The Auburn Tigers stumbled in the 2012-2013 season. The men, despite winning 4 out of 5 relays at SEC’s, saw their 16-year conference championship streak ended by the Florida Gators, and then at NCAA’s, the Auburn men finished just 8th: their lowest outcome since the 1991-1992 season (though that year, they were only 15th – not nearly as good as they were in 2013).
But there is a hope around the Plains. That hope stems from senior Marcelo Chierighini, who despite having enough success to go pro has returned for his senior season. He’s the best sprinter Auburn has seen since his countrymate Cesar Cielo, and–much like we saw Vlad Morozov do for USC last year–he could lift the Tigers to a top-5 finish.
With Morozov going pro, we’re going to miss out on what could have been the most spectacular NCAA sprint battle in decades. As things are, though, Chierighini could be just as spectacular in 2014 as Morozov was in 2013.
Chierighini is the best returning swimmer in the 50 yard freestyle with his 18.99 from the NCAA finals, and he was an 18.85 at SEC’s (he and Morozov combined for all 9 times under 19 seconds last season, and Chierighini actually had 5 of them). He also placed 2nd at NCAA’s in the 100 yard free with a 41.51: eight-tenths behind Morozov’s victory and NCAA Record.
After a very good summer, Chiergihini wound up 10th at the World Championships in the 50 free and 6th in the 100 free (notably, he pushed through the semi-finals with a 3rd-seeded 48.11).
2014 will be a good year for Chierighini. He only has the Pan Pacs meet to focus on in the summer, which while important is not nearly at the level for Brazilians as Worlds or the Olympics. That means that he can load up for one last “hurrah” headed into his professional training. Thing about his motivation, too. Not only will he be hungry for individual (and a long shot at team) NCAA Championships, but he has a massive opportunity going into his professional career. Morozov, you will recall, did not break Cesar Cielo’s record in the 50 yard free (though on a ‘perfect swim’ he probably would have).
If Chierighini were to break the NCAA/U.S. Open Record in the 50 yard free (18.47), held by fellow Auburn Tiger and Brazilian Cesar Cielo, his marketability in Brazil will skyrocket. Even if he were able to get Cielo’s Auburn Record in the 100 yard free (40.92). He knows it, and Hawke knows it, so expect Chierighini to qualify for NCAA’s early, and then put everything into those swims.
But he is only one swimmer. Now that we’ve written about 400 words about Chierghini’s potential (and he was worth all of them), attention needs to be turned to the rest of the team, and why this team only was 8th despite some obvious successes. The gap to 7th was just shy of 60 points, so that’s the target for the Tigers.
The Auburn men only finished 19th in the 800 yard free relay, which killed them considering that they added four seconds from SEC’s in that race. Swimming their best, that’s more like a top-8 relay, but of the four guys (Zane Grothe – 1:35.70, Alex Hancock – 1:37.79, Arthur Mendes – 1:37.26, or Thomas McKee – 1:35.49) only really McKee swam to his potential.
That was an extremely young group though. Grothe was a junior, Hancock and McKee were sophomores, and Mendes was just a 1-semester freshman. So they will be better prepared to hit things at this year’s meet.
Zane Grothe’s Roller Coaster:
Grothe has gotten better and better as his NCAA career has gone on, and that trend continued this spring and summer. At NCAA’s, he took 7th in the 500 yard free (4:14.44), 12th in the 200 yard free (1:34.58 – four tenths from his season best), and 15th in the 1650 (14:55). That 1650 was the real head-scratcher. At the end of a tough three day meet, where he’d swum reasonably well, he added 14 seconds from his SEC’s time. Auburn needs the top-3 finish of which he’s incredibly capable (he had the third-best time in the NCAA overall last year).
Grothe had a fantastic summer, though. In total, he dropped 16 seconds in the 1500 free in a month alone to end with a 15:13 and a U.S. Open title. That is the Zane Grothe that Auburn needs in March, and that is the Zane Grothe that could even push Connor Jaeger for an NCAA title in the mile.
Arthur Mendes, Fully Indoctrinated:
Brett Hawke’s next Brazilian project is Arthur Mendes, who joined the Tigers’ squad at the semester last year. On such a quick turnaround, he just missed finaling at NCAA’s in the 100 yard fly, but placed last (39th) in the 200 fly.
Mendes’ long course bests includes a 52.70 in the LCM 100 fly, which converts to 46-low in the 100 yard fly. That lines up with him being able to improve even his strong 46.6 season best in the 100 yard fly, and should make him an individual scorer at NCAA’s (he also split 46.0 on Auburn’s medley relay).
The Other Auburn Freestyler:
We should be fair… Chierighini isn’t Auburn’s only great freestyler. James Disney-May, British by birth, was 15th at NCAA’s in the 100 yard free (his 43.02 in prelims was a season-best), 7th in the 50 (19.43 in prelims was a season-best), and 32nd in the 200 yard free (season best of 1:35.79 at SEC’s, didn’t swim great in this event at NCAA’s).
At any rate, Auburn probably has the best 1-2 sprint combination in the country (with Cal, now getting Tyler Messerschmidt back, having the best 1-2-3). They rode that last year to an NCAA title in the 200 free relay and a 3rd-place finish in the 400 free relay.
Also on that winning 200 free relay was TJ Leon, who is on the verge of becoming a star in his own right as a senior. He was sub-20 in high school (one of the first guys to do that, though easily forgotten), and has been 19.6 at Auburn. He split 19.06 on Auburn’s 200 free relay. That made him the only of the four Tiger swimmers who didn’t split under 19 seconds on that relay, but hey: when your worst leg is a 19.0…well, there’s a reason that they won this relay by over half-a-second.
He’s really a pure sprinter, but Auburn doesn’t need him to be anything more next year.
That means their only lost piece from NCAA’s and those free relays is Kyle Owens. He was also their backstroker, but kicked the meet off with an unbelievable 18.5 split on that 200 free relay, which will be hard to replace; he also swam some good backstroke legs on the medleys; he struggled in his 200 backstroke, but he won’t be easily replaced for this team as a performer or a leader, either.
The Mega-Replacement, and Future Star:
Auburn might have signed the best recruit outside of the two nutso superstars Jack Conger and Ryan Murphy, though he seems to have been a bit lost in the wash.
Kyle Darmody has been 19.8 in the 50 free, 43.8 in the 100 free, 1:36.8 in the 200 free, 47.6 in the 100 back, and 1:46.3 in the 200 back. He’s not yet Kyle Owens, but he could be very, very close by the time his freshman NCAA Championship meet rolls around. He comes from that great SwimMAC program, which should make for a very smooth transition at Auburn, where the entire coaching staff coached with, swam for or around, or did both with SwimMAC head coach David Marsh at some point in their careers.
With him on board, Auburn should find themselves in a dogfight with Cal for the 200 free relay national title again. He could very well take over the backstroke leg on Auburn’s medley relays as well: his best is already faster than Auburn’s top returning backstroker, which happens to be Disney-May’s 48.5.
Darmody will have a great training partner to push him every step of the way in the backstrokes with the arrival of fellow freshman Joe Patching. The Plymouth, England native was arguably the fastest junior backstroker in Europe last year, turning in long course times of 25.8, 55.2, and 1:59.0. Murphy and Conger are in a league of their own, but Patching (and Darmody) are two of the best in a loaded backstroke class.
Holes Auburn Didn’t Fill:
The one really significant spot that Auburn didn’t fill through recruiting is the breaststroke leg. The Tigers graduated their #1 and #2 relay options, Stuart Ferguson and Chandler Gertach. They do return senior Peter Haas next year. He’s better in the 200 (was a 1:56 last year), but he also showed great improvement in speed as a junior.
He was a 54.44 in the 100 yard race as a junior, which means as a senior, if his improvement continues, he could be a solid plug for Auburn’s medleys, with strong indications that a certain very good high school senior breaststroker intends to commit to Auburn.
Rest of the Fresh:
Overall, the Tigers are bringing in nine freshman. We covered Darmody and Patching, but the Tigers got two other much-needed pieces in this class, headlined by Michael Duderstadt from Panama City, Florida. Duderstadt brings some much-needed youth to an ailing breaststroke group (54.5 and 1:57.9), along with some solid sprint speed for Hawke to work his magic with (20.6 and 45.2).
The final instant contributor is Alex Press, an Australian international with a lot of potential. At the Australian Youth Olympic Festival earlier this year, Press showed what he’s capable of, posting a 22.7 and 51.3 in the 50 and 100 free, along with a 54.3 100 fly.
A Little Diving Help, Please?
Auburn should get a little bit of help on the boards from rising senior Johnny Santeiu, who was three-event scorer at last year’s NCAA’s. Santeiu is also the reigning 3m Zone ‘B’ champion, and SEC champion on platform. Moving up to the podium at NCAA’s will be an uphill battle, however; only two divers who finished in front of Santeiu over the course of the entire competition were seniors last year (Harrison Jones on all three boards, and Logan Shinholser on platform).
While Auburn shouldn’t see much of a drop-off in their relays (particularly the freestyle ones), it looks like their ceiling from a team finish perspective is 8th place, right where they finished a year ago. The Tigers were a full 60 points behind 7th (Stanford, who DQ’ed two relays), and while Florida, Texas, and USC are also within striking distance from a points perspective, those teams should all be as good–if not better–than 2012-2013 (yes, USC, even though they lost Morozov). With Indiana (9th place) returning virtually their entire squad, Auburn will be in a hard-fought battle to hang onto the 8th place spot.