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Key Losses: Jaele Patrick (37 NCAA Diving Points), Janie Potvin (22 NCAA Diving Points), Rita Medrano (6 NCAA Points), Kim Pavlin (4 NCAA Points, 2 NCAA Relays), Ashley Adams (4 NCAA Points)
Key Additions: Claire Brandt (TX – Sprint Free), Ashley McGregor (Canada – Breaststroke), Romy Landeck (TX – Breaststroke), Melanie McClure (Transfer from UTexas – Backstroke), Katherine Huff (GA – Sprint Free), Cherie Hammond (FL – Diving), Meredith Oliver (TX – Free/IM)
2011-2012 Lookback: This Texas A&M team faced a lot of adversity during the 2011-2012 season. All-Americans Sarah Henry and Lili Ibanez both missed the entire season with serious injuries: Henry after more ACL surgery, and Ibanez after a severe back injury suffered in a biking accident. Yet, even without Sara Henry’s 30+ individual points, and Ibanez, by far the team’s best swimmer in the three freestyle relay distances, the Aggies finished 6th in the country, roughly 37 points behind Arizona.
They had a pair of incredible medley relays that placed in the top 5 at NCAA’s, and did so with nothing but sophomores on them.
Olympic Duo: Part of the reason that A&M was able to stay so high was on the strength of their two American Olympians-to-be: Breeja Larson and Cammile Adams.
Larson first broke the NCAA Record in the 100 breaststroke at the Big 12 Championships in 57.92, which of course left a lot of fear that she might have peaked before the NCAA Championships. There were no such concerns for either Breeja or the A&M coaching staff, as she not only re-broke her own mark, she also broke the American and U.S. Open Records. That makes her the fastest 100 yard breaststroker ever (faster than names like Hardy, Kirk, and even Soni have ever been in the shortest course).
Larson’s still not quite as good in the 200 as she is in the 100, but her improvements there are coming just as rapidly. In yards, she has relied on great height and massive strength, which have in turn led to great starts and phenomenal pullouts, to carry her to new levels. Her long course success over the summer, though, shows that she’s now just as good on top of the water as she is under it: she pulled the upset-of-the-week at the Olympic Trials by winning the 100 breaststroke and went on to place 6th in London. She also earned a gold medal at a part of the 400 medley relay.
For all of those accomplishments (and this might be the last time it’s fair to use this), it still doesn’t carry full weight until you realize that she hadn’t even attempted a long course 100 breaststroke until the summer of 2010.
A&M’s other U.S. Olympian, Adams, came to College Station with a bigger nationwide recognition, but has still made big improvements in two seasons with the Aggies. She’s been a runner-up in her best event, the 200 fly, at both of her NCAA Championship meets, and this year will be a heavy favorite: no returning swimmer from last season was within a second of her as she and USC’s Katinka Hosszu ran away from the field.
Where she’s really taken huge strides, though, is in the 400 IM. As a sophomore, she was 7th in the event at NCAA’s in 4:05.41. She probably won’t be able to compete with Elizabeth Beisel and Caitlin Leverenz for that title, but she’s certainly good enough to place in the next tier with a top-5 finish at a minimum.
At Trials, she like Larson won her best event, the 200 fly. Adams bested fellow Lonestar State resident Kathleen Hersey, and then would finish 5th at the Olympics. Thanks to having two of his athletes win their races, A&M head coach Steve Bultman was named to the Olympic coaching staff, his first since 1988.
International Olympians: A&M had three other Olympians who still have remaining eligibility: The aforementioned Ibanez and Erica Dittmer competing for Mexico, and Kim Pavlin competing for Croatia. Pavlin is sitting out this season, but still has two seasons of eligibility left for a potential return.
Ibanez is one of the two swimmers in the intro who was injured last year, and also one of the two who also made an unimaginable recovery. Prior to the injury, she broke the Mexican National Records in both the 100 and 200 freestyles, and within just a few months of returning to training, she had broken the 200 again at the Santa Clara Grand Prix.
During her freshman season in 2011, Ibanez had yards bests of 22.5/49.2/1:44.5 in the three shortest freestyle events. Those would have been the fastest on the A&M squad in all three distances last season, and she’s clearly improved since then.
Free Relays: Ibanez’s return should make the A&M free relays significantly better next year. Despite finishing so high as a team at NCAA’s, the A&M women scored only 12 points between the three freestyle relays: all coming from an 11th-place finish in the 200. They DQ’ed the 400 free relay, and scratched the 800 free relay.
But aside from Ibanez giving all three relays a shot at the A-Finals just by her substitution, A&M gets an extra boost from Ibanez’s return. Last year, they were unable to earn “invites” in those free relays, meaning that they had to leave swimmers from their Big 12 relays home; specifically sophomores-to-be Sammie Bosma (22.8/49.8) and Kelli Benjamin (22.9/49.9). With new qualification rules in place, and Ibanez back to full-strength, all of the team’s top sprinters should have no problem being around in Indianapolis for the NCAA Championships.
The 800 free relay should be really good. Ibanez’s 1:44 and Henry’s 1:45, combined with 1:45’s from Maureen McLaine and sophomore Ellen Quirke, this could be a 7:00 or 7:01 relay that grabs quite-a-few points. Incoming freshman Meredith Oliver, who has been a 1:47.1 in the 200 free, could fight for a spot too.
The loss of Pavlin, who anchored the 400 free and medley relays in 48’s, will hurt a little bit, but Ibanez should have no problem taking up that slack.
Henry’s Return: Sarah Henry, another member of this amazing high school recruiting class of 2011, is finally healthy again it seems: she’s already earned a spot on the U.S. World University Games Team, and since returning from a 2nd ACL surgery is swimming better than ever. Coming out of high school, she was a top-5 level recruit, and certainly showed that in her freshman season in 2011. She was 6th in the 400 IM (4:05), 13th in the 500 free (4:40.2), and 15th in the mile (16:06) at NCAA’s for 19 individual points.
Given what she’s done in long course in those events this summer (4:40, 4:09, 8:38 in 800 free), a healthy Henry goes for at least 30 this year.
Medley Relays: As mentioned, these medley relays were outstanding last year. Both relays were faster at NCAA prelims than they were in finals, but ultimately settled with the third-best times overall (and top 5 finishes in actuality). With nobody from either squad graduating (after this season or next), the battle should be between the Aggies and the Arizona Wildcats for silver medals in both at NCAA’s (behind presumed favorites Cal).
The relays start with Paige Miller: a versatile swimmer who last year at NCAA’s was 7th in the 100 back in 52.30. Each of the first two seasons of her career, she’s attempted the 100 back – 100 fly double. In both years, she’s placed higher in the backstroke than the fly, despite that event being her third of the day (including after a relay). If she were able to drop the fly, both her individual backstroke race and this medley relay could fly even higher.
Larson takes the breaststroke leg, which leads to Caroline McElhany on the fly.
McElhany last year completed her first season at A&M, following a year at Texas and a year on a transfer redshirt. She had a good college season, placing 13th in 52.53 in the 100 fly and 6th in the 200 fly in 1:55.23. Even those swims, though, were merely warning shots. McElhany was another member of this team who swam into an Olympic Trials final, as she placed 8th in the 100 fly. That trio, with Ibanez stuck on as the anchor, will be formidable in either of the two medleys.
IM Depth: The Aggies had a full half (four out of eight) of the swimmers in the 200 IM B-final, ranging from Dittmer in a 1:56.9 to McElhany in a 1:59.1 in finals (with Pavlin and Miller in between). They’ll lose Pavlin, but they’ll really hope to push one of those swimmers into the A-Final this year to maintain the scoring.
Other Potential Scorers: Bultman seems to conjure up contributors from almost nowhere, but there are a few other predictable potential scorers for next season.
Maureen McLain is a distance All-American who was 7th in the mile at NCAA’s last year. She swam even faster, though, during the Aggies’ mid-season rest, so expect another top-8 finish, as well as the potential for one in the 500 as well.
Senior Tess Simpson, who was on the 200 medley relay in prelims before being pulled from finals, was 23rd at NCAA’s in the 100 back. With the freshman class of backstrokers coming to college this year around the country, scoring won’t get any easier, but last year she was only about three-tenths away from making the top 16.
Freshman Class: Incoming freshman Claire Brandt out of Greenhill High School in Dallas and the Dallas Mustangs will add another important piece to the budding Aggie sprint group – the second-straight year where Bultman has focused on sprinters after being bitten by a lack of depth there.
Brandt has bests of 22.89/50.56 in the 50 and 100 freestyles, and also brings a solid 55.1 in the 100 back.Along those same lines, Katherine Huff from Georgia comes in with sprint freestyle bests of 23.2/50.5, and is also a 55.1 in the 100 back.
The Aggies signed another matching pair this offseason too: breaststrokers Ashley McGregor from Canada and Romy Landeck from Houston.
McGregor is part of the impressive Canadian breaststroke group, and just barely missed the Olympics by placing 3rd at Canada’s Trials in the 200 in 2:26.56. She’s also got a 1:08.39 in the 100 and long course, though her best long course times are a bit better than her best short course times in the breaststrokes.
She also won the 200 breaststroke at last year’s Pan Am Games, beating among others former NCAA Champions Haley Spencer and Alia Atkinson. In most years, a freshman of her caliber would be looking at a top-8 finish in year 1; this season the field will be awfully crowded, so a high-B Final would still be an accomplishment.
Landeck comes in with bests of 1:01.9/2:12.3 in the 100 and 200; given how good A&M’s breaststroke group has gotten the last few years and how much they’ve improved, she should be a scorer at SEC’s at least and an NCAA qualifier. Unlike McGregor, Landeck’s best short course times are far better than her best long course times – which matches with most of the past great A&M breaststrokers.
Between the two, Landeck probably brings the most in a third event with bests of 2:01.6/4:16.1 in the 200 and 400 IM’s.
Diving: The A&M diving squad was a real anchor last season, and a huge weapon for this A&M team. That included a 3-meter National Championship from Aussie Jaele Patrick. But the Aggies’ two diving scorers from A&M both graduated, but this program under Jay Lerew has become one that’s good enough to reload on divers in a big way.
They have a third NCAA qualifier from last season returning: Rebecca St. Germain. She sat right around 30th on both springboards at NCAA’s last season in her first year after transferring from LSU. She’ll be joined by Kathryn Connolly, a San Antonio native who is transferring from the Indiana diving powerhouse this season.
The incoming freshmen could be stars. Cherie Hammond is a former Junior National Champion on the 1-meter, and competed for the U.S. at the Junior Diving World Championships. She also won four-straight Florida High School Diving Championships, one of only four divers in the state’s history at any level to accomplish the feat. She sat out last season, but now will begin at A&M. Kate Hanson is another springboard specialist who will be joining the Aggies next season.
They probably won’t score as many points in diving this season as last, but they still have a shot to grab a few.
2012-2013 Outlook: Though they lost their key divers, what the Aggies are getting back in swimmers should more-than make up for it in scoring. Even on individual points alone, Ibanez and Henry should be good for 50 combined, and their impact on the relays will be even bigger.
All the Aggies need to do this season is “stay the course”. All of the pieces have been improving just as they’ve needed to, and this team is right on track for a top 5 finish for the first time since the 2007-2008 season. “Mistakes and injuries” are something that are often thrown around as keys in team sports like football and basketball, but this A&M team brings that idea to swimming. If they can stay healthy and avoid costly DQ’s, then the battle for 5th could come down to the outcome of the medleys between A&M and Arizona.
The potential is there to be as high as 3rd, if the Aggies are perfect and Stanford and USC are hit harder-than-expected by big-time losses, but 5th seems to be the target.
And lest we forget to mention it, the Aggies are beginning competition as the hosts of their first SEC Championship meet – between the new foes, and the summer accomplishments, there is a palpable excitement surrounding this A&M team.