Key Losses: Karlee Bispo (47 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Katie Riefenstahl (1 NCAA point, 1 NCAA relay), Leah Gingrich
Key Additions: Sarah Denninghoff (transfer – Arizona – back/free), Marissa Neel (CA – Fly), Sydney Torabi (TX – Fly/IM)
2011-2012 Lookback: The stories of how this Texas situation came to a head last season have been told, re-told, and beaten like the dead horse that it is. Swimmers were not happy, their parents were not happy, and it was time for a change.
That story has run its course, and all of swim-dom seems to be burned out on it. In that honor, we leave the old story right there and look toward the future, as the Longhorns look to regroup under new coach Carol Capitani, hired away from her associate head coaching role at Georgia. Texas is one of only two programs in the top 20 women’s programs who will be beginning an era with a new coach next season (along with Stanford).
The Longhorns will be attempting to recover from the graduation of All-American Karlee Bispo; individually, she was one of only three individual swimmers who scored at NCAA’s last season for the Longhorns. When evaluating the future of this team, though, we can’t forget about the massive levels of talent that are on this roster, even if they haven’t performed up to par in past seasons.
Laura Sogar: Chief among these talents, and this team’s new headline-act with Bispo’s graduation, is breaststroker Laura Sogar. Even in a season last year where she maybe underachieved a little bit at NCAA’s, she was still 4th in the 100 and 7th in the 200 breaststroke.
This past summer, though, under the watch of both Jim Henry before he took his new job at Yale, and a new coaching staff (including Capitani, who was herself an elite-level breaststroker in her day), Sogar’s immense talent began to show through again. This is a swimmer who final’ed in the 200 breaststroke at the 2008 Olympic Trials and won the U.S. Open title before her senior year of high school.
Sogar finished 4th at the Olympic Trials in the 200 breaststroker (her best event, despite the results at NCAA’s last season speaking to the contrary). Normally, one might expect that finish would give her a better-than-not chance at an NCAA title; however 6 of the 8 finalists in that event are still racing NCAA’s next season. That includes Olympian Micah Lawrence at Auburn and 3rd-place finisher Andrea Kropp at USC. The defending champion Caitlin Leverenz of Cal, the 2011 champion Haley Spencer of Minnesota, and the explosive Breeja Larson of Texas A&M will all have an eye on this title and an NCAA Record too, so there’s no guarantees. The road to a top-3 finish in the 100 breaststroke will again be a bit easier.
It would be great to see Sogar get back to the 1:57’s in her 200 IM that she went as a sophomore (she was only 2:00 last season) and pick up a few points and some confidence on the first day at NCAA’s.
Sprinters: The Longhorns surely wouldn’t have placed as well in their relays without Bispo, but even without her services their 200 free relay will be one of the best in the country. They palced 4th at NCAA’s last year with Bispo, Bethany Adams (22.12), Ellen Lobb (21.97), and a huge anchor from senior-to-be Kelsey Amundsen (21.55) that was the second-fastest split of any team in the A-Final.
There were a lot of significnat graduations in the relays ahead of the Longhorns last season, so if they can find another 22-low to replace Bispo on the leadoff leg, they’re National Championship contenders. What’s cool about these Texas sprinters is that they all stepped-up on relays last year, and in most cases were far better than in their individuals – leading to great finishes.
The top returningcandidate to take over that leadoff spot is sophomore Gretchen Jaques. After stagnating for her final two years of high school, she finally started going best times in this 50 free last season, ending with a 22.72 at Big 12’s. Now she’ll need to try and match that in her other events: specifically her true best-race the 100 breaststroke. She was a 1:00.03 in 2010, but last year only got down to a 1:00.67. Like Sogar, Jaques began to turn things around this summer, but results make it appear as though she was back home training in California. Still no best times for her, though, so the new staff will be chomping-at-the-bit to get their hands on her talent and see what they can come up with.
Texas’ 400 free relay last season was much more dependent on Bispo and her 47.7 leadoff en route to a 6th-place finish. This year’s team will return Amundsen, Adams, and Samantha Tucker, but as compared to the 200, this will be a bigger challenge finding a 4th. The only other Longhorn under 50 seconds last season was sophomore Alex Hooper at 49.89.
Leaders of the Back: The solution to that 4th spot, however, could come from a bit of a non-traditional place: the Longhorns’ backstrokers, Sarah Denninghoff and Lily Moldenhauer.
Denninghoff was one of the biggest “free agents” (transfers) available this summer, and she wound up in burnt orangeright when they desparately needed her. She has always swum very well in Austin, including best times in the freestyles of 22.7/48.5/1:45.6. If she ends up on all three relays, then Texas probably has a pair of top-6 relays in the shorter two, and another top-10 in the 800.
Moldenhauer was 49’s routinely in high school in the 100 free, but hasn’t broken the barrier since coming to Austin from her native San Antonio. After a solid summer, she’ll probably be back into the 40’s this year.
But between the two, if they hit their tapers well, they give the Longhorns the best backstroke combination outside of the coasts (Cal, Florida, arguably Virginia) . Denninghoff is a prove performer in her first two years at Arizona with 11 All-American awards. That includes 4th-place finishes at NCAA’s last season in both backstrokes.
Moldenhauer has had a tougher road, however. After breaking the 100 backstroke National High School Record (public schools) with a 52.89, she hasn’t been able to score individually at NCAA’s yet. Showing the struggles with consistency she’s had, last year in the 100 back at Nationals, she was a 53.8 in the individual race, which tied for 41st. Her medley relay leadoff of 52.25, though, was a best time and would have put her in the A-Final had she done it individually.
This backstroke group also got some depth from the incoming transfer of Oregon State’s Shelby Webber. She was a 53.6 last season. These two incoming transfers are a huge boost after Ashley Brewer and Melanie McClure, both backstrokers, left the program last season.
Medley Relays: Aside from their freestyle relay potential, though, that pair of backstrokers will be a key to continuing success in the medleys. Both performed fairly well last season – the 200 medley won the B-Final for 9th, and the 400 medley was 6th.
With Denninghoff here, the Longhorns have some versatility now. The 400 is likely to be the better of the two again. Sogar will lock-down the breaststroke leg: that’s a certainty. After that, there’s some flexibility, but the best guess is that it will be Denninghoff on backstroke, Moldenhauer sliding to butterfly (she was Texas’ best last year), and Amundsen sliding to freestyle (she was Texas’ best non-graduated sprinter last year). Even with the loss of Bispo, that relay could be every bit as good as the one from last season.
Other Contributors: Any of the above-mentioned sprinters could pitch in a few points if they get hot. That includes Ellen Lobb, who has a lot of 100 butterfly potential in addition to her sprint freestyles.
A group we haven’t mentioned yet is the Texas distance group, which last season had a pair of high-performing freshmen in Kaitlin Pawlowicz and Kelsey Leneave.
Pawlowicz was phenomenal all season long; she was a 9:43 in the 1000 in early November in the team’s dual meet against A&M. For perrspective on how fast that is for that early in the season: the time ranked 10th in the country overall. It looked like she was going to have a special season, but NCAA’s didn’t go well. She was 16 seconds from her season-best of 16:07 in the mile, and 7 seconds off of her season-best in the 500 of 4:41.2.
Leneave performed much better at the end of the year, and just missed scoring in the 1650 (she was a 16:18 for 18th at NCAA’s, off of a Big 12 ime of 16:16). Assuming those two can flip-the-script and hit their best swims at NCAA’s, then both should be scorers. Keep in mind that Texas lost all of it’s competition at Big 12’s, and should now run away with those titles, so expect them to try and earn cuts mid-season and not rest much for their conference championship meet.
Skylar Smith had a great freshman year in the IM’s, with a 1:58 in the 200; she’s also a strong breaststroker, having been a 1:01.0 during her senior year of high school. Expect her to make the jump to the NCAA roster this season. Veterans Spindrift Beck and Catherine Wagner, both breaststrokers as well, had fantastic summers and could get there too.
Incoming Freshman: Texas didn’t have as big of a recruiting class as they had in recent seasons, but there is the potential for some contribution as freshmen. From one perspective, there will be many eyes watching them to see how well they improve as a measure of the new coaching regime.
Marissa Neel from Crow Canyon in the California Bay Area gives the Longhorns some much-needed depth in the flys. If she can get off of the plateau she’s been on since her sophomore year of high school, she could be another medley relay option. Her bests are 53.60 in the 100 fly and 1:58.60 in the 200 fly; both from the spring of 2010.
Her senior year in 2012, though, was very good, and she was close to being back to best times again, so things are looking up for her.
Sydney Torabi is a local product, and yet another D-1 recruit from the Nitro program. She is a distance swimmer with a 5:01 in the 500 and 4:24 in the 400 IM. She’s been much better in long course, and has Junior Nationals cuts in both the 400 IM and the 200 fly.
Diving: Diving is definitely a strength for this Texas program. Seniors-to-be Diana Wilcox and Shelby Cullinan both qualified for NCAA’s last season, though the finished with only a single point from Wilcox on the platform. Their best diver was to have been Maren Taylor last year after finishing the A-final at NCAA’s on both the 3-meter and the platform, but after an injury at NCAA’s the year before left her having to be carried off of the pool deck in a stretcher, she red-shirted last season.
She hasn’t officially been added back to Texas’ roster, but did return to action at the US Olympic diving Trials and the USA Diving National Zone meet, the latter of which she performed very well in. She did not attempt the platform at either meet though. If she comes back as a springboard-only diver and healthy, she could add as many as 15 points for the Longhorns. As a healthy three-event diver, she would be capable of maybe double that.
The big addition to this group will be local diver Meghan Houston. She scored three National Titles of varying degrees over the summer: a Junior National honor on the 3-meter synchro, a Senior National Championship on the 1-meter, and a senior national championship on the 3-meter synchro with Georgia’s Laura Ryan. This Texas group has 4 NCAA worthy divers on the roster, though it would be tough to qualify more than three of them.
2012-2013 Outlook: This Texas team has the wildest swing of potential for where they could place next season. We all know how expansive their talent is; Capitani will have the opportunity to really prove herself in her first season if she can win over this team and help them fulfill the promise that they showed as sophomores and juniors in high school.
Denninghoff will help cushion Bispo’s loss big-time, which should keep this team in the top 10. If we guessed at 25-30 points from her and Sogar, plus a healthy 20+ points from diving at least, the Longhorns are back in the neighborhood of 100-125 individual points. If they come close to the 122 relay points they had last year (they might be off of that just a hair), they’re right back above the 200 points from last year.
It’s going to be tough to catch any of the teams ahead of them or hold off Florida behind them, though, considering some of the recruiting classes that were brought in. I see this Texas team sitting right around the same 9th-10th place again next season.