2016 NCAA W. Picks: Bears Look for Three in a Row for 800 Free Relay

by Robert Gibbs 1

March 16th, 2016 College, News



  • NCAA Record: 6:59.18 — California — 6:50.18
  • American Record: 6:59.18 — California — 6:50.18
  • U.S. Open Record: 6:59.18 — California — 6:50.18
  • 2015 NCAA Champion: California, 6:50.99

Bottom line up front: a new schedule, graduations, redshirts, and deferments means this may be the wildest, most unpredictable 800 free relay in years.

Quick refresher: last year, the Cal quartet of Cierra Runge, Elizabeth Pelton, Caroline Piehl, and Missy Franklin smashed the US Open, NCAA, and American records in this event with a 6:50.18 at the Pac-12 Championships.  They swapped Camille Cheng for Piehl at NCAA’s, and were a little slower (6:50.99), but still beat 2nd-place Stanford by almost four seconds, and 3rd-place Georgia by almost ten seconds.

However, only six of the twelve women who swam on those top three relays will be competing at NCAA’s this year, and there really is no one clear team on top this year.

Further complicating matters is that the 800 free relay will now be the first event of the meet, taking place on Wednesday evening, when everyone is still fresh.  Previously, the final two heats of this relay took place at the end of finals on Friday.  That mean that any 200 freestylers who made finals would be on their third 200 of the day by the time this relay came around.  The effect was that oftentimes teams would swim slower at NCAA’s than they did at their conference championships, as most conferences swim this relay and the 200 medley relay on Wednesday night.

The University of Southern California Trojans come into the meet with the top seed, and on paper, they could be the favorite.  Kirsten Vose, Anika Apostalon, Chelsea Chenault, and Allie Wooden combined for a 6:55.17 at the women’s Pac-12 championships last month.  Only Chenault swam on USC 5th-place team at last year’s NCAA championships.  The Trojans could very easily drop some time by swapping in freshman Kasia Wilk, who went 1:44.44 in the individual 200 free at the Pac-12s, good for #12 in the country this year.  The big question is just how much USC was tapered/rested compared to their competitors.  If they don’t have much more time to drop, there are other school waiting in the wings.  If they do, they should be able to challenge for the win.

Georgia graduated half of last year’s relay, but brings back two very strong pieces in Hali Flickinger and Brittany MacLean, who currently have the 4th- and 8th-fastest times in the country this year.  They were joined on this relay at SEC’s by Meaghan Raab and Shauna Lee, both accomplished middle distance swimmers, which should keep the Bulldogs in the mix next Wednesday night.  They’re seeded right behind USC, with a 6:55.56.

Last year’s champions, the California Golden Bears, only return senior Elizabeth Pelton from their record-breaking relays.  Senior Rachael Acker joined this relay at Pac-12s, leading off in 1:46.55, but it will be two freshmen, Kathleen Baker, and Amy Bilquist, who Cal will have to lean on if they’re to have any chance of repeating.  Both are backstroke specialists who are still incredibly strong freestylers who split 1:43-low on this relay at Pac-12s.  Their 6:57.64 is a long ways off from last year’s time at either Pac-12’s or NCAA’s, and

Michigan’s relay features two new legs in Yirong Bi and Siobhan Haughey, the latter of whom split 1:42-low at the Big Ten championships.  They’re joined this year by veterans Gabby DeLoof and Gillian Ryan, and the four of them set a Big Ten record with their 6:58.54.  Last year Michigan swam about five seconds slower at NCAA’s than at the conference meet, and with a bunch of serious distance swimmers on this team, they’re one group that could really benefit from this race being moved to the first day of competition.

Leah Smith is one of the best distance swimmers in the country not named Katie Ledecky, and Virginia will rely on her and freshman Megan Moroney to keep their squad close to the leaders.  Kaityln Jones split a solid 1:45 last year at NCAA’s, and Jen Marrkand rounded out their lineup at ACC champs that gave them a 6:59.69 seed time.

Continuing a trend we see in the teams seeded near Virginia, the Texas Longhorns have one star swimmer and a strong supporting cast.  Madisyn Cox is primarily an IMer, but led off in a respectable 1:44.93 at Big 12’s a few weeks.  Tajira Karosas and Rebecca Millard swam last year at NCAA’s with Cox, and they were joined by Quinn Carrozza at Big 12’s, swimming to a 7:00.41 without much competition.

Stanford was the only team other than Cal last year to have two swimmers split under 1:44, much less 1:43.  Unfortunately for the Cardinal, one of those swimmers definitely won’t be participating in this relay, and the other one may not either.  Freestyle star Simone Manuel chose to redshirt this year.  While the other, Lia Neal, will be at NCAA, Stanford chose to leave her off this relay at Pac 12’s this year.  If that’s the plan for NCAA’s as well, Stanford will have a hard time staying in contention.  Other than Neal, the only other swimmer from last year’s second-place relay is Nicole Stafford.  She split 1:44.18 last year at NCAA’s and led off in 1:45.58 at Pac-12s last month, so she should have a little room to improve.  Ella Eastin, Julia Ama, Lindsey Engel joined Stafford at Pac-12s to go 7:00.53, highlighted by Eastin’s 1:42.96.  Their combined time should be enough to keep them in the top eight overall this week, but they’re probably not going to challenge for the win unless Neal swims this.

While it’s been the NC State men who have been of the fastest rising teams in the NCAA over the past few seasons, the women have been making progress as well.  Last year, the Wolfpack women had the 23rd-fastest time in the country, and didn’t even compete in this event at ACC’s.   They’re almost nine seconds faster already this season, and currently have the 7th-fastest time heading into NCAA’s.  Rachel Muller, Alexia Zevnik, Michelle Craddock, and Natalie Labonge recorded a 7:00.53 at ACC’s that gave them a 2nd-place finish behind Virginia.  The four women are pretty even, with former two swimming 1:44s and the latter two swimming 1:45s.  Last year, NC State’s two free relays managed to shave some time from ACC’s to NCAA’s, so if they relay can follow suit this year, they figure to be in the top 8 once again, but probably won’t have enough movement to have a realistic shot at winning.

Indiana has two top-20 200 freestylers in Haley Lips and Kennedy Gross, and should move up a little from their 9th-place seeding.  Louisville freshman Mallory Comerford has the second-best 200 time in the country this season, but there’s not much depth behind her.  Texas A&M graduated two seniors from last year’s fourth-place team, and currently has no one ranked in the top 30 in the individual 200.

Top 8 Predictions:



Seed Time








Southern California



NC State














Dark horse: Arizona’s seed time of 7:01.50 comes from last December’s Texas Invite, but both Taylor Schick and Cameron McHugh were slightly faster at the Pac-12 championship last month than they were in December.  If Schick and McHugh can hold or slightly improve their times, and if Bonnie Brandon gets back to 1:44-low or better, the Wildcats could jump up from their #12 seed to as high as a 5th-place finish.

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Does anyone know are the heats tonight going fastest to slowest or slowest to fastest?

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