Now that we’ve taken a look at each of the 3 days of competition at the women’s NCAA Championships, it’s time to make some team picks.
A few things became clear when going through the individual events. First of all, this year’s NCAA Championship meet is going to be extremely fast. Way faster than last season, and even almost as fast as the 2009 Championship in College Station where the times were swum rubber-suited.
There is also a ton of parity this year. It’s impossible to ever pick a 2.5-point separation like we saw last season with any serious confidence, but this meet lines up to be that sort of affair. This is the kind of meet where coaches’ strategies become immensely important, and every placing in every race matters. This is going to be a battle, a showdown, a knock-down, emotional, drag-out kind of a meet. There’s about 15 different top-5 combinations that are all equally valid. But after sorting through each event, we think we’ve seen enough to make as educated of a guess as is possible.
1. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia has show surprising depth in the non-freestyle events. They’ve got very good IM’ers, and some solid backstrokers and breaststrokers. This meet is going to be a little up-and-down for the Bulldogs, though, as they don’t have anyone entered in the butterfly events. Their freestylers have plenty of room to move up in those middle-distance events, however, and if they want to pull off the win, that’s where they’re going to have to make up the ground.
2. USC Trojans
USC had been my pick all year, but they may come up just a single sprint freestyler short of winning this title. The Trojans won’t score as many relay points as other teams at the top, but they aren’t as dependent on those points either. They’re not going to score the most swimming points, but it can’t be underestimated how important their 45 diving points are going to be. Victoria Ishimatsu was on fire at Zone Diving and swept the Zone E Championships. The key to their chances is going to be Kasey Carlson and Presley Bard squeezing as many points as possible out of the sprint freestyles.
3. Cal Golden Bears
Cal has surprised the heck out of me this season. They will be right in this thing until the bitter end, but I think they’ll fall just short. Top-to-bottom, Cal definitely has the best relays in this meet, and that makes it very hard not to pick them to win. They are really going to be hurting in the individual middle-to-distance freesyle races, where Georgia is going to be so good. We know that those relays are going to be good, but where will Cal need to make up ground? Just like did at Pac-10’s, they need Sara Isakovic to swim out of her mind. She’s one of the few 200 free swimmers in the field who has the potential to break up Georgia’s 5 best.
4. Stanford Cardinal
The Cardinal are very young, and though they are losing a few pieces, the brightest days are yet to come for this group of swimmers. Stanford does have some momentum going from their divers, which is something that most of the West Coast teams can’t say. The veterans in this group definitely lies in their sprint freestylers, however, and that’s the group that’s going to need to carry the team. They’ll need to come to this meet and help guide the young freshman through their first NCAA Championship, as well as give them an energy boost with some big performances.
5. Florida Gators
This Florida squad has some very good swimmers on it. Their top 3 or 4 are absolute studs, but Florida doesn’t really have the makeup of a championship college team. Aside from the 800 free relay, two of their superstars (Beisel, Crippen) don’t fit very well into those double-point relays. That’s why, if Florida wants to move up a few spots, they’ll need big performances from Shara Stafford. Hopefully, her health issues (and the rest of this team’s disruptions this season) won’t negatively affect her taper.
6. Auburn Tigers
Auburn has a Swimmer of the Year candidate in Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace, who could have one of the best NCAA Championships of any sprinter, ever. That alone is enough to keep any team towards the upper end of an NCAA Championship. She’s so far ahead of the country in the sprint freestyles, that she will keep Auburn in the hunt for all four shorter relay titles. The question is where will she get help from. The swimmer that I’ll be looking at the most in a support role is freshman Emily Bos, both on the backstroke legs of the medleys, as well as on the sprint freestyle relays. She will have to demonstrate some confidence knowing that she doesn’t need to win every leg of every relay she’s on, but that she simply has to do well enough to give Vanderpool-Wallace a chance on the anchor.
7. Texas Longhorns
The Longhorns have a lot of big seeds in this meet, but it’s hard to shake the memories of what happened last season (though we wouldn’t expect the relay DQ fiasco to happen again). With only 12 seeded-scorers, and not much more potential than that, they are also very heavily reliant on a few very good swimmers. Fortunately for the Longhorns, that includes some incredible swimmers like Laura Sogar and Karlee Bispo. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much room for error. The story of the Longhorns’ success will be their relays, who at Big 12’s seemed to outswim the sums-of-their-parts. If they can repeat that Texas becomes dangerous for a top 5 finish.
8. Arizona Wildcats
The Wildcats are always a crapshoot to pick at NCAA’s, because they train harder through their conference championship than just about everyone else in the country. Much like Stanford, they are another squad that depends heavily on their young swimmers, namely Margo Geer and Sarah Denninghoff. But those young swimmers won’t be their key. Alyssa Anderson is who I’m going to be focused on in this meet. As she goes, so will go the Wildcats.
9. Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies are seeded towards the bottom-end of the top 10 coming into this meet. They’ll get some diving points, though not a heap of them. Some parts of the A&M team was more rested and shaved than other parts at Big 12’s. Some will move up, and some will move down, but overall I see it as a zero sum, and that they will hold serve right around ninth. But for a team with so many freshman on it to have the most individual qualifiers for NCAA’s is hugely exciting for this program, not to mention that they only will graduate three seniors off of their roster. This team will be looking to send senior sprinter Maria Sommer off in a positive way, and springboarding towards a potential top-5 finish next year.
10. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee had a fantastic SEC Championship meet, with a ton of “where did that come from?” moments. There are two individual races that I will be pinning down as indicators of whether or not Tennessee was rested, or if they have more to go in those individuals: Lindsay Gendron in he 500 free on day 1, and Jennifer Connolly’s 100 fly early on day 2.
The Best of the Rest
The team that I had a lot of trouble leaving out of the top 10 is Wisconsin. They finished 7th at Big Ten’s, but this was no surprise with how top heavy they are. But they’re only sending 5 swimmers to NCAA’s, and no divers. That makes for a very long weekend, and for some very fatigued swimmers. But if they stay mentally focused, a top 10 is definitely possible. Their Big Ten counterparts Indiana and Minnesota also have some dangerous swimmers, but seemingly without the breadth for a top 10 finish.
After the top 10, there’s a big gap to the next 7 or 8 teams, and besides Wisconsin, the other team I could see leaping that void is Virginia, with Lauren Perdue leading the way.