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 (now located under the “In the News” menu).
Key Losses: Scott Spann (26.5 NCAA Points, 2 NCAA Relays), Scott Jostes (2 NCAA Points, 2 NCAA Relays), Bryan Collins (12 NCAA Points)
Key Additions: Clay Youngquist, Kip Darmody, Ben Anderson, Nicholas Allen, Tripp Cooper, Jacob Ritter, Keith Murphy
2010-2011 Recap: Texas lost a big class prior to last year that included Olympians Dave Walters and Ricky Berens, as well as one of the best underwater swimmers we’ve seen in college in Hill Taylor. That, combined with the lineup that Cal took into the season, made it appear as though the National Championship meet would be a runaway. But as the meet wore on in Minneapolis, the Longhorns gave the Golden Bears a run-for-their-money. This was thanks in no small part to their divers, led by coach Matt Scoggins who is one of the top 6-or-7 diving coaches in the country at any level.
The Longhorns actually took a miniscule, .5-point margin with three events to go. Despite that lead, Cal’s win wasn’t really in danger at that point because of their dominant 400 free relay and Texas’ lack of scorers in the butterfly, but for a young Longhorn team (that didn’t really get great swims from their seniors), it was a huge confidence booster. That’s going to set up a big season for the Longhorns this year, and I’ll ruin the suspense – I think they’re going to win it all this year.
The Controversey: Though I expect Texas to win the title. it won’t necessarily be a totally smooth season. After it was revealed that Jimmy Feigen would be taking an “Olympic waiver” this season, which means that he will be able to compete but won’t have to attend any classes in the spring, there were very mixed reviews in the swimming community. Some viewed it as an athlete living up to their responsibilities as a potential challenger for the United States Olympic Team, while others see it as him shirking his responsibilities as a “student-athlete.” It’s unlikely that anything will sway anybody’s opinion on the subject one way or the other, as is usually true about these polarizing issues, but one thing that everyone can agree on: he will be the best sprinter in the country this season.
Last year, he took 3rd in the 50 (18.97) and 2nd in the 100 (41.66), and he got another big confidence boost this summer when he placed 2nd in both events (22.0/48.9) at the USA Swimming National Championships. Neither race will be a runaway (Adam Small of Arizona and Vlad Morozov of USC will be lurking), but Feigen is definitely a favorite in both as he shoots for his first ever individual National Championship. Hard to imagine that he’ll be denied especially in the 100, where he’s thrice been runner-up.
Dax Hill: Dax Hill has been very much a potential guy since he started at Texas, and everyone knew that he was capable of breaking out at any point. That potential came to fruition last year when he took 5th in the 100 free (42.06) and a big surprise of 2nd in the 200 free (1:32.64).
In the latter of those races, the 200, he called a last-minute audible in the NCAA finals by changing his strategy from being a front-half swimmer to a back-half swimmer. He’s the only swimmer from last year’s top-5 to return this season, and should be a three-event scorer for the Longhorns (he was 19th in the 50 free in 19.64.
Distance Group: If you’re catching the trend, Texas will have the top-returning swimmer, and therefore default favorite, in each of the three shorter freestyle events. That trend doesn’t change a whole lot in the distance freestyles, with the return of defending NCAA Champion in the 1650 Michael McBroom. He is a Texas native who transfered to Texas from Minnesota before his sophomore season.
At NCAA’s last year, he was anticipated to finish top-8, but I don’t think many outside of Austin expected him to win. He hung with the likes of Stanford’s Chad La Tourette throughout the race, but when he turned on the jets over the last 100 yards, nobody could stay with him. He cruised to a two-second margin of victory in 14:32.86. He also took 8th-place honors in the 500 free, though his best swim was a 4:16 from prelims.
The 500 will be the only event where they don’t hold the honor of best-returner, but even there they bring back Jackson Wilcox, a senior who is the 2nd-best returner behind Stanford’s Bobby Bollier. He placed 4th in the 500 at NCAA’s (4:15.8) and 8th in the mile (14:48.69). If you add in McBroom’s prelims time, Texas brings back the 2nd-and-4th best times from NCAA’s in the event.
This means that Texas has a legitimate shot at sweeping all 5 freestyle events. It won’t be easy, but the pieces are all there, in spades. With a freestyle contingent like that, it’s hard for anybody to challenge you for the overall team title.
This group will pick up a sneakily good freshman named Jake Ritter. He didn’t get the most publicity in this class, as he was only 4th in the 500 at the Texas state championship meet, but he placed higher (3rd) at the NCSA Junior Nationals shortly thereafter in a 4:24.
Backstrokers: The freestylers are impressive, but that’s not all this Texas team has. Their backstrokers are also a very strong group. Junior Cole Cragin took over the mantle from the aforementioned Taylor as “best underwater swimmers in the country,” and he rode those great walls to a 3rd-place finish in the 100 back last year in 45.56. He’s also a huge weapon for the Texas 200 medley relay that finished 2nd last year as the best 50 backstroker in the country.
Cragin’s always been good at the shorter races, but last year he gutted his way into the A-final (via a swim-off) of the 200 backstroke as well, before conceding to an 8th-place finish. If he can put in the work to solidify his position as a top-8 200 backstroker, that would be huge for the Longhorns (though that will be a tall order).
Their best 200 backstroker is junior Austin Surhoff. He placed 6th at NCAA’s last year with a prelims-best time of 1:41.62. Similarly to as we pointed out with Cragin, aside from the defending Champion Cory Chitwood in this event, every position in that race will be a hard-earned one.
Sophomore Patrick Murphy will give Texas a serious three-headed monster in these events this year. In his first collegiate season last year, he placed 14th in the 200 back (1:43.0) and 20th in the 100 back (47.2). Hayes Johnson came from out of nowhere at the end of last season and placed 21st at NCAA’s in the 200 back. This year, as a senior, he could also sneak into a B-final either there or the 400 IM.
Breaststrokers: Last year was 2008 Olympian Scott Spann’s final year of collegiate swimming, and though his leadership will be missed, Texas still has a very good breaststroking group. That includes the return of the NCAA Champion in the 200, senior Eric Friedeland (1:52.4) and the bronze-medalist in the same race, Nick D’Innocenzo (1:53.1). D’Innocenzo’s improvements during his sophomore season were huge – he was 33rd the season before. They weren’t that surprising though, as he was plagued by illness the season before, and was finally back to full-strength last year.
Friedland also placed 9th in the 100 breaststroke (52.81). The shorter breaststrokes, especially on the medley relays, are where Spann’s loss will be felt the most. None of the returning breaststrokers have quite the same sprinting abilities as Spann does, though Friedland is on the verge of being there.
IM’ers: Texas also has outstanding, national-title contenders in the IM’s (is it starting to become clear why they’re my pick for Champions?). Surhoff placed 4th in the 200 IM last year as a sophomore (1:43.58), but won it the year before as a freshman. Two ahead of him have graduated, though there’s a great generation of IM’ers behind him (including David Nolan and Kyle Whitaker, the last two high school National Record holders). Another top-5 finish would be a positive result for the Longhorns. He was also 10th in the 400 IM, and should be an A-finalist in that race.
D’Innocenzo is also a very good IM’er – he finished 11th in the 200 last year, and just missed points at 18th place in the 400.
Butterfliers: This is the one area where Texas will be searching for answers this year, as it bit them on the final day of competition last year. They do well enough in the 100 – Feigen’s pure strength took him to 11th in the country last year, and senior Neil Caskey had a good enough swim on the 400 medley to help the team get 2nd. But the 200 was the only event last year where they didn’t score any points.
Sophomore Woody Joye took 21st in the 100 fly at NCAA’s last year in 46.70, and is a big-time potential swimmer. He was already on the 200 medley last year, and he probably moves on to the 400 medley relay this year as well. The Longhorns will still be searching for points in the 200 fly, but this year they should have a big enough cushion to absorb that.
Freshman Class: Texas didn’t need to do a whole lot with their recruiting class. They didn’t bring in the huge numbers of elite recruits like Stanford, Cal, and Florida did, but they brought in exactly the pieces they need (shy of that butterflier) to fill out this squad. (Texas was the runner-up in the David Nolan sweepstake; can you imagine if Nolan were added to this lineup?).
Specifically, they needed to find a way to improve their 800 free relay. That seems like an odd thing to say, because Texas is usually so good there, but it was the only relay last year that didn’t finish in the top 4 (it was 9th). Part of that improvement will come from a better anchor from Dax Hill (he was three seconds slower than in the individual in this relay). Part of it will also come from the two big freshmen recruits: Clay Youngquist and Kip Darmody. They come to campus with 200 times of 1:34.2 and 1:35.5, respectively; both of which will be immediate improvements to the relay.
Youngquist, rated by CollegeSwimming.com as the top recruit in the class, can swim every race from the 50 to the mile, and has even earned credit as a darkhorse candidate for the American Olympic Team on a relay. He goes 20.0/43.7 in the shorter freestyles on up to a 4:19.4 in the 500. He’s also a great butterflier (47.5/1:46.8) and IM’er.
Darmody may help out that 800 free relay, but it won’t be his best event. That would come in the form of the two backstrokes, where he goes 47.0/1:43.2. Both of those times would have left him (by a tenth-or-two) out of the B-finals, and he’s going to be another great addition to the Texas backstroke group.
Diving: As we mentioned, the big bonus of Texas is that they were the only team in last year’s top 6 with a significant diving presence at NCAA’s. That will change this season (Stanford brought in a freshman named Kristian Ipsen who will be immediately one of the best in the country), but Texas still will have the best diving group in the country amongst the contenders.
Senior Drew Livingston was a 44-point scorer last year at NCAA’s, and this year should go for a few more than that. He’s a title contender on both of the springboards (he had a rough finals in the 3-meter last year), and should also be top-5 on the platform. Sophomore Will Chandler had a very good rookie year last season, where he placed 16th on the 3-meter at NCAA’s. With a huge senior diving class graduating/redshirting/going pro, he has a great shot at being a scorer in all three disciplines this year. The benefit of having two great divers like this for a team that is capable of filling up all 18 roster spots is that each only counts for half of a roster spot.
As if those two weren’t enough, Texas also will get back All-American and National Teamer Matt Cooper for his senior season. He didn’t compete for Texas last year, but the season before scored 16 NCAA points including a 3rd-place finish on the platform. This is a loaded group of divers this year that will give Texas plenty of options come spring.
Texas will bring in a freshman named Myles Herzog, who will redshirt his freshman year to try and be ready for after Livingston’s graduation. Herzog finished 3rd at his district championship meet in Texas last year on the 1-meter (the district meet is the first of 3 levels of post-season competition in Texas). It seems odd that a program as good as Texas would not only offer a diver who was only 3rd in their district a scholarship, but then use a redshirt on him his freshman year. The thing is, you see, that Herzog has only been diving for a year, which makes his progress extremely impressive. He was a former Junior National qualifier in gymnastics, and is making a fast transition to diving. He did enough in that one season to impress the Texas coaching staff, and under the direction of Scoggins, he is a huge-potential guy.
2011-2012 Outlook: Barring any sort of surprise, Texas should be the National Champions this year. They are so deep everywhere – they’re looking towards at least two scorers in every event (except that 200 fly), great divers, they should have all of their relays in the top 5 at NCAA’s, and all of them should be equal-to or improved from last year.
The only thing that could trip-up the Longhorns is the look-ahead. There are several Longhorns who will be looking at Olympic bids – Feigen, Hill, Youngquist, maybe McBroom, and even their top diver Livingston are all in the hunt for a trip to London. Though they are the favorites, it is a fragile situation. There are a few swimmers that they can’t afford to have any less than the best from, because Stanford will be coming up to speed quickly with their awesome freshman class.