Key Losses: Jillian Tyler (2 NCAA Relays, 35 NCAA points), Molly Belk (NCAA Qualifier), Alison Eggers (3 NCAA Relays), Kaylee Jamison (3 NCAA Relays, 2 NCAA Points), Meagan Radecke (3 NCAA Relays), Kelci Bryant (37 NCAA diving points)
Key Additions: Tori Simenec (free/fly), Jessica Plant (sprint free/back), Kiera Janzen (mid-D), Heidi Busack (sprint free/breast), Devin Ste Marie (sprint free, fly), Becca Weiland (fly/free)
2011-2012 Recap: Despite all of the accolades that the USC breaststroking program receives, the Minnesota Golden Gophers established themselves as one of the top destinations for collegiate breaststrokers last season, when they swept the national titles in the 100 and 200. That’s not always a sign of good program-depth, except that they did it with two different swimmers- Jillian Tyler won the 100 and junior-to-be Haley Spencer won the 200. Overall, the Gophers scored 64 breaststroke points
But breaststroke wasn’t the only thing that carried Minnesota to 192 points and a highest-ever 9th-place finish. They had a great 400 medley relay, anchored by a 57.0 split from Tyler, that took 6th-place overall, and a 200 medley that was 9th in the field.
What Really Hurts: This Minnesota team will be in an entirely different position headed into 2012 than it was prior to last season, when they graduated effectively none of their NCAA roster. Though the loss of Tyler as the face of the program (she was a four-time Big Ten Champ in the 100 breaststroke) will be the most notable, Spencer will be there to fill in the relays. The real concern for the Gophers is that they are graduating 11 relay pieces from the NCAA Championships last year. This includes 3 out of the 4 swimmers from that 400 medley that placed so well at NCAA’s. That includes Kaylee Jamison, their best 50 freestyler and 100 butterflier, who was a very important piece for this Gopher squad despite not scoring any individual NCAA points.
The positive news in that regard is that the freshman class that Minnesota is bringing in could actually improve the quality of their free relays overall, certainly in the long run if not the short, despite graduating half of their top-four sprinters.
Returning Relay Swimmers: Senior Hannah Whitehead will be the veteran presence on the relays next year for the Gophers. She was Minnesota’s top 100 freestyler (49.84) and 200 freestyler (1:46.39) last year, as well as their A-1 backstroker for the medley relays (53.64). She has some solid versatility (she was also a 4:42 500 freestyler), and will look to go out with a bang next year as a probable member of at least four Minnesota relays.
Long Course Champion: We can’t go any further into this preview without mentioning senior Ashley Steenvoorden. Last year at NCAA’s, she placed 4th in both the 500 (4:36.58) and 1650 (15:53.80) freestyles, but it was at the recent USA Swimming National Championships that she made her big splash. There, she outpaced some of the best in the country (including last year’s 500 NCAA Champ Allison Schmitt) to win the women’s 400 meter free. In that race, she cut 6-seconds off of her 2010 time, which is double her improvement in the 500 last year. That gives rise that her long course improvement was more than just a carryover from NCAA’s, and I’d expect her to get down to at least a 4:34 this year for a chance at an NCAA title.
Steenvoorden isn’t the only quality distance freestylers that Minnesota will return. Junior Loren Brandon placed 14th at NCAA’s in the mile last year, and senior Lissa Tommerdahl could also sneak in for a few mile points.
Short Course Champion: We’ve mentioned it briefly above, but junior Haley Spencer will be favored to defend her 200 breaststroke championship in the 2011-2012 season. Last year, in one of the best races you’ll ever see, Spencer out-touched Texas A&M’s Breeja Larson, Cal’s Caitlin Leverenz, and her teammate Tyler for a win in 2:06.12. You can be sure that the young Larson and Leverenz will step up their games as well, though, so Spencer’s by no means a shoe-in for the win there. She’s defeinitely better in the 200 than the 100 (59.75), but she should score two A-Finals in 2012. Additionally, she has the quality in the 200 IM (though she was well off of her best at NCAAA’s) to make a B-Final there as well. I’d guess she bumps up her scoring to above 3o points this year for the Gophers.
Backstrokes: Last year, Tess Behrens’ only swim at NCAA’s was on the 200 medley, where she anchored the prelims group in 22.57. In hindsight, she could have made a huge impact on the 200 free relay as well, where we mentioned the Gophers finished 19th. This year, besides being an important part of some sprint relays, she’ll also be the Gophers’ top 200 backstroker (1:55.55), and will battle Whitehead for the top spot in the 100 as well (53.75). At the least, she should clear the old school records in both distances. Overall, the Gophers have very solid depth in the backstrokes, including senior Melissa Nelson.
Weaknesses: Overall, the Gophers need two things. One is sprint depth, as we mentioned above. The other is the butterfly events, where Annalise Colton‘s 54.29 is the top returning mark in the 100.
In the 200, things are even worse, as the Gophers graduated their top three swimmers, and don’t return anybody who’s been under two-minutes (it took a 1:57.0 to final last year). There’s some hope there, though as sophomore Kaela Anderson peaked too early last season (for the Minnesota Grand Prix in November), but should learn from that in round two at the college level this year. This, like the freestyle, was something they addressed in a big way with recruiting.
Freshmen: Minnesota, like most Big Ten programs, is gowing with the “no roster too big” attitude this season, including bringing on 14 freshmen to bring their total roster to 41 athletes. This is one of the deepest classes in the country this year, and could be a game-changer in the high-parity Big Ten. At worst, they addressed their two biggest needs in a huge way. At best, they scored three swimmers with the potentials to be NCAA stars.
The biggest get amongst these 14 is Tori Simenec out of Salem, Oregon, who competed in the 2008 Olympic Trials as only a 15-year old. She will help fill both of Minnesota’s biggest needs from the second she steps foot on campus. She will come to Minneapolis already going sub-fifty in the 100 free (49.97), which only one other Gopher did last year, and will also bring a 1:46.8 200 free.
Her biggest individual impact, however, will be in the butterfly events where she will be needed the most. Her best times are 53.4/1:47.6 in the 100/200, respectively, and she will have a great chance at individual points in both races in 2012. Individually, she will probably swim the 200 free, 100 fly, and 200 fly as her main event schedule.
The recruit that really flew under the radar in this class is Canadian Jessica Plant Of the the Manta Swim Club in Winnipeg. Converted from short course meters, she will come in with 49.7 100 free and a 1:47.7 200 free. That should definitely put her on the 400 free relay, and will make her competitive for the 800. In the backstrokes, she has (converted) marks of 54.28/1:57.8. Those times will probably make her an NCAA qualifier next year, and depending on her development maybe even a scorer.
Kiera Janzen, a 2010 Youth Olympics participant for team USA, broke both the 200 and 500 Minnesota State Records as a sophomore. She peaked a bit young, but in 2007 and 2008 she was en route to becoming a top-10 type recruit. If she can get back on track, then her 1:47.8 in the 200 and 4:50 in the 500 could make her an NCAA contributer sooner rather than later.
In Heidi Busack, Becca Weiland, and Devin Ste. Marie, the Gophers add some important depth. Busack will certainly be a B-relay swimmer from the get-go, and at the least will give her teammates a good push in sprint training, with bests of 23.10/50.36 in the freestyles. Ste. Marie, another Canadian, comes in with a 50.2 100 free (converted from meters), and a 55.0 100 fly. Weiland brings in a 53.7 best in the 100 fly, and another sub-51 100 freestyler for the Gophers. They’ve nearly doubled the number of sub-51 100 freestylers in the program with this recruiting class.
Needless to say, Minnesota is going to have some heavy competition for relay spots both this year, and several years into the future, and that can only be a good thing for a program.
Diving: Minnesota’s biggest weapon is their top diver, Kelci Bryant. She has an NCAA title on both the 1-meter and the 3-meter, as well as a runner-up in each, and is the defending NCAA Diver of the Year. She’s a USA Diving National Champion, an World Championship finalist, and an Olympian. Though she does not dive platform, she’s still good for 37 NCAA points at least this year, and perhaps more importantly has started to attract the depth that will really have a huge impact on this Minnesota program’s scoring. She came to the Gophers after her freshman year at Miami to work with elite diving coach Wenbo Chen, and with 3 new divers joining the program this year, the pair have really brought Minnesota diving to national prominence.
Besides Bryant, Minnesota also got points last year from Maggie Keefer, who scored a 10th-place mark on the 1-meter at NCAA’s, and should hit double-digit points this year. Amongst the great freshman class coming in is Katy Etterman, who was one of the top recruits in the state in both diving and Gymnastics in the class of 2011, who should make huge leaps forward under the leadership of Chen (and with her full attentions now focused on diving). Olivia Evanson, whom had a great local rivalry with Etterman, will also head to Minnesota. The pair, battling as teammates instead of competitors, are a great addition to the program, and should be NCAA scorers by the time they graduate.
What they’re really doing in Minneapolis is creating an elite diving environment, with top recruits on both the men’s and women’s sides. Most of the country’s great divers develop out of these sort of programs, where there’s an air of perfectionism from top to bottom. Think Purdue, Duke, Indiana, Texas A&M – the best divers come in hoardes and droves, all from the same few schools, and the depth of training has a lot to do with that.
2011-2012 Outlook: Any time a program loses their most visible piece, the natural reaction is to be down on their performance the next year. But with Spencer easily filling that role, it should be no more than a blip on the Gophers’ radar. They have a legitimate opportunity to bring home as many as 5 individual national titles (with at least 3 seeming like a good bet), and it’s hard to count out a team with that kind of top-end talent.
In their first season united under head coach Kelly Kremer (he was co-head coach in previous years), the Gophers have continued their trend of excellent, need-based recruiting that got them to the point that they’re at. They had some big graduations, but still bring back a wealth of experience. This team’s success is going to be dependent on how quickly the freshman can work themselves into some high-potential free relays. This group definitely has the makings of another top-10 finish.