Key Additions: Todd Owen (KY – breaststroke), Carlos Claverie (Venezuela – breaststroke), Thomas Cooper (KY – sprint freestyle), Jonathan Zoucha (OR – mid-distance free)
Key Losses: Joao de Lucca (43 NCAA Points/4 NCAA relays), Kameron Chastain (6 NCAA Points/0 NCAA relays)
Louisville continued its rise into the upper echelon of NCAA teams last season, rolling through the regular season as one of the nation’s more exciting teams and dominating a brand-new conference. Joao de Lucca was the kingpin the whole way, winning the 200 free title at Winter Nationals over pro and Olympian Darian Townsend and serving as a devastating relay leg at any distance.
Competing in the brand-new American Athletic Conference, Louisville was a bulldozer, sweeping the relays and winning 16 of the 18 swimming events on the men’s side.
At the 2014 NCAA Championships, the Cardinals matched their place from 2013 while upping their points total by 36. Getting two NCAA Championships from de Lucca (the 100 and 200 frees), Louisville’s crew supplemented the big points nicely, scoring in four of the five relays and winning the B final in two of them. Outside of de Lucca, Frenchman Thomas Dahlia scored in two individual races, while his fellow breastrokers Kameron Chastain and Addison Bray scored in one apiece.
At the end of a very solid weekend, Louisville wound up 11th, just twelve points outside of the top 10, thanks to a team that really showed up for night swims. In fact, of the 9 heats during finals that Louisville appeared in throughout the meet, a Cardinal swimmer won 5 of them, including de Lucca’s two wins and B final victories from the 200 free relay, 400 medley relay and Dahlia in the 100 breast.
How to fill the De Lucca gap
The biggest question mark for Louisville moving forward is how they’ll compete without their 2013 centerpiece. De Lucca wasn’t just a big graduation. He was a force in the pool. Likely one of the top 5 swimmers in the NCAA last year period, de Lucca is a major hole to fill. De Lucca’s individual swims alone accounted for 33% of Louisville’s points at the 2014 NCAAs. Add to that the fact that de Lucca was the key split on all five relays, and you get a sense of just how valuable Louisville’s MVP was last season.
So can the Cardinals rebound? As doom-and-gloom as the last paragraph seems, Louisville is actually in a lot better shape than you might think. Head coach Arthur Albiero is developing a reputation as one of the nation’s best developmental coaches, taking diamonds in the rough and turning them into bona fide college stars. Albiero has also done particularly well recruiting outside the country – guys like De Lucca (Brazil), Dahlia (France), Grigory Tarasevich (Russia), and Carlyle Blondell (Trinidad) were all staples of last year’s team. Louisville has continued to mine international waters this offseason (more on that in a minute).
All this is to say Louisville has some rising replacements already on the roster. German freestyler Matthias Lindenbauer was a revelation as a freshman, taking second behind de Lucca in the 200 free at the AAC championships, earning two more top-3 finishes and putting up a key leadoff split on the 800 free relay at NCAAs. Meanwhile Trevor Carroll, also a freshman, was also an NCAA relay swimmer. Both fall into that 100/200 niche that de Lucca so ruled, and should combine to be more than adequate replacements, though they go up to the 500 unlike the sprintier de Lucca:
(100/200/500 free season-bests from last year)
- Matthias Lindenbauer: 43.84/1:35.5/4:23.74
- Trevor Carroll: 44.40/1:35.91/4:19.52
That sprint free slot will be filled by Carlyle Blondell, who was a solid wingman for de Lucca this past season, not to mention the breaststroker Thomas Dahlia, who split 19.2 on the 200 free relay.
Breaststroker by committee
The position primed to take freestyle’s spot as Louisville’s bread and butter following de Lucca’s graduation is breaststroke. The Cards had three different breaststrokers score at NCAAs last year, including Thomas Dahlia in both distances. Though they graduate Kameron Chastain (11th in the 100), they’ll improbably come back as an even stronger group in 2014-2015. That’s because two of their top recruits are high-level breaststrokers.
Todd Owen was one of the junior stars of the summer, winning the 200 breast title at Juniors and competing for the U.S. at Junior Pan Pacs. A former football player, Owen is a relative newcomer to year-round swimming, and like so many other athletic crossovers (like Breeja Larson or Josh Schneider), is seeing tremendous time drops as he develops.
While Owen is all about the upside, the Cards’ top incoming freshman is already a bona fide star internationally. Louisville added Carlos Claverie to their roster in the late signing period, beefing up what was a thin, three-person recruiting class. Claverie is already the national record-holder for Venezuela, with bests of 1:01.56 in the 100 breast and 2:11.74 in the 200 breast. A veteran of World Champs and Pan Ams, Claverie won three medals at this summer’s Youth Olympic Games, passing up Cristian Quintero as the most-decorated Venezuelan in Olympic and Youth Olympic history.
Throw in Addison Bray, who scored in the 200 breast at NCAAs last year, and you’ve got a deep, tough group that can sharpen each other through the season through side-by-side training. If Louisville wants to repeat its 11th place finish from the past two seasons, it’ll need its breaststrokers to put a big dent in the points lost by de Lucca.
An underrated addition
Outside of Owen and Claverie, Louisville only has two more freshmen in its incoming class, both freestylers. Thomas Cooper is the Kentucky state record-holder in the 100 free and focuses on sprints, while Jonathan Zoucha is a rangy 100/200/500 guy in the mold of Lindenbauer and Carrol who hails from Oregon. Still, that’s a small incoming class in terms of depth.
Luckily for the Cardinals, they have one big non-athlete addition, and that’s diving coach KZ Li. Li left Michigan this offseason after four years, and though his divers didn’t do much on the national stage in that brief stay, he’s got an extensive coaching resume, including coaching the U.S. National Team over several major events and heading up Australia’s National Diving Center.
Li, a former Olympic medalist, should be able to coach up Louisville’s young divers, which was one of Louisville’s weaker event areas last season.
With Li and four swimmers, the additions are small, but outside of de Lucca, the Cards hardly lost anyone to graduation. Last year’s senior class was just five men, and only three (de Lucca, Chastain and Juan Lopez) scored at AACs. Only de Lucca and Chastain scored at NCAAs.
More conference shuffling
Louisville will switch conferences for the second straight season. In the thick of the last round of college conference realignments, Louisville announced its intent to join the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) beginning in 2014. As Louisville and 12 other schools left the old Big East, the conference split, with most of the conference’s founding members electing take the “Big East” name and start their own conference. Though Louisville technically stayed in the same conference last season, it sure felt like a new one, as the name changed to the AAC, nearly all its members left and only 4 teams remained.
Now Louisville will officially make its jump to the ACC, following former Big East rivals Notre Dame and Pitt. The conference jump might have the biggest impact on Louisville’s fortunes this season, but it’s hard to tell whether that impact will be positive or negative.
In 2014, Louisville rolled through its conference meet, dominating as a team and putting multiple finalists into nearly every event. In the ACC, things will get much, much more difficult, and even with the conference scoring down to 24th, it’s no cakewalk just to score a couple points.
On the other hand, Louisville will have much more competition outside of intrasquad rivalries, which could theoretically spur the Cards to better times in the conference rounds.
It’s hard to predict how that will affect their national fortunes. Will the added conference competition unlock the very best from Louisville, and help more of its athletes qualify for NCAAs? Or will the depth of the ACC rob Cards bubble swimmers of finals swims, and hurt their chances of garnering an NCAA invite?
The season for Louisville probably comes down to how well their depth can pull through at the national level. This isn’t a team that can get big points out of de Lucca and fill in the gaps with here-and-there swims anymore. The exciting part, though, is that the pieces seem to be in place for a new-look, full-team Louisville scoring effort.
The relays continue to be key. 64 of the team’s 129 points came off of relays in 2014, and the good news is that three of the four legs return on all four scoring relays. The bad news, of course, is that the graduated leg was the workhorse de Lucca. Coach Albiero has to be counting on big contributions from his next generation, guys like Matthias Lindenbauer and Trevor Carroll to help carry the load on those relays. Thomas Dahlia is a nice Swiss-army-knife swimmer, with value on both medleys and also the 200 free relay, and Carlyle Blondell looks the part of a dominant sprinter.
It’s probably too early to expect a massive improvement in diving, no matter how good of a coach KZ Li is, so the Cards will have to get it done in the pool. As you approach the top 10 in NCAA swimming, you start to displace some really strong programs. The returning core is strong enough to keep Louisville well within the top 20, but they’ll need a few new NCAA point machines to arise during the season to approach a third-straight 11th-place finish or higher.
As is, consider Louisville a team to keep an eye on during the regular season. If their promising youngsters can blossom into legitimate NCAA studs, this is a team that could emerge from the crowded ACC as a force in the national championships.