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: Conor Dwyer (25 NCAA Points, 3 NCAA Relays, 2010 National Swimmer of the Year), Marco Loughran (30 NCAA Points, 3 NCAA Relays), Brett Fraser (22 NCAA Points, 4 NCAA Relays), Michael Joyce (13 NCAA Points), Balazs Gercsak (1 NCAA Point)
Key Additions: Nicholas Caldwell (freestyle), Carlos Omana (Middle Distance Free/Back/IM), Matthew Elliott (Breaststroke/IM), Matthew Curby (free/back), Austin Ringquist (back/IM), Dan Wallace (Scotland – IM/Mid-D Free/Breast), Thomas Veale (Distance Free), Harrison Curley (backstroke), Matthew Thompson (Distance Free/Back), Eduardo Solaeche (Spain – Distance Free/Breaststroke/IM)
2010-2011 Recap: Last year was the swan-song for 2010 NCAA Swimmer of the Year Conor Dwyer. It was supposed to be his big send-off, and he was supposed to dominate. Unfortunately, in the highly-volatile nature of swimming, a violent bout with illness the week of NCAA’s, and it wasn’t to be. He was good enough to put up 25 individual points, including a 3rd-place finish in the 500 free, but that was nowhere near the 50+ individual points he probably had been counted on headed into the meet.
The good news is that it really only cost the Gators one spot in their final standing with them finishing just 11 points behind 4th-place Arizona but more than 100 behind 3rd-place Stanford.
But this year’s Florida team will have wholesale changes from last year’s. They will lose two Olympians (Brett Fraser, and Balazs Gercsak), at least one future Olympian (Conor Dwyer and maybe Marco Loughran), two individual NCAA Champions (Dwyer and Fraser), and two members of its 2011 NCAA Championship 800 free relay (Dwyer, and Fraser). In all, the Gators lose nearly 100 individual points and half of their 20 relay swims.
The team will, in fact, be almost unrecognizable from last year’s. There will be a few stars returning, a few swimmers ready to step up, and then a whole lot of freshmen who will get their first taste of college swimming working in the Olympic environment in Gainesville. This preview will focus a lot on that freshman class: probably more so than any of the previews we’ve done so far.
Remember that, like we saw on the women’s side, head coach Gregg Troy will be passing off many of the administrative duties of the program to new associate head-coach Anthony Nesty, though he will be even more present on deck than normal. This is in preparation for Troy’s duties as the head coach of the 2012 US Women’s Olympic team. This men’s program will be in great hands, however, as Nesty is one of the most capable and highly-respected assistants in the country. Still, with a lot of new faces on the squad, it’s a situation to keep an eye on.
International Butterfly Leaders: Sebastian Rousseau/Marcin Cieslak: The two biggest names returning to this Florida roster are both internationals: Sebastian Rousseau from the South Africa and Marcin Cieslak from Poland.
Rousseau made two A-finals last season in the 200 free (7th – 1:34.19) and 200 fly (7th – 1:43.15). In the 200 free, at the least, he’s lined up for a podium spot. He could add another A-final to his resume this year, as he was 10th in the 200 IM (1:44.2) last year.
Joining Rousseau at the front of this program is Cieslak, who is also in the great Polish tradition is an excellent butterflier. He placed 15th in the 100 fly (46.70 off of a 46.03 season best), and 4th in the 200 fly (1:42.13). In both of those races, he was the only freshman to score even a single point. He also picked up 6th-place in the 200 IM in 1:43.69. He was quietly one of the best freshmen in the country last year (and he was of true freshman age – he didn’t turn 19 until April).
This 200 fly group has really blossomed into one of the best in the country, as their third training partner will be junior Cameron Martin. He’s going to be on the A-final/B-final bubble, with an 11th place finish in 1:44.00 from last year.
The challenge with both Cieslak and Rousseau is that both have the chance of qualifying for the Olympics. Cieslak is a strong favorite to do so for Poland in both the 200 fly and 200 IM, and Rousseau holds the top spot in the same events for his country. Cieslak shouldn’t have any concerns over Olympic qualifying, so he should be full-bore at NCAA’s, but Rousseau will face his test on April 11th, which is the South African Nationals meet that will likely determine Olympic qualifiers. That falls about two weeks after the end of NCAA’s, and after Rousseau was heart-breakingly close to the qualifying standards for Worlds last year, he’ll need to be on top of his game to earn an Olympic spot. I think he’ll be beginning his taper, but won’t be fully-there, at NCAA’s.
Breaststrokers/Backstrokers: The Gators don’t have much in the way of powerhouse breaststrokers after Dwyer’s graduation; their top returner is senior Robert Kennedy (55.0/1:57.5), as well as junior John Lehtonen, who is around the same times.
The backstroke situation is even worse, without really any 100 backstroker (Martin is the best at a 49.3). The loss of British swimmer Marco Loughran, who was one of the best in the country, after only two years of eligibility were granted by the NCAA, really stings.
Returning Freestylers: In the recent era, Florida isn’t known nearly as much for their sprinters as they are for their middle-distance swimmers, and that comes across pretty well in their freestyles, where they got better as the relays got longer (15th in the 200, 10th in the 400, 1st in the 800). There’s not a big-name sprinter on this roster yet, but the one I like to get there (even as soon as this year) is sophomore Bradley deBorde. Last year, he had bests of 19.6/43.0 in the two sprint freestyles, and that’s even after being a converted middle-distance guy (he was a two-time Florida State Champ in the 200). This season, he’ll be a much bigger part of that 800 free relay after three graduations, but he’ll be the anchor (or lead-off, depending on strategy) of the two shorter relays. If Troy and Nesby continue to put focus on him as a sprinter and encourage the different musculature that sprinters use, though, he could be an individual scorer in either of the shorter races as well. Matt Norton missed most of last year after a scooter accident forced him to have surgery, but if he returns that will be a big boost to their relays with a sub-20 50 free and a 43.5 100 free. (Sidenote: when is Gregg Troy going to take away all forms of bipedular transportation from these guys?)
Joining deBorde in building those free relays will be Jeffrey Raymond. His 1:34.9 flat-start from NCAA’s is the best returning 200 free on the team (he was 14th in the country), and he had an extremely swift 42.75 to anchor Florida’s 400 free relay. That Florida 800 isn’t going to be as good as it was last year, but with Raymond, Rousseau, and Scott Sommer all capable of under 1:35’s, deBorde probably at a 1:36, and some very good freshmen coming in, there’s no reason this relay can’t stay in the top 5. The dropoff from the most elite 800 free relays to the rest of the field is pretty steep, and last year having even one guy sub-1:35 just about put a relay in the top 8.
Looking even longer, sophomore Connor Signorin has a chance to be a real star for Florida. Even with a bad NCAA Championship meet, he still placed 13th in the 400 IM (season best of 3:44.0) and 14th in the mile (season best of 14:52.11). Add to that some great international experience this summer as part of the US World University Games team, if he goes best times in all three races at NCAA’s, he could be in for north of 30 points.
Freshman Butterfliers: Florida brought in an overall class of absolute studs. In my opinion, aside from Stanford’s class, this is the best in the country. By their junior years, I see no fewer than 10 of these guys as NCAA qualifiers, if not scorers. This class brings in great swimmers in almost every discipline of the sport, and the common theme throughout is some spectacular IM’ers. We know Troy can coach IM’ers, and so does everyone else, so that’s no real surprise. If we parallel the order in which we previewed the returning swimmers, this class starts off slow. There’s not a pure butterflier in the group, but butterfly was the area of least need for this team, so that makes sense. Many swimmers in this class have the versatility to swim the flies (Nicholas Caldwell, for example) if they have to, but none are likely to do so at championship-type meets. But this was the one area where there was almost no need, so it was wise of the Florida coaching staff to focus their efforts on other areas.
Freshman Breaststrokers: This is where things really pick up for this class, and where they really needed to, as the breaststroke group is being built almost from scratch. The top of the group is Matthew Elliott, who has been a rising name in USA Swimming over the past year or so. He comes in with breaststroke bests of 53.80/1:55.98 in the 100 and 200, both of which easily make him the best on this Florida roster. The breaststroke races, nationwide, graduated a ton last year, so there’s a big opportunity for him to score here. He probably only needs to drop a few tenths in either race (if that) to become a B-Finalist. His 3rd event is likely going to be the 400 IM, where his best of 3:47.28 would’ve put him in the top 20 at last year’s NCAA’s (though there’s not the same graduation rate there as we’ll see in the breaststrokes).
This breaststroke group will also benefit from the two international additions to the team: Dan Wallace of Scotland and Eduardo Solaeche of Spain. Solaeche is arguably as good, if not better, than Elliott as the best junior breaststroker in his home country. His best meters converted times go 53.5/1:56.4 in yards. If those conversions hold true, he too already has B-final type of skills. He will have some choices to make at NCAA’s, however, because he’s an even better IM’er, with short-course-converted best times of 1:44.9/3:45.3 that put him amongst the top 2 or 3 in the class nation-wide and also put him easily within A-final range in both races.
Wallace is really more of an IM’er whose best stroke is breaststroke, but as a 3rd event he should be an NCAA scorer one day in the breaststrokes. In the IM’s, however, he goes for 1:44.22 and 3:43.34 (long course converted). That 400 time would’ve placed in the top 4 at NCAA’s last year.
Freshman Backstrokers: These freshman backstrokers aren’t going to step in and replace Marco Loughran, one of the best in the country last year, immediately. Still, Austin Ringquist, Carlos Omana, Matt Curby, and Harrison Curley bring something unique to the table in this group, which is some great experience.
Ringquist was a member of USA Swimming’s 2010 Youth Olympics team which earned him a trip to Singapore for the event last summer. He’s got a solid 100 back in 49.60, but his best event is the 200 back, where he boasts a 1:45.41, with Omana coming in behind him in a 1:46.73. Between Curby and Curley, you get to great sprint backstrokers who have combined to win the last three Florida State Championships in this race. That pair brings a great racing mentality (similar to that of Ryan Lochte, and we’ve seen what Troy has done with him) to Gainesville, with bests of 49.60 (Curley) and 49.07 (Curby) meaning solid times as well. Both are also spectacular 50 backstroke too (Curby is already a 22.7) which will be immediately important for the 200 medley relay
The experience is the key here. These four swimmers already combine to take over the mantle of best on the team in all three backstroke distances, and very shortly after that could take 2-3-4 in both events as well. But they’ve all swum in big races and pressure meets, so I think they might thrive under the circumstances.
Freshman Freestylers: This is where the class gets really exciting. Nicholas Caldwell is one of the best middle-distance freestylers we’ve seen come out of the high school ranks in quite some time. He was the 2010 Jr. Pan Pac Champion in the 400 free, has broken 5 National Age Group Records, was the 2010 USA Swimming Jr. National High-Point scorer (including a Meet Record in the 400 free), and by the 2016, is on a straight-line to be one of the biggest names in swimming in the United States.
But before that, let’s get through his first year of NCAA swimming, where he should shine very brightly. He already has bests of 4:17.2/15:05.0 in the 500 free and the mile. That 500 time would already put him into the A-final, and these distance freestylers are usually the ones who see the biggest improvements at around 18-years old. He also brings in a 1:35.96 200 free (which will put him on that relay) and a 44.9 100 free, which is an off-event for him. He’s versatile enough to try the butterflies, backstrokes, and IM’s to mix things up mid-season, but those longer freestyles are going to be his bread-and-butter. I’d count on him for at least 15 individual points, which is significant for a freshman on the men’s side.
Other very good middle-distance freestylers include Omana, who we mentioned above, with bests of 1:39.6/4:24.8 in the 200 and 500; he also goes a 1:47.5 in the 200 IM. Thomas Veale has bests of 1:39.4/4:25.5/15:22.4 in the 200/500/mile freestyles.
The best sprinter of the class is Curby, who is also one of the best backstrokers of the class. He has bests of 20.4/44.4/1:37.5 in the 50/100/200 freestyles, all of which give him an inside track for relay swims. He might be one of the most important pieces, as Florida is badly in need of some sprinters.
Diving: Florida doesn’t have anything on the roster that is likely to score them points at NCAA’s, but senior Anthony Lewark did manage two A-finals at SEC’s last year, and will be important in that team race. This is a fairly big diving squad, however, with 6 returning divers (including three seniors), so they’ll do enough to stay competitive in dual meets. Look for more emphasis to be put on diving recruits in this year’s class, though.
2011-2012 Outlook: The challenge here in predicting Florida’s NCAA placing, as it will be with a few other teams (Cal, Stanford), is not to overvalue the freshmen class. It’s much more difficult on the men’s side than the women’s side to step in and immediately score big NCAA points. These guys are very good, and as sophomores will be huge, but they can’t immediately replace the losses of Fraser, Dwyer, Loughran, etc. That graduating class was just too good. If Signorins placings improve, that will help. If the Spaniard Solaeche lives up to billing, that will help too. The relays really need to get better though, which puts a big honus on Scott Sommer to step up.
I think this season is a step-backwards for the Gators before a leap-forward down the line. At NCAA’s, 6th-or-7th seems about where they’ll end up.