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: Shara Stafford (18 NCAA points, 4 Relays – Transfer to Missouri), Monica Dodson (19 NCAA Diving points)
Key Additions: Rebecca Rainer (Breast/IM), Natasha Fung (Free), Lauren Neidigh (IM/Fly), Summer Stephens (IM/Fly)
2010-2011 Lookback: Coming off of a high in 2010, where the program won their first National Championship since 1982, the Florida women had one of their most tumultuous seasons in history in 2010-2011. The troubles began as the program was shaken by the tragic loss of Fran Crippen, who was the older brother of then-junior Teresa Crippen. Later in the season, two swimmers were suspended indefinitely from the program for shoplifting two jackets from Nortstroms, which made all of the National news outlets and put some real negative publicity on the program. Things went from bad-to-worse when Shara Stafford had a big-time medical scare in early January, where she almost fainted while racing a 400 IM and had to be pulled out of the pool after stopping mid-race. The mysterious incident resulting in several weeks out of competition, though ultimately she was medically cleared and had a very good finish to the season.
Different swimmers reacted to these trials and tribulations very differently. Stafford herself pushed through and thrived at NCAA’s, whereas Teresa Crippen didn’t swim as well as she might have anticipated. Freshman Elizabeth Beisel, who was one of the most heralded womens recruits in some time, started off rough at NCAA’s with an 8th-place finish in the 500, but finished the meet strong with a runner-up spot in the 400 IM and third in the 200 backstroke.
Altogether, I think the team that emerged for the 2011-2012 season will be a very close, very emotionally bonded team (which is of huge importance to make it through one of the biggest-yardage training programs in college) that will thrive on the national stage. The Gators only lost a single athlete to graduating, diver Monica Dodson. That means not a single swimmer completed their eligibility, be it NCAA scorer or not. Stafford was an incredibly important piece to this program, and she will be missed as she transfers to Missouri for her final season of eligibility – no information on why, though the presumption is to be closer to her home in Topeka, Kansas following her scary medical issues.
Beisel, Crippen, Troy, and the Olympic Dream – The two big stars on this team, Elizabeth Beisel and Teresa Crippen, are both heavy favorites to make the Olympic team in 2012. At the college level, Beisel is extremely versatile and could probably A-final in any number of events, but for now seems well-settled into her triad of the 500 free (4:37.74 season best – 8th), 400 IM (4:00.87 – 2nd), and 200 back (1:51.60 – 3rd). As mentioned above, she struggled a bit in the 500 free, adding more than three seconds in the final from prelims, so there’s a possibility that she’ll switch her day-1 NCAA event to the 200 IM, where she went a 1:56 in high school.
Crippen had a solid NCAA Championships, though by no means was it spectacular. In Austin, she tapered off almost two seconds in 400 IM to finish 7th in 4:05.36, but that was almost three seconds slower than she had gone in 2010. In a tough 200 fly/200 back double, which she’s done well in in the past, she took 4th in the 200 back and 6th in the 200 fly, though those were off of her season-best swims of 1:51.7/1:53.9, respectively, in those races.
The challenge for these two swimmers is that they will be shooting for higher things in 2012, namely the US Olympic Trials that will take place in June, where the pair are favorites to earn a trip to London. These Florida women are the first program that we’ve profiled so far this year that could be significantly Neither has announced a redshirt (or “Olympic waiver”) yet, but even if they end up swimming out the season, they’re still unlikely to be on full taper for NCAA’s.
The program in gnereal will see less of their leader, Gregg Troy, as he has been named the head coach of the US Women’s Olympic Team. He has delegated many of his administrative duties on the collegiate side to his very capable assistants Martyn Wilbie amd Anthony Nesty, though he’ll still be very involved in the program. Notably, Troy will focus on his on-deck duties, so the actual training of the athletes could actually improve. But there will definitely be a whole lot of things going on in Gainesville this year. If they can avoid the distractions that plagued the program last year, this could be a non-issue.
Distance bias: As is characterized by the two stars of the team listed above, this Florida program has a real middle-to-distance bias (call them the anti-Auburn). Jamie Bohunicky scored a single individual point at NCAA’s last year in the 200 free, and went up to the 500 and 1650 instead of down to the sprints (though she placed 25th in both). Junior Corinne Showalter is coming off of a 9th-place in the mile at NCAA’s (16:02.36), and Alicia Mathieu also scored there last year with a point from 16th place as just a freshman (16:07.46).
Balancing out: This is where the loss of Stafford becomes very significant. She was a very good, not elite, sprinter (her highest finish too was in the 200), but she brought balance to this roster. She had speed that this Florida team was very much in need of and was a huge relay contributor.
The Gators aren’t left entirely without sprinters, however. Sarah Bateman returns for her senior season next year as one of the top sprinters in the country. After winning a swim-off with Stafford, she made the most of her A-Final in the 50 to take 6th (with a season-best of 22.00) and a 48.87 in the 100 free. She will lead the Gator relays this year, and will also be counted on for some big individual scoring. Bateman is also the team’s top butterflier at 52.20 from a flat-start.
I also see a scenario where, because of the Gators’ needs, Bohunicky drops down to the 100 instead of the mile, and maybe even the 50 as well. If she were able to focus on that shorter range, I think she could do some impressive things. Even while working on the distance events, she was still able to flat-start under a 49 last season and at NCAA’s was able to roll-start a 22.4 in the 50.
On my watchlist for this Gator program is sophomore Ellese Zalewski out of Australia. I don’t think that she’s yet hit her true untapped potential in a yards pool, though she did have a very solid freshman season. She’s sort of a Sarah Bateman clone (aside from the fact that they look nothing alike). She specializes in the 50 free (22.67), is very good in the 100 (49.61), and is also an excellent butterflier (53.63). I think that she’s going to be a huge part of Florida’s success this season.
Last season, recognizing the teams pending lack of depth in the shorter events, brought in a class with a lot of speed in general, and then has worked to mold that speed to fill the needs of the program. Besides Zalewski, two more great examples of that are butterflier Kaitlin Frehling and backstroker Anna Pazevic. Frehling will rank 3rd among returners in the butterflies with a 54.79, and Pazevic is 2nd amongst backstrokers with a 53.39. Out of the pair, Pazevic is more immediately crucial. The Gators have Beisel in the 200 backstroke, and she’s still pretty decent in the 100 (52.54), but when things scoot down to the 50, she’s well outside of her comfort zone. She’ll likely get the nod again at NCAA’s in the 200 medley relay, with Beisel preparing for the 400 IM immediately afterwards.
Both Frehling and Pazevic will also fight for free relay spots, with Pazevic at a 49.0 in the 100, and Frehling at a 22.7 in the 50.
Florida’s 200 medley relay last year was a bit of a hodge-podge, with Frehling swimming back, Pazevic on fly, and Bateman on freestyle. That showed in their 15th-place finish. At the same time, I think that relay has a lot of great potential with such a young group (three freshman) coming back and finding their ways in the helter-skelter world of college sprinting.
Breaststrokers: The 4th part of that 200 medley relay is the best of this strong sophomore class, and that’s breaststroke Hilda Luthersdottir. The Icelandic swimmer scored big individually in both the 100 (1:00.16 – 1oth) and 200 (2:10.19 – 13th) and was the third-ranked freshman in each event. It would be a shock if she didn’t make the A-final in both events, especially after a very good summer in the 100 (1:09.82 for a career-best in long course). She’s the reason that 200 medley scored any points at all, and she is a huge part of that 400 medley as well.
Florida is not usually thought of as a breast-stroking program (Luthersdottir’s 1:00.10 is a school record), and headed into last season their cupboard was left extremely bare after the transfer of Lindsay Rogers. Thanks to some good international recruiting, and even better development of the pieces he already had, this is now a point of strength for the Gators. Jennie Smith, who will be a senior next year, is extremely versatile (and in my opinion an underrated talent). One of her events at NCAA’s last year was this 200 breaststroke, where she placed 25th in a 2:12.09.
Tunisian junior-to-be Sarra Lajnef was the real breakout star of this group last year, though. She came into last year with some credentials (including 8 medals at the 2010 African Championships), but I don’t know that anyone foresaw the huge leaps she made in her 2nd season at Florida. She sliced more than two seconds off of her 100 time to mark a 1:01.22 at SEC’s to take 10th, and cut her 200 time by 5 seconds to swim a 2:10.66 for 4th-place at SEC’s. She was off of both of those marks at NCAA’s, but anytime a swimmer drops that much time, it can be very hard to hold the taper. She could be a scorer for them in both races this year.
Beyond those swimmers already mentioned above, the Gators are pretty shallow in both the backstrokes and the butterflies.
800 free relay – The Gators didn’t graduate any relay swimmers, but because of Stafford’s departure they will have some spots to fill. The most watched will be the 800 free relay, which was 5th and Florida’s best relay (which makes sense because of their middle-distance focus). Bohunicky (1:45.02), Crippen (1:45.48), and Beisel (1:45.39) will make up the final three parts of that relay, but Stafford was the fastest piece. The incumbent favorite to fill her hoses is probably junior Corinne Showalter, who was a 1:46.9 at SEC’s.
Freshman Class – Troy brought in even more depth to his breaststroke group, and is building a bit of a powerhouse, with the addition of Rebecca Rainer out of Richmond, Virginia. She comes to campus with a 1:00.82 in the 100 and a 2:09.99 in the 200. The former of those times would have left her one spot out of NCAA’s, and the latter would have put her near the top of the B-Final. She’s also a class IM’er with a 2:00 in the 200 and a 4:10 in the 400. Those are times that Gregg Troy can do some serious damage with.
Rainer is pretty well the best of the class as the country’s number 6 recruit, but there are some other good parts as well. Canadian Natasha Fung will help to immediately address the loss of Stafford. Troy probably didn’t know that she’d need to step in as quickly when he recruited her, but his future-planning for after next season, when Bateman will graduate as well.
Fung is a middle-distance freestyler, but reaches both directions fairly well. Her SCM converted time in the 100 free in a 49.4, which means she’ll be fighting with Zalewski for a relay spot there. A converted 1:46.6 in the 200 will also have her in a fight for that relay as well. She’ll also be a very good 500 freestyler (though no reliable conversion exists from meters in that race).
After those two, this is very much a class of building the depth for the future rather than immediate stars. Lauren Neidigh is an IM’er (2:01.4 in the 200) with emphasis on the butterflies (2:01.3). She hails from the great Bolles program, and has swum at several big-time meets including the 2009 Mare Nostrum in Spain. Summer Stephens is similar, though a bit more versatile, and comes from the program that once gave the gators Caroline Burckle. She goes a 55. in the 100 fly, a 1:58.5 in the 200, a 2:01.9 in the 200 IM, and a 4:18.1 in the 400 IM.
One would have liked to see Troy potentially sign one more sprint backstroker, and maybe another sprint freestyler, but given the limited flexibility that he had (with only one swimmer leaving), this class did pretty well.
Diving: This Florida program believes in diving. They have to, after divers nudged them over the top at the 2010 National Championship meet. But with Dodson’s graduation, they’re not as strong in the area as they have been in years past. In 2011, Florida’s only other finalist at the SEC’s in diving was Kaylee Doback on the 3-meter. She will be a senior this year. There won’t be a whole lot going on in diving for them this year.
2011-2012 Outlook: Florida lost two huge pieces after last year, but they brought in two very-good pieces as well. This team has the potential to score as many individual points as anybody besides perhaps Cal at NCAA’s. But how they will replace Stafford on the relays is my big concern. Overall, they didn’t have spectacular relays last year, and their recruiting probably hasn’t done enough to replace that one loss. Still, this is a very good senior class that will be motivated to go out on top. Taking those things into consideration, along with the Olympic mitigations, I think this Florida team will stay right around 7th, with a one-spot gain as likely as a one-spot drop. My thought is that this team, though they’ll lose some pieces after this year, is building towards Beisel’s senior season in 2014. They’ll have a lot of money to spread around in the talent-rich class of 2012, and I’d expect them to capitalize there.