2015 SEC Women’s Championship Fan Guide: Bauerle back, Bulldogs shoot for six straight

2015 Women’s SEC Championships

  • Tuesday, February 17-Saturday, February 21
  • Auburn, Alabama – James E. Martin Aquatic Center
  • Prelims/Finals W-F 10AM/6PM, Tuesday 10AM/5:30PM (Central time)
  • Defending Champs: Georgia (5x) (results)
  • Live results (will be here when meet starts)
  • Live video
  • Championship Central

The first of the major conferences to kick off its championship meet is the SEC, thanks to its expanded, 5-day event lineup that starts on a Tuesday and runs through Saturday night.

That also means that the major conference championship meet season will be led off by perhaps college swimming’s most dominant team, the Georgia Lady Bulldogs. Two-time defending NCAA Champions, Georgia appears the favorites to three-peat this spring after a regular season that has them looking all but invincible.

The Bulldogs swept last year’s postseason with major uncertainty at the head of their program, as head coach Jack Bauerle served a suspension that kept him out for nearly all of 2014. But Bauerle is back this semester for UGA, just another boost to a program with very few glaring weaknesses.

But Georgia isn’t the only team providing drama in a tough and deep SEC. Florida made the headlines this winter for both additions and subtractions. Star backstroker Sinead Russell persevered through a scary bout with blot clots, and is now doing well medically, though it would be a major surprise to see her compete at SECs. But the Gators also came up with two key mid-season additions, getting German Olympian Theresa Michalak and tough Brit Amelia Maughan eligible at the semester break.

Then there’s a new-look Texas A&M program in its third season in the SEC. The Aggies graduated no less than three individual NCAA champions and still have a top-5 roster nationally, led by iron woman Sarah Henry. The always-innovated Tennessee Vols lost some big names too, but still have nationally-ranked breaststroker Molly Hannis and always seem to come up with some new technical trick that inspires plenty of discussion and debate.

What makes the SEC tough is that even the programs without the depth to compete for the team title still add a handful of elite swimmers to the mix. Missouri’s Dani Barbiea and Kentucky’s Tina Bechtel are among the best butterfliers in the nation, Auburn’s Allyx Purcell is the sprint factory’s latest creation, and LSU has a trio of exciting swimmers with Amber Carter, Caley Oquist and Kara Kopcso.

All this is to say that the NCAA postseason couldn’t kick off with a more compelling meet. The expanded 5-day schedule, the longest in the NCAA, limits the tough single-session doubles that many swimmers have to deal with, which theoretically makes the meet’s top times even faster. On the other hand, the meet presents the unique challenge of bringing physical and emotional intensity to all 9 sessions over 5 full days, adding another wrinkle to a meet where momentum can really swing day-to-day.

In addition, the meet scores through three finals, down to 24th place overall. That puts a premium on a team’s depth – eking out those C Final points can be make-or-break by the end of day 5.

You can check out our full run-down of the conference’s best swimmers and most intriguing event matchups below, along with our official SwimSwam predictions of the conference meet’s finish order.

Schedule

The SEC is the only major conference to use the 5-day meet format, which spreads events out and should prevent too many swimmers from running into tough doubles. The event lineup is listed below:

Tuesday:
Men’s 1-meter diving
200 Medley Relay
Women’s 3-meter diving
800 Free Relay

Wednesday:
500 Free
200 IM
50 Free
Women’s 1-meter diving
200 Free Relay

Thursday:
400 IM
100 Fly
Men’s 3-meter diving
200 Free

Friday:
200 Fly
100 Back
100 Breast
Women’s Platform diving
400 Medley Relay

Saturday:
1650 Free
200 Back
100 Free
200 Breast
Men’s Platform diving
400 Free Relay

Stars

AlabamaKaylin Burchell (senior breaststroker), Bridgette Blood (sophomore breaststroker), Emma Saunders (junior backstroker/freestyler), Mia Nonnenberg (freshman IMer) – The breaststroke duo of Blood & Burchell were double A-finalists in 2014, and the Crimson Tide should return strong, graduating just one swimmer off of their SEC relays.

Arkansas: Anna Mayfield (junior freestyler/backstroker),  Nikki Daniels (senior breaststroker), Susanna White (senior freestyler), Julia Banach (junior breaststroker), Chelsea Tatlow (freshman backstroker/IMer) – The Razorbacks return a great corps of swimmers from last year who are starting to come of age. Mayfield has been on a tear this season, and Daniels is one of the conference’s best breaststrokers.

AuburnAllyx Purcell (sophomore sprinter), Jillian Vitarius (junior backstroker), Ashley Neidigh (sophomore distance freestyler), Sarah Peterson (senior IMer) – Auburn has some holes to fill from last season’s lineup, but Allyx Purcell has become a top-tier sprinter who can lead the team in a number of individual and relay events.

FloridaNatalie Hinds (junior sprinter), Jess Thielmann (junior distance freestyler/IMer), Lindsey McKnight (junior freestyler/IMer), Theresa Michalak (freshman IMer), Amelia Maughan (freshman frestyler) – Florida lost star backstroker Sinead Russell to a medical emergency, but added Michalak and Maughan at the semester break to bolster one of the SEC’s best rosters.

Georgia – Amber McDermott (senior distance freestyler/IMer), Brittany MacLean (junior distance freestyler), Olivia Smoliga (sophomore sprinter/backstroker), Jordan Mattern (senior freestyler), Chantal van Landeghem (junior sprinter), Kylie Stewart (freshman backstroker) – Way too many stars to fit in this short blurb. With coach Jack Bauerle back at the helm, Georgia is the consensus best team in the nation with a very good shot at repeat SEC and NCAA titles.

Kentucky – Tina Bechtel (senior butterflier), Danielle Galyer (sophomore backstroker/IMer), Abby Myers (senior flyer/backstroker), Christa Cabot (senior diver) – Bechtel is among the nation’s top butterflyers and Myers/Galyer are potential A-finalists, but the Wildcats will need more production from their relays to move up in the SEC. Their 800 free relay currently ranks first in the conference, which is a great place to start.

LSU – Kara Kopcso (sophomore butterflyer/IMer), Amber Carter (senior freestyler/butterflyer), Caley Oquist (junior backstroker), Cassie Weil (junior diver) – Carter & Kopcso are an outstanding butterfly duo in an absolutely brutal stroke within the conference. Diving points could buoy the Tigers into the SEC’s top half.

Missouri – Danielle Barbiea (senior butterflyer), Hannah Stevens (freshman backstroker), Katherine Ross (sophomore breaststroker), Abby Duncan (junior breaststroker) – Stevens has been a freshman revelation and Barbiea is elite, though she had issues repeating her mid-season rest times in the 2014 postseason. Auburn transfer Duncan is now eligible and should provide immediate points for the Tigers.

South Carolina – Patty Kranz (senior diver), Victoria Mitchell (senior IMer/backstroker/freestyler), Meredith Vay (freshman freestyler) – Victoria Mitchell is incredibly versatile, and could swim anything from the 1650 to the 200 back to the 400 IM. In fact, that’s the exact lineup she swam last year, tough mile/200 back combo and all.

Tennessee – Faith Johnson (junior sprinter), Molly Hannis (senior breaststroker), Madeline Tegner (sophomore flyer/freestyler), Morgan Dickson (sophomore distance freestyler) – Graduations hit this team hard, but Johnson and Hannis are still among the nation’s best in their respective strokes, and the rising Dickson ranks 10th in the NCAA in the 1000 free.

Texas A&M – Sarah Henry (senior IMer/distance freestyler), Lili Ibanez (senior freestyler), Beryl Gastaldello (freshman IM/everything), Ashley MacGregor (junior breaststroker/IMer) – The Aggies lost 3 NCAA champs to graduation, but Henry is a stud up front. Getting Ibanez back at full speed (she hasn’t looked herself in short course for much of this year) will be the key.

Vanderbilt: Elly Faulkner (senior breaststroker), Kara Lucenti (freshman breaststroker); Chrissy Oberg (senior backstroker) – Another team led by a pair of tough breaststrokers, Vanderbilt added a nice freshman class this offseason and continues to break school records mid-season.

Showdowns

500 free/1650 free: The distance events have been central to Georgia’s dominance over the past year, but they’ll still face an extremely tough test at SECs. Brittany MacLean and Amber McDermott went 1-2 at last year’s national championships in the 1650, but fourth-place finisher Sarah Henry of Texas A&M is still around to challenge them at the conference level. Then there’s Florida’s Jess Thielmann, who’s already been faster in a couple events this regular season than she was tapered and shaved in 2014. Thielmann currently holds the nation’s fastest 1000 free by nearly two full seconds* and looks poised to overcome a relatively disappointing 2014 post-season this year. And don’t count out Auburn’s Ashley Neidigh or Tennessee’s Morgan Dickson, who appear ready to take big steps forward as sophomores.

*(UPDATE: As this article was being finalized, Thielmann was passed up by USC’s Chelsea Chenault, but still holds the #2 time in the nation and the top time in the SEC)

100 Fly: The 100 fly shows off the relative depth of the SEC, in that most of the top contenders come from teams that aren’t traditionally conference powerhouses. Kentucky’s Tina Bechtel and Missouri’s Dani Barbiea sit 2nd and 3rd nationally in the event, and with defending conference champ Ellese Zalewski graduated, it’s time for a new face atop the conference. Two of LSU’s best swimmers should be factors in the race (Kara Kopcso and Amber Carter) if they can get the job done in prelims – both ended up in the C Final in 2014, despite then putting up times that should have placed them much higher. Georgia’s got a contender in Lauren Harrington, and Florida’s sprint stud Natalie Hinds is also a returning A finalist.

50 Free: defending NCAA Champion Olivia Smoliga of Georgia hasn’t shown much so far this year, though she really didn’t pop a big race last year either, until her dominant post-season explosion. That precedent has to leave her as the favorite here, but the rest of the field sure looks poised to make things interesting. Smoliga’s teammate Chantal van Landeghem currently leads the conference and ranks 2nd nationally. Arguably the best swimmers from Florida and Tennessee respectively, Natalie Hinds and Faith Johnson both specialize in the 50. Auburn’s Allyx Purcell has been a rock for her program this year, and you can’t count out 2014 conference runner-up Maddie Locus of Georgia in her senior season.

Selections

It feels awfully safe to put Georgia alone at the top. Obviously, meets are won in water and not on paper, but this Georgia team is downright scary in both categories. Losing Russell in the backstrokes probably quashed any chances Florida had of running down the ‘Dawgs. The Gators have plenty of backstrokers to fill Russell’s shoes on relays, but the Canadian star was a special swimmer who can only be covered for, not replaced.

Texas A&M seems to be the other major challenger, but they’ve got question marks of their own. The Aggies were second in the conference a year ago, but this roster looks drastically different without Breeja Larson, Cammile Adams and Paige Miller. Their young talent (like versatile French import Beryl Gastaldello and fast freshman breaststroker Bethany Galat) should help them reload quickly, but it’s hard to imagine anyone fully replacing the points vacated by that Big Three.

Florida is basically in the same boat, dealing with the graduations of Elizabeth Beisel, Ellese Zalewski, Alicia Mathieu and Hilda Luthersdottir, and compensating mostly with their mid-season additions. With that in mind, we’ll slot A&M in at #2 for the moment. They beat Florida by 70 last year and probably brought in a stronger recruiting class, even with the two new Gators thrown into the mix. The race for second will come down to who hits their taper best, though.

Auburn and Tennessee make up the next major tier, with enough elite talent to outpace the rest of the conference, but not enough scoring depth to challenge the top three. Auburn has the edge in relay ranks at this point, and home-pool advantage leaves them at 4 in our pre-meet rankings.

Things get muddy over the next 5 slots. Mizzou has been on fire this season, lost almost no one from its 2014 scoring crew and gained Auburn transfer Abby Duncan, one of two sub-minute breaststrokers on the Tiger roster. That and Missouri’s potential for outstanding medley relays makes them a smart choice to move up from last year’s 9th-place finish, especially if Dani Barbiea can put a disappointing 2014 post-season behind her.

Also in this tier is Arkansas, LSU, Alabama and Kentucky. Arkansas finished at the top of this group last year, but lost a lot to graduation. Meanwhile LSU is pretty reliant on a handful of studs, but should get big points out of diving.

Our picks:

  1. Georgia
  2. Texas A&M
  3. Florida
  4. Auburn
  5. Tennessee
  6. Missouri
  7. LSU
  8. Arkansas
  9. Alabama
  10. Kentucky
  11. South Carolina
  12. Vanderbilt

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Daaaave

This is a highly informed, logically structured, comprehensive, and well-written preview. Thanks, Jared.

Dubie

Thielmann had the fastest 1000 until Friday when Chelsea Chenault of USC went a 933.

1anda2

Texas A&M is in its 3rd year in the SEC.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson just can’t stay away from the pool. A competitive career of almost two decades wasn’t enough for this Minnesotan, who continues to get his daily chlorine fix. A lifelong lover of writing, Jared now combines the two passions as Senior Reporter for SwimSwam.com, covering swimming at every level. He’s an …

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