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: Kelli Benjamin (sprint free), Sammie Bosma (spint free/back/fly), Ellen Quirke (sprint free/fly), Emily Neubert (fly)
Key Losses: Hannah Kinder (1 NCAA Relay), Lindsey King (NCAA Qualifier), Maria Sommer (3 NCAA Relays)
2010-2011 Recap – The Aggies came into the 2010-2011 season without a ton of expectations. They had graduated a monster of a class, including two individual national champions, and were relying heavily on a freshman class. That freshman class, however, turned out to be one of the best in the nation last year. Between Sarah Henry, Cammille Adams, Paige Miller, and last year’s top freshman Breeja Larson, they had four freshmen make individual A-finals (and earned three silver medals, as well). That group, along with just enough veteran leadership, led A&M to their 5th-straight top 10 finish at NCAA’s at exactly 10th. They were a DQ’ed 400 free relay from being 9th, or maybe even 8th, however, in a very tight team race.
But this isn’t just a “top 10” class. That class from A&M is a “National contenders” type of class. Besides those four mentioned above, the Aggie freshman had several more swimmers who are already on the verge of NCAA points, and it will be exciting to see what that depth will do for the Aggies in year two.
Who’s Leaving – Maria Sommer will be the big piece that the A&M women will be missing next season. Sommer is one of the great stories in college swimming, as she went from a walk-on as a freshman to a nationally-relevant sprinter during her senior season. She was very important to A&M throughout the season, especially on relays, because she was by far the best sprinter they had in 2011, and provided key leadership when she swam relays predominantly made up of freshman.
Maturing Sprinters – Sommer was lost, but there are plenty of freshman from last year, including and beyond the ones listed above, who are ready to step up and carry the relays. These sprint freestyles carry the most uncertainties for the Aggies, as that’s where they had the least demonstrable depth at NCAA’s, but that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of talent and potential.
The biggest name among those is Mexican National Record holder Liliana Ibanez, who is ready to make big waves in 2011. She recently completed a stellar performance at the World Championships with times of 26.0/56.0/2:01.7 in the freestyle events, and she might be even better in short course. She anchored A&M’s shorter free relays at NCAA’s last year in times of 22.0/48.3, and flat-started as fast as a 1:45.4 to place 19th in the 200 free prelims and just miss a final.
Erica Dittmer came to A&M as a breaststroker, but is part of a newer generation of sprint breaststrokers/freestylers that are following in the lead of Jessica Hardy, and split a 22.2 on A&M’s 200 freestyle relay. She’s also a 1:01-flat 100 breaststroker. Kim Pavlin, who holds dual citizenship, has already qualified for the 2012 Olympics as part of the Croatian National Team, and split a 49.2 at NCAA’s in the 100 free and it’s probably only her third best stroke (after backstroke and the IM’s).
Freshmen of the Year – But as we mentioned above, there were four freshmen that really stood out for this team. Sarah Henry, who was one of the top recruits in the nation by times but flew a bit under the radar because of a bad knee injury towards the end of her high school career, came in and broke both the 1650 free (16:06.48) and 400 IM (4:05.30) school records, the latter by 5 seconds. Cammille Adams, who was a finalist in the 200 fly at the World Championship trials in 2009, broke the 500 free, 200 fly, and also cleared the old 400 IM school record by 4 seconds. She was runner-up only to NCAA Swimmer of the Year Katinka Hosszu in the 200 fly.
Paige Miller is in the mold of a “European, anything 100 meters or under” type of sprinter (though she’s actually Canadian), and she broke the 100 back school record (52.43) held by another Candian, Julia Wilkinson, who last week at the World Championships was a multiple-event finalist. But like I said, she’s versatile, and actually swam backstroke on the 400 medley and fly on the 200 medley. She has a tough double on day 2 of NCAA’s, with both the 100 fly and 100 back to swim, and though she missed the final in the former, she placed 8th in the latter.
And then there’s the most unheralded of the group coming in: the great Breeja Larson, who took silver in both breaststroke races to make her the only swimmer in the meet to place top 3 in both events. She put up a 58.51 in the 100 breaststroke, and a 2:06.18 in the 200, which both broke school records of 2009 NCAA Champion Alia Atkinson. She had some very serious health scares over the summer, that are resulting in her missing nationals, but all indications are that she will be ready for the college season. Larson’s progression is exciting both for national and international spectators, as her meteoric rise has put her as a buzzy pick for the 2012 US Olympic Team (she only started swimming club at the end of her high school career). With the graduation of Jillian Tyler, Larson becomes the favorite to win the 100 breaststroke next year.
As you can see, these swimmers not only broke school records, they quite handily broke the marks of swimmers who led this program to multiple top-6 finishes in the latter part of the 2000’s. Individual scoring from these four swimmers alone combined for 96 of A&M’s 182 points, and that doesn’t even include their huge relay contributions.
Veterans – Just because the freshmen were so dominant last year doesn’t mean that the sophomores will be the only scorers this year. Another Mexican, Rita Medrano, took 10th in the 200 fly, and her 200 IM has taken big leaps forward this summer as well. Tess Simpson was just a few seconds outside of B-finals in both backstrokes, and as a junior next year should be good for some NCAA points. Kendra Chernoff is also a very solid butterflier, who held down the third leg of the record-setting 400 medley relay, and with a best of 52.9 should be a B-finalist in the 100 fly this year.
Senior Alyssa Conner was the 3rd swimmer under the old 400 IM school record last year, with a 4:10.51. She was way off of that time at NCAA’s, but if she can peak at the right point this year, she’s a third scorer for A&M in that race.
Junior Maureen McLaine will really be looking for a strong bounceback year. After finishing 11th in the mile in 2010, she had a bit of a backslide last year to 21st by adding 3 seconds to her time. If she can get that trending back in the right direction, that would give A&M another scorer in the distance freestyles as well.
Big Question Mark – A big boost to A&M’s scoring could come from Caroline McElhany. She graduated high school early and committed to the University of Texas, but after one season there transfered to A&M. Last year, her first as an Aggie, she competed sporadically, so it was hard to get a good feel for her swims. Still, she was 16th at the 2008 Olympic Trials in the 200 IM and 18th in the 100 fly, when she was only 16. If she settles in to her surroundings in College Station this year, she could be a big-point scorer for A&M.
(Update: Right on que, McElhany has looked very good at the USA Swimming National Championships, and that only increases the confidence that she will be a big player for the Aggies next year).
The Next Generation – With how well A&M developed their last freshman class, comprised both of big-name prospects and totally unheard of newcomers, it will be exciting to see what coach Steve Bultman can do with this year’s class. A&M is a team heavy with swimmers from the north and the south of the American borders, but this year they bring in a heavily domestic class, with only 1 New Zealender amongst their 6 recruits.
They clearly saw that the freestylers are their biggest need (and the only thing, really, that’s keeping them from moving back into the top 5). They addressed that need right off the bat with one of their first recruits, Kelli Benjamin out of Arizona. She’s already broken 50-seconds in the 100 free in high school (49.96 in January). That would have ranked her 3rd amongst A&M swimmers last year. She also bring in a 23.0 50 freestyle, which will probably insert her immediately onto both sprint free relays. They caught some lightning last year out of Arizona (Larson), and are hoping to strike again with this one.
Ellen Quirke is the Kiwi, and is one of her country’s best junior swimmers. She finished 6th at New Zealand Nationals with a 57.77 LCM 100 free (50.4 converted), and also swam a 2:06.04 200 (1:50.1 converted). She also comes in with a converted 55.1 in the 100 fly.
In a bit of a twist of irony, the top recruit in Texas (Maddie Locus), whose dad is an A&M graduate, escaped to the University of Georgia; but the Aggies got one back on the Bulldogs when the state of Georgia’s number two recruit, Sammie Bosma, committed to A&M. Bosma will add some more depth to A&M’s backstroke corps, with a best in the 100 of 55.48, and is also a very good 200 butterflier in 2:01.25. Her sprint freestyles are also very solid, and she has a strong possibility of developing into a relay contributor, with bests of 23.31/50.31, and a 1:49.5 in the 200 free.
One more butterflier will come to campus in the shape of Emily Neubert, who goes 55.1/2:01.9 in the butterflies, which are both Junior Nationals cuts. Coach Bultman sees each of these four recruits as having a possibility to contribute at NCAA’s, and after what happened with the freshman class last year, how can you doubt him? In addition to the four above, they’ll also bring in Alexa Morris (23.8/51.1) and Victoria Salinas (23.9) as more long-term projects to build some sprint depth.
Diving – Diving has been one of A&M’s biggest strengths for the past several years, and with the addition of 2000 US Olympic Diving head coach Jay Lerew last year, they appear to have only raised that profile.
The Aggies are hoping to bring back Aussie Jaele Patrick, who is one of the best springboard divers in the NCAA, for an extra year after she missed the championship meets last season (which likely cost them the Big 12 title). Regardless of her return, they will return senior Janie Potvin, who placed 4th on the platform at NCAA’s, and junior Lorena Lujan, both of whom are threats to score at NCAA’s this year.
They bring in an outstanding freshman out of Florida named Cherie Hammond, who used to dive for Lerew in Orlando. Hammond recently earned her 4th-straight Florida State Title in diving. She is a member of USA Diving’s junior World’s team, and she won Junior Nationals on the 1-meter in 2010, and placed 10th at Junior Worlds later that summer. They will also be getting a great young transfer, Rebecca St. Germain, from LSU, who placed 2nd on the 1-meter at SEC’s last year for the Tigers. They’re not sure yet if she’ll be able to dive this year, but either way she’s another great piece to what’s become one of the country’s top diving programs.
2012 Outlook: There seems to be little doubt that the A&M women will improve from their placement last year, especially if a few of their freshman sprinters develop. A Big 12 Championship and a top-7 NCAA finish should be minimum goals for this team, with as high as 4th possible. If Patrick returns on the boards and brings 30 points with her, and they don’t suffer too much of a sophomore slump, then this could be a very promising season. With the addition of former Texas All-American Tanica Jamison, a huge name in Texas swimming, as an assistant, things should only look up down the road.