Key Losses: Hannah Wilson (31 NCAA Points, 3 NCAA Relays), Amanda Sims (34 NCAA Points, 1 Finals Relay, 1 Prelims Relay), Erica Dagg (7.5 NCAA Points, 3 NCAA Finals Relays, 1 Prelims Relay), Katie Kastes (6 NCAA Points)
Key Additions: Catherine Breed (Mid D Free), Yvette Kong (Breast/Free), Melanie Klaren (Mid D/Back), Camille Cheng, Casey Mims (breast), Taylor Nanfria (Distance Free/IM), Caroline Piehl (Sprint Free/IM), Samara White (diving), Kaylin Bing, Eva Greene (free/back)
2010-2011 Recap: The 2011 NCAA Championship meet couldn’t have gone any better for the Cal Golden Bears. They had event wins by seniors, they had event wins by freshmen. They won three out of the 5 relays, losing out only to two American-Record holding Georgia quartets. Head coach Teri McKeever made every correct decision. She masterfully organized her prelims relays to comfortably final without having to ware out her big guns in the morning sessions. She pulled Cindy Tran from the 100 fly, which led to a National Championship in the 100 back. Everything she touched turned to (blue and) gold, and this all resulted in a National Championship for her and the Golden Bears.
And now, the flood gates have opened. Cal brought in three of the top 5 recruits in the class of 2011. They’ve received very early verbal committments from 3 of the top 5 in the class of 2012, with the other two yet to commit anywhere. Anyone and everyone is being projected as a good fit with the Cal Bears. At this point, it seems like the only thing preventing them from putting together an unbelievable dynasty is the administration’s ability to manage their scholarships. They’ve taken their first two NCAA titles ever in the last three seasons, and it’s hard to see anything slowing this freight train down (short of Dave Salo at USC turning his post-grad recruiting into an equivalent absurdity of pre-grad recruiting).
The Big Show: This Cal team is stacked with swimmers, but the headliner on the marquee is junior Caitlin Leverenz. She stands as one of the world’s top-10 IM’ers in long course, which she proved this summer at the World Championships by scoring finals in both distances. Collegiately, she’s got a very tough go in the IM races, given that three other swimmers in the NCAA ranks could also make a claim to top-10 – USC’s Katinka Hosszu, Florida’s Elizabeth Beisel, and maybe even Stanford’s Maya DiRado also fit that bill. This traffic-jam at the top left her with only 5th and 4th place finishes in the two races, respectively.
With the talent returning this year, the placings at the NCAA Championships will come purely down to who hits the meet perfectly. Hosszu has to return as the favorite, but Leverenz should be right in the thick of things in both races. Her advantage is on the breaststroke legs, where she blows the competition (even those IM’ers who are viewed as “good breaststrokers”). Her highest placing, in fact, was in the 200 breaststroke, where she took 3rd at NCAA’s (2:06.23) where she was a reach away from the win. Where she’ll need to really improve on her IM’s is the backstroke leg – and that holds true both in college and internationally – without losing her dominance on the breaststroke, which is a challenging balancing act. The positive news there is that she happens to be a part of one of the best backstroking programs in the world. She’ll also need to close on her freestyle a bit better – she was a 28.00 on the final 50 at NCAA’s a year ago in the 200, which dropped her two places on the final lap.
Leverenz seemed as though she might be a good candidate to redshirt, given how close she is to an Olympic medal, but she seems to be swimming the season out. There’s an outside chance that she won’t be at full-strength at NCAA’s – but then again, the same goes for the rest of the impressive IM field (aside from maybe Hosszu, who already has an Olympic spot sealed up for Hungary, and DiRado, who is probably targeting 2016).
Best Supporting Actress: Leverenz may be the headliner, but what this Cal program does is a full-team performance, as is evidenced by their high relay placings. The key to this team this season will be senior sprinter Liv Jensen. With the graduations of Dagg and Wilson, Jensen has by far the best sprint times on the team. Last year at NCAA’s, she went a 21.5 in the 50 free and a 47.94 (prelims) in the 100, both of which scored her big points. No other returning swimmer on the Cal roster was within a second of those times last year.
Supporting her in the freestyle races will be veteran Sara Isakovic (who falls into the “is she really still in college?” category for swimmers who seem to have been around forever, even though they haven’t). She’s best known for her 200 free – she was 5th in that race at NCAA’s in a 1:43.63 – but a very small sample size in Cal’s first meet this year says that she should be good for a fast 100 as well. At the Cal Poly Queen of the Pool meet, she posted a 50.96 in the 100 free, which is about what her best time from last year was (though she rolled a 48.1 at NCAA’s). I’d be shocked if she can’t go at least a 47.9 on a relay-start at NCAA’s.
(Note: Cal lost Nathalie Lindborg, who would have been a sophomore, which costs them a probable relay replacement. She had great potential in the sprint freestyles, and will hurt pretty badly).
Colleen Fotsch, who we’ll talk about later as a butterflier, is also going to be a big piece of the free relays, with an NCAA mark of 21.87 off of a rolling start in the 50. Senior Katherine Raatz, who last year had some prelims duty on relays, may also have to step up into big-time finals swims. At NCAA’s, she split 22.5/49.2 in morning swims.
The Chorus Line: And then, there are the Cal backstrokers, who collectively are becoming one of the most dominant and recognized stroke-groups in the country. They placed 1-2 last year in the 100 back at the hands of Cindy Tran (51.30) and Deborah Roth (51.51), both of whom were only freshmen. There are a few swimmers who had great summers and should challenge them this year (Jenny Connolly of Tennessee and Megan Romano of Georgia, for example) but these two are going to be very strong with the #3 and #4 placers from NCAA’s both graduating. Almost overlooked in this group is senior Colleen Fotsch, who was 15th at NCAA’s in the 100, but put up a 52.6 from Pac-10’s that is very close to A-finaling as well.
In the 200, Roth took 8th on a best of 1:52.96 with one of the biggest tapers in the country. As we get closer to this year’s NCAA Championship meet, it will be important not to forget that whatever her times are in-season, she’s probably going to cut at least two seconds off at NCAA’s (which is a big number at this level). They also picked up 9th-place points from yet another freshman, Stephanie Au, in 1:53.33. Expect two A-finalists as a probability in this race too.
Butterfly: If there’s a stroke where Cal isn’t totally shored up on returning swimmers, it’s the butterflys. Their top two returners will be Fotsch (52.57) and Tran (52.68), both of whom we mentioned in the backstroke section. Tran scratched the fly at NCAA’s. Fotsch handled the double fairly well, though as we mentioned above it definitely took a toll on her 100 back result, which is the latter of the two races. She’s also the best 50 butterflier on the team, so she’ll be needed on the 200 medley at the beginning of the session as well. As much as it hurts to give up a scorer, it has to make sense for Cal to leave her off of the 100 fly this year because of how important she will be in those other two races (A minimum of 11 points from an A-final in the 100 back is worth more than two 14th-place finishes, points-wise).
Speaking of the 200 medley, it should be very strong, as they’re the defending National Champions and the only Cal relay to return all four pieces after breaking the NCAA, American, and U.S. Open Records last year. The only other relay that looks even remotely able to compete is maybe Auburn or Arizona, and they’re both still a ways back in time.
Back to the individual races, Isakovic is a probable scorer in the 200 fly (7th last year). Senior Shelley Harper is the darkhorse here, as during her junior season she dropped more than two seconds from her best time the season before to go a 1:57.95. She wobbled a little bit at NCAA’s, but if she can peak at the right time this year, she’s got B-final potential there as well. Harper is Cal’s best returning distance freestyler (4:41/16:53), but they don’t put a whole lot of effort into those events. Even a swimmer like Stephanie Au, who was a distance freestyler at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was turned into a full-time backstroker at Cal.
The Starlets: This class begins with freshman Catherine Breed, who is a versatile young swimmer that has had a great 2011 so far, both in short course and long course. She could immediately step onto the 400 free relay (49.69), and will immediately step on to the 800 free relay that is replacing two pieces (1:44.61). In that 200, she seems like a sure-fire NCAA scorer, and should be on the verge of an A-final in her first season. Those middle-distance freestyles are where she’ll really make a mark – she’s got a best of 4:41.18 already in the 500 free.
Dividends are already being paid off from her time training at Cal. In the team’s inaugural meet, she cut half-a-second off of her previous career-best time in the 100 fly in 55.04. At least immediately, that event isn’t likely to be her big focus, but with improvements like that, perhaps a great 200 fly is in her future. She could also be a good miler, but her best time in that race is a 16:17 from 2008. Cal is badly lacking in distance freestylers, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered them last year.
Cal is developing itself a pipeline from the briskly-improving Hong Kong swimming program. In addition to Stephanie Au and Hannah Wilson, they have now brought in Yvette Kong, which gives the Cal Bears 10 out of the 18 Hong Kong National Long Course records.
Kong, who attended high school in the United States, is an unbelievably quick breaststroker. She has bests of 59.0 and 2:13.1 in the 100 and 200 (though her long course times convert even faster). She’s also an excellent freestyler (23.12/49.98/1:45.34). She’ll be on the 800 free relay, and should be good enough by year’s end in the 100 to give somebody a prelims spell in that race too.
Casey Mims is another great breaststroker, with bests of 1:01.7/2:12.2 in the 100 and 200 (she has Olympic Trials cuts in both).
Melanie Klaren, in true Mission Viejo fashion, is an excellent middle-distance freestyler. She’s got bests of 1:46.3/4:45.6. She’s also a superb backstroker (53.2/1:55.4), with the challenge being that Cal is unbelievably loaded in the backstrokes, and things are only going to get worse (better?) in future years. Still, her 100 time is already good enough to B-final, and her 200 time is very close. Could this be yet another backstroke scorer for Teri McKeever? Perhaps, though long term she’s more valuable as a 200/500 swimmer.
In Taylor Nanfria, Cal picked up yet another distance swimmer. With all of the potential they’ve brought in in those events, and with all of the overall talent they have, I’d guess that they’ll start developing these milers if for no other reason than less internal competition costing them points. Nanfria has bests of 4:46.6/16:25 in the two longer frees, but both of those were done as a 16-year old (she’s a pretty young freshman). If she can make some improvements quick there, she’ll be pretty good. Where we know she’ll be good is the 400 IM, where she has a best of 4:12.10. That time’s only about two seconds away from an NCAA B-final. Cal has Leverenz at the top of the heap, but beyond her, their IM’ers are a touch on the thin side (Harper could score in this 400 too), and Nanfria will help with that.
Kaylin Bing is a solid sprint freestyler with good size to develop at 5’10. She has bests of 22.8/49.9 in the two shorter distances, but was an early bloomer. If she can get her times dropping again, she will be dangerous down the road.
The big mystery of the class is Camille Cheng, who was not on any recruiting lists but is listed on the Cal roster as hailing from Beijing, China. She in fact attended international school there designed for the children of ex-pats. She in fact appears to have spent time in the states training (or at least competing) with cross-town rivals Palo Alto Aquatics, where she was in a training group with Maddy Schaeffer and Jasmine Tosky (two of the best young sprinters in the country). Her best long course times in the USA Swimming database convert to 23.3/49.9, but the indication is that she’s capable of much better than that, even as a freshman.
Diving: Cal doesn’t have a star diver, but they do have a lot of depth that will pay off at the Pac-12 Championships. Their zone qualifiers last year were Kelsey Heken, Laura Sanford, and Molly Hayes on the 3/10/1 meters, respectively. Each was about four spots in their respective events away from qualifying for Nationals.
2011-2012 Outloook: This Cal team is very good, there’s no doubt about that. I’m leaning towards picking them to win NCAA’s, but I don’t think it’s going to be by a huge margin by any means. They’re going to feel the effects of the loss of sprint depth, and won’t have quite the same flexibility in relay lineups. Pac-12 rivals Arizona and Stanford both bring back very young squads with a lot of potential, and Georgia reloaded in a big way this season.
I still think Cal will be out in front of them all. They will really have to find another sprint freestyler or two out of the freshman class. If they can’t draw in at least one more 21/48-low relay start, it could cost them a lot of relay points. The good news is that they had a big margin off of last year’s scoring, so if anyone wants to take this title away from them, it’s going to be by that team catching up, not by Cal slipping back to the field.