With the women’s NCAA championship kicking off tomorrow, swim fans everywhere are no doubt hoping we’re in for an entertaining wire-to-wire battle between Georgia and Cal for the team title. Whether the meet is as close as all that or not, one race that certainly won’t be lacking for entertainment is the 800 free relay, where the Bulldogs and Golden Bears look primed to duke it out for the national title and potentially an NCAA record along with it.
Georgia comes in with the top seed at 6:53.04. Amazingly, that’s faster than Georgia went at finals last year in winning the event, and don’t forget that that 2013 relay featured Allison Schmitt and Megan Romano. That Georgia team was faster at SECs, of course, setting new NCAA and American records, but the point still stands that this year’s Bulldog relay is outstanding. Shannon Vreeland and Brittany MacLean return, with Vreeland now a senior looking to go out on a high note and MacLean now an experienced sophomore after coming up clutch in her rookie collegiate season. Amber McDermott and Melanie Margalis swam the other two legs at SECs, and have to be strong contenders to swim it again (Margalis was 1:43.0 and McDermott 1:44.2). Then again, Jordan Mattern might be a factor as well, since she went 1:44.19 in the open 200 at SECs.
On the other hand you’ve got Cal. As the Pac-12 is wont to do, Cal didn’t seem to fully prime their engines for the conference championships, and you’ve got to wonder if they’ve got more up their sleeves than they showed in going 6:53.57. That a 6:53 in this relay could be a glorified “warm-up swim” is a bit scary, but then again, so is Cal’s roster. Missy Franklin transcends adjectives with her in-the-pool accomplishments already, and coming in the door she’s the fastest 200 freestyler in the field. Her 1:41.40 came in December, and though she’ll probably lead off this relay like she did at Pac-12s, the question has still been raised as to what she could split. 1:40? 1:40-low? 1:39.9?? If Franklin alone isn’t dangerous enough, you’ve got last year’s NCAA runner-up in the 200 Liz Pelton manning the anchor leg. She wasn’t anywhere near her 1:42.13 from a year ago while anchoring at conference, and so with Franklin and Pelton just hitting lifetime-bests, this relay has 2.8 seconds yet to drop from a 6:53.57.
That’s assuming, of course, the other legs stay consistent. Rachael Acker had a strong split at Pac-12s, going 1:43.9, and Caroline Piehl was outstanding, splitting 1:43.19 when her season-best in the open race was just 1:44.07. Camille Cheng (1:44.61 at Pac-12s) gives the Bears another option as well.
Stanford is a solid group, but probably not explosive enough across the board to run with Cal and Georgia. Freshman Lia Neal is their stud, ranking in at 4th in the nation in the 200 free currently. She was only 1:44.3 on this relay at Pac-12s, so there’s plenty of time to be cut for her with a full rest, although she’ll have her work cut out for her trying to outsplit Cal’s Franklin and Georgia’s Vreeland. Julia Anderson is a fast 200 freestyler in her own right, and Maya DiRado can seemingly do everything well. Maddy Schaefer was the fourth leg at Pac-12s, and though she’s more sprint-oriented, she filled in adequately for the Cardinal with a 1:45. That will keep Stanford afloat, but probably won’t allow them to stick with the deep top two.
Texas A&M has to be considered a threat, as they’re the fourth and final relay to break 7 minutes this year. Lili Ibanez is ranked 5th in the 200 free, and her leadoff at SECs wasn’t even her fastest time of the year. In addition, Kelli Benjamin should have a faster split in her than what she did at the conference level. Sarah Henry was lights out on the anchor leg at SECs, and the Aggies will hope she can put up another 1:43 at nationals.
Florida was right on the edge of seven minutes at SECs and will look to get under this week. Elizabeth Beisel was the hero of that relay, going 1:42.8 on her leg, but the Gators have other weapons as well. Ellese Zalewski was 1:44-low leading off at SECs last year but fell off at NCAAs. She’ll hope to reverse that course this year to help the Gators move up.
Keep an eye on the Minnesota Golden Gophers at home. They’re already the fastest relay team in school history and like the Gators, are right on the cusp of breaking seven minutes. Jessica Plant has really hit her stride this year and was 1:43.8 in leading the team to a Big Ten Championship in this same pool. Tori Simenec returns the fastest split from this relay a year ago, and then there’s U.S. Open Champion Kiera Janzen, ready to go after swimming through Big Tens without a full rest.
Virginia won the ACC title in this event; they’re led by freshman sensation Leah Smith and look strong across the board. The Cavaliers won by over two seconds at the conference meet, so they’ll be hoping stiff competition helps them inch closer to the seven-minute mark as well.
Texas is even more so that way – the Longhorns won Big 12s by over 10 seconds, and their individual 200 free invitees Sam Tucker and Alex Hooper should help stabilize the group: both swam on this relay at last year’s NCAAs.
Arizona’s combo of Bonnie Brandon and Margo Geer is lethal, but their fortunes will rest heavily on the other two legs keeping the Wildcats in the hunt. Indiana is hurt by the loss of Haley Lips to an injury scratch, but Lindsay Vrooman and Brooklynn Snodgrass both seemed to save their big rest for NCAAs, so the Hoosiers have time to drop.
Top 8 picks with top times:
1. California, 6:53.57
2. Georgia, 6:53.04
3. Stanford, 6:58.23
4. Texas A&M, 6:58.80
5. Florida, 7:00.05
6. Minnesota, 7:00.04
7. Texas, 7:01.97
8. Virginia, 7:01.39
Darkhorse: Tennessee. The Vols were one of the fastest teams in the nation in this race last year, but struggled mightily at NCAAs. Still, three of the four legs return, and all now have solid NCAA experience to draw on in 2014.