAA’s would not be unexpected.