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 Losses: Brie Powers (1 NCAA prelims relay), Natalie Sacco (2008 Honorable Mention All-American), Adrienne Woods (1 NCAA Relay)
Key Additions: Gretchen Jacques, Kelsey LeNeave, Skylar Smith, Kaitlin Pawlowicz
2010-2011 Recap: The Texas Longhorns women were resilient in 2011. After a 2010 NCAA Championship meet that could be termed as disasterous from many different angles, and the subsequent departure from the program of Kathleen Hersey prior to last year, 2011 could have been a real downer of a year. With that in mind, their 6th-place finish in 2011 was pretty good (with Hersey, however, they probably would’ve been 4th). They took back the Big 12 crown in an exhilarating finish with Texas A&M, and carried some of that momentum through to NCAA’s.
Talent is the name of the game for this Texas team. Since coming to Austin, head coach Kim Brackin has been amassing class-after-class of top national talent, and this season seems to be zero hour for all of that talent. She’s now graduated two full classes, which means this program is firmly entrenched as not only her swimmers, but swimmers that were recruited by her swimmers. The key to this team will continue to be, as it has been, peaking at the right time to ensure maximum achievement in March.
Senior Karlee Bispo has emerged as the leader of this team, and is likely to be one of the future leaders of Team USA. Collegiately, she placed 4th at NCAA’s last year in both the 100 (48.02) and 200 (1:42.81), the latter of which was a school record, and took a bronze in the 200 IM in 1:55.07. She followed that up with a great summer that included a bronze medal at the World University Games in Shenzhen, China in the 200 free. It’s that 200 free where she will have her biggest opportunity this year, as it will be down to her and defending runner-up Lauren Perdue of Virginia for the national title.
Best-Stroker: Junior Laura Sogar started last season very quickly, and broke her own school record in the 200 breaststroke in 2:07.43, as well as in the 100 in 59.07 at the UT Invite in December. That was about her season peak – she was never faster in the 200, and dropped only a few tenths at Big 12’s in the 100 – which marks the second-straight season that she peaked prior to NCAA’s. She had some issues with her goggles at Nationals, but swimming in her home pool, things could/should have been better. She’s one of the top 3 or 4 breaststrokers in the country, and so a 6th in in the 200 and a 7th in the 100 is a touch disappointing.
Sogar got things going in the right direction with A-Finals in both breaststrokes at USA Swimming Nationals, including a career-best in 1:08.8 in the 100. Behind Bispo, she’s going to be the most visible swimmer on this Texas roster. Behind Sogar in the breaststrokes is Bethany Adams (though she too peaked at the Texas Invite in December). Still, her best of 1:01.0, if she can improve a few tenths off of it at NCAA’s, could sneak her into a B-Final.
Backstroke Breakout: Sophomore-to-be Lily Moldenhauer, who in high school broke the 100 backstroke Naitonal Public High School Record, put up great times in her freshman season last year. That includes a 52.61 in her 100 backstroke at Big 12 prelims. She was 22nd at NCAA’s in that 100 back, which is her best event, and if she can flip the trend this year she’ll be a scorer in that race. Her big focus in her freshman season was the backstrokes, but she also has the potential to score in the 100 butterfly. She was an A-finalist at Big 12’s (53.47), and if she could get back down to her best high school time (52.83), she could pick up a few points there as well.
Moldenhauer really excels at the sprints, but in the 200 she is nicely complemented by senior Katie Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl did peak at NCAA’s, and made a B-Final to score in 15th, with a best of 1:53.83. It’s a young field in the 200 backstroke, but Riefenstahl should be at least back in the B-Final, and if the cards fall right for her again could even sneak into the A. Junior Jess Guro is the Longhorns’ best double-threat in these backstrokes (53.1/1:55.1), and she will be significant in the Big 12 battle, and maybe even at NCAA’s.
Butterfiers: Any time you lose an athlete as good as Kathleen Hersey, it hurts. But the Longhorns had very good depth in the butterflies behind her, so they absorbed that hit well. Junior Kelsey Amundsen was the Big 12 Champion in the 100 fly (52.54) – and the 50 free (22.50) – but placed 24th at NCAA’s about half-a-second slower. Her best time would have put her in the A-Final, showing how close NCAA’s are in this race. Both her, Jess Guro (53.07), Ellen Lobb (53.47), and Moldenhauer are within striking distance of points as well.
In the 200 fly, Leah Gingrich was 12th after prelims of the 200 (1:56.60), and then slipped back to 16th in finals (1:57.89). She’s been in an A-Final before (in this 200 fly as a freshman), and I think she’ll get back there this year.
Core of the Program: Texas has strength and talent in just about every event, but the real life-blood of these Longhorns is the freestyles. They put all three free relays into the A-Final with both firepower and and depth. In the 50, they return all four members of their 3rd-place 200 free relay. That includes Adams, who flat-starts in a 22.1, and Amundsen in 22.2. Bispo didn’t flat-start the event at taper meets, but she did anchor the Longhorns’ relay in 21.6. Only three swimmers in the country split times better than that. Ellen Lobb was the real surprise of that relay: after being subbed in in the finals, she split a 22.0 to set up Bispo to score the bronze.
The 400 free relay had a little bit of a different lineup, but they too will return all four parts. Bispo and Adams were joined by Samantha Tucker and Kelsey Amundsen to place 6th, with Amundsen marking a very impressive split of 48.23 on the second leg.
The 4th-place 800 relay is the only one that will have to replace a leg, with the graduation of Adrienne Woods. Bispo will continue to be the rock of that squad, but with the return of Riefenstahl (1:46.03) and and Tucker (1:46.7), who both stepped up for great times in the relay, they will still have a great foundation. They will likely be joined by Riefenstahl (1:47.17) or a freshman to make what should be another All-American relay this year.
Tucker, only a freshman last year, was a very important piece of this Texas swim program. Not only did she show up big on both the 400 and 800 free relays, her father was the surgeon who performed emergency surgery on men’s coach Eddie Reese after it was revealed that he a 99.9% blockage in one of his arteries.
Freshmen: This team doesn’t really have any big needs, aside from just “more”. They need more individual scorers, period, regardless of their specific specialties. Brackin brought in another great class this year, and they might do exactly “more” for this program.
The top recruit is Gretchen Jaques out of California. She was a perfect 8-for-8 in the California CIF Souther Section Division II meet in her career, which includes crushing the State Record of the great Janet Evans in the 200 IM as a junior (1:57.91). That’s already a B-final time at NCAA’s. She’s equally as good in the 100 breaststroke, with a 1:00.03 that would’ve been 10th at NCAA’s. Her 200 breaststroke is decent (2:13.30), but her versatility will extend better to those great Longhorn free relays. As a freshman, she will challenge with freestyle bests of 22.8/49.8, but by her sophomore year she will be a key piece of both the 200 and 400 free relays.
Jaques isn’t the only record-breaker that Texas is bringing in this year. Katilin Pawlowicz out of the famed Curl Burke club in the DC area holds the National High School Record in the short course meters 200 IM in 2:16.06, the 400 free in 4:14.26, and as a part of the Oakton High 200 free relay (though SCM is rarely ever swum in high school). In terms of collegiate races, she stars in all of the sport’s most grueling races. She has a good 500 and 1650, but her 1000 time of 9:50.6 would have been the best on the Texas team last year, and will leave her ready to make a big improvement in the two official freestyle distance races. She has a 4:13.5 in the 400 IM, where too she could be a scorer as a freshman. In that 200 IM, where she holds the record, her yards best is a 2:01.3, and she’s under two-minutes in the 200 fly.
Kelsey LeNeave comes in with a lot of versatility (she has USA Swimming Nationals cuts in 9 different events), but at the NCAA level her priority will be the distance freestyles. She enters with a 4:43.4 in the 500 and a 16:10.7 in the mile. Both of those times are within three seconds of NCAA points, which is not much to drop in a swimmer’s first year of college in the distance events. She has a very good opportunity to be a scorer in year 1. She will also challenge for that fourth spot on the 800 free relay, with a 1:48.2 in the 200.
Skylar Smith, out of the same First Colony program that produced this year’s Junior National champ in the 100 Simone Manuel, is another great breaststroker for this program. She has a best of 1:01.09 in the 100, which like Jaques would have made her the 2nd-best on the Texas team in 2011. She uses that breaststroke as a catalyst for great 200 (2:00.4) and 400 (4:15.4) IM’s.
Diving: Texas has a very deep diving group, including junior Maren Taylor who won the 1-meter and platform at Big 12’s. She scored 14 points at NCAA’s, but missed out on at least 11 more in the platform. After two tough entries in a row in the A-final, she had to be helped out of the water and carried off of the pool-deck on a stretcher, which resulted in no points for her and ended her championship. As a result of that DNF, she was by teammate and redshirt junior Shelby Cullinan, who took 15 points topped by a 7th-place in the 3-meter. That was a big placing for her, as she wasn’t great on either springboard at Big 12’s. Junior Diana Wilcox also is good enough to make NCAA’s in her third collegiate year if she hits at zones.
The only new addition to this year’s Texas diving group is perhaps the most exciting – redshirt freshman Sarah Gandy. Gandy fits in perfectly with the rest of this program’s huge level of talent, as she was the 2009 USA National Champion in the trampoline, which should translate well into diving.
2011-2012 Outlook: This Texas team has every piece it needs to finish in the top 4 at NCAA’s. It has every time it needs to finish in the top 4. But aside from their freestylers (especially Bispo), it’s all about timing. Last year, some swimmers peaked at the Texas Invite in December. Some swimmers peaked at Big 12’s. Some swimmers peaked in NCAA prelims. Out of last year’s top 8 teams, Texas had the best overall diving group, and amongst the same expected top 8 this year, only their rivals Texas A&M will be close this year. They’ve got a great senior class, they’ve got a great freshman class, they’ve got a lot of very good relay pieces in between. They’re not quite as deep as a program like Cal, but their top-end talent is as good as anybody’s. A pick of this team’s finish has to come with a big asterisk. If they put even 80% of their best swims and dives together in the NCAA finals, they’re a top-3 team. If they don’t, they’ll hover around 6th again.