2018 NCAA Previews: #4 NC State Men Can Do More Than Sprint Free

We’ll be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s programs for the 2018-2018 season – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24. Can’t get enough college swimming news? Check out the College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine for more in-depth college swimming coverage, including a bird’s-eye view of the flood of coaching changes and our ever-popular rankings of the top 50 individual swimmers in college swimming.

#4 NC State Wolfpack

Key Losses: Ryan Held (48 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Anton Ipsen (42 NCAA points), Hennessey Stuart (1 NCAA point)

Key Additions: HM Zach Brown (NC – fly), Nyls Korstanje (Netherlands – free/fly), Rafal Kusto (Poland – breast)


As the NCAA finish order is determined by points, we base our grading scale on projected NCAA points. Versatility and high ceilings are nice, but they don’t win you NCAA titles unless they bring points with them. Bear in mind that all of these grades are projections more than 6 months out – and as none of us has a working crystal ball, these projections are very subjective and very likely to change over the course of the season. Disagreeing with specific grades is completely acceptable; furiously lashing out at a writer, commenter or specific athlete is not.

  • A = projected to score significant (10+) NCAA points per event
  • B = projected to score some (3-10) NCAA points per event
  • C = projected on the bubble to score likely only a few (1-2) or no NCAA points per event
  • D = projected to score no NCAA points

We’ll grade each event discipline: sprint free (which we define to include all the relay-distance freestyle events, so 50, 100 and 200 plus the 200, 400 and 800 free relays), distance free, IM, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly.

2017-2018 Look Back

NC State has been steadily building momentum since head coach Braden Holloway’s arrival in 2011, culminating in a 4th place finish at NCAAs in 2017.  The Wolfpack men actually scored almost 100 more points this past year than they did in 2017, but didn’t move up in the team rankings because the point totals flattened out at the top.  Still, it felt like NC State took a big step forward at NCAAs by showing that they were no long a team that was just built around sprint freestyles, but could bring top-notch performances in just about any discipline.

Coleman Stewart won the 100 back, Anton Ipsen took the 1650, and Andreas Vazaois won the 200 fly, giving the Wolfpack three different titles in three different disciplines, none of them sprint free, and showing that they’re able to produce fast swimmers in any event down in Raleigh.

Of course, NC State didn’t leave its bread and butter events behind.  With senior sprint star Ryan Held as their centerpiece, they opened up the meet by swimming the fastest time ever in the 800 free for the second year in a row.  They’d already broken the 400 free American Record at ACCs, broke it again in prelims at NCAAs, and finally shattered Texas’s year-old U.S. Open and NCAA Records with a 2:44.31 to close out the meet.

Sprint Free: A+

Not many teams can lose someone who’s had the impact that Held has had and still have an A+ sprint corps, the Wolfpack has unreal depth here.  Not that they won’t feel his loss; Held has arguably been the best NCAA sprinter not named Caeleb Dressel over the past two or three years.

But they still have Justin Ress, who’s steadily improved over the past few years and finished 3rd in the 100 free, made the B-final in the 50 free, and probably would’ve made the A-final in the 200 free, if it wasn’t for some back issues on the third day of NCAAs.  Jacob Molacek was pretty much everything Wolfpack fans hoped he’d be when he transferred from Auburn.  He only earned individual points with a 5th place finish in the 100 free, but was a rock-solid part of all five Wolfpack relays, including breast, fly, and free swims on the medley relays, and splits of 18.6/41.0/1:32.1 on the free relays.

(By the way, Ress and Molacek are seniors, as are Tate Jackson, Zach Apple, Bowen Becker, and Townley Haas.  Those six are the fastest 100 free returners from last year, and all had times between 41.27 and 41.67 last season.  Anyone care to pick next year’s 100 free winner now?)

Giovanni Izzo (19.37/42.69 at ACCs), Cobe Garcia (19.20/19.13 on 200 free and 200 medley relays at NCAAs), and Mark McGlaughlin (42.24 on NCAAs 400 free prelims) are all guys that would be the A-relay for almost any other college team, and they should continue to give the Wolfpack conference depth and NCAA relay flexibility.

You never quite know how the transition from LCM to SCY will go for incoming international students, but Simonas Bilis and Anton Ipsen had great success at NC State, and Dutch national record-holder Nyls Korstanje already has solid times in both short course and long course meters, and he could make an immediate impact on all three free relays.

Distance Free: C

The Wolfpack’s distance group will see the biggest turnover this season, as they lose both a NCAA champion and their primary coach.  Ipsen went out in style as a senior, first placing 3rd in the 500 and then winning NC State’s first individual championship in the 1650 in his very last college swim.

Meanwhile, assistant coach Gary Taylor, who primarily worked with the distance group, is off to Auburn for his first head coaching gig, and Mark Bernadino, long-time head coach at UVA, comes to NC State from South Carolina.

NC State still returns two NCAA distance qualifiers in Eric Knowles and Jack McIntyre, who topped out at 4:15.46/14:54.56 and 4:18.52/14:47.75, respectively.  Neither one hit those times at NCAAs, having peaked a month earlier at ACCs, but if they were to repeat those times at NCAAs, both would be on the cusp of scoring, Knowles in the 500 and McIntyre in the 1650.

IM: A-

Last year Vazaois became only the fourth man to crack 1:40 in the 200 IM, as he clocked a 1:39.97 to earn 2nd.  Since last year’s winner, Jan Switkowsi, was a senior, Vazaois is the fastest returner in the field and probably the best bet to win, although it is by no means guaranteed.

Top-end strength aside, this might be the shallowest group for NC State, as Vazaois was the only Wolfpack swimmer in the 200 IM last year, and the now-departed Ipsen was their only scorer in the 400 IM.  Knowles finished 35th in the 400 IM as a freshman, and the way we’ve seen NC State develop swimmers, you certainly can’t count him out from scoring, but his but PR of 3:44.68 is still about three seconds off what it took to make the B-final last year.

Butterfly: A

The fly group is still strong even without Held, who placed 5th in the 100 fly last year.  Vazaois grabbed his first national title with a win in the 200 fly, thanks to a monster back half that made him the 3rd-fastest man ever in the event.

Stewart just missed the 100 fly A-final as part of his Friday fly/back double, and his 44.84 to win the B-final would’ve supplanted Held for 5th in the A-final, so he’s certainly got the chops to make the top eight.

Like much of the Wolfpack supporting cast, James Bretscher‘s best times came at ACCs, but those times (45.93/1:41.62) were just outside what it took to score in the 100 fly, and good enough to make the B-final in the 200 fly, if he can repeat them at NCAAs.

Freshman Zach Brown lopped quite a bit off of his best times over his last year of high school, and he’s now been 47.66/1:43.96.  The latter time was just off the fastest time in the class, and he stands a good chance of developing into a point scorer sooner rather than later.

Korstanje is the Dutch record holder in the long course 50 fly and his 100 fly LCM/SCM times convert to roughly a 47-low in yards.

Backstroke: A

The Dynamic Duo of Stewart and Vazaois is back at it in the backstroke.  Stewart came out on top over Texas’s John Shebat in the 100 back in one of the most exciting and closest races of last year’s NCAAs, winning by 0.01s.  Vazaois was 3rd in the same race, as all three men, plus Shebat’s teammate Austin Katz, cracked the 45-second barrier.  Even more exciting – all four men will be back in this year, so we could see another great four-way battle in Austin in March.

Hennessey Stuart had been a big part of this Wolfpack team for the past few years, holding down medley relay duties and scoring in both backstrokes at NCAAs.  He’s now gone, but the other Stewart showed he can hang in the longer race too; he made the B-final, and with only being three-tenths of a second off what it took to make the A-final, he certainly has the potential to do that.

Noah Hensley was the other Wolfpack backstroker at NCAAs.  His season bests of 46.14 and 1:41.77 suggest he could be a scoring threat, particularly in the shorter event.

Breaststroke: C

The breaststrokes were the only two events besides the 200 free where NC State didn’t score last year, but this didn’t become a liability on the medley relays.  Daniel Graber split 23-high on the 200 and 52.08 in the prelims of the 400 medley, while Molacek split 52.3 in finals, providing the Wolfpack with serviceable legs.

Both men will be seniors this year, and NC State didn’t have anyone else swim, much less score in, breaststroke at ACCs either, so they’ll be looking for some new blood this year.

Polish swimmer Rafal Kusto is supposed to be joining NC State second semester.  His meters times suggest that he’ll be solid and should be able to at least score at the conference level.  Jack Moranetz switching his commitment from Wisconsin to NC State over the summer helps provide some insurance, as well, although he’s more likely to make more an impact down the road.

2018-2019 Outlook

Even after losing Held and Ipsen, NC State has an incredibly balanced team that should contend for all three free relay titles and a few individual ones, as well.  Molacek and Ress form the best 1-2 punch across the three sprint free distances, Vazaois should again vie for three top three finishes individually, and Stewart will look to build on his breakout season.

From the outside looking in, at least, it seems that a lot of NC State’s recent success has to do with the staff that Holloway has brought on.  In some ways, the team has been a victim of its own success, as first Todd DeSorbo and now Taylor have moved on to head coaching gigs.  That didn’t seem to affect the Wolfpack last year, as they didn’t seem to miss a beat, but it is something to watch.

The other thing to note is that their lack of scoring divers hampers their quest for to win the whole thing, and if they didn’t do it last year, it’s hard to see them jumping ahead of Texas or Cal this year.  Still, any team that can produce relays like NC State’s will be toward the top of rankings every year, and it’ll be exciting to see if the Wolfpack can top last year’s show at NCAAs.

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4 years ago

Mark Bernadino is arguably the best hire of anyone in swimming. His record of success speaks volumes. The man can do more pushups than any swim coach in the country!

4 years ago

Last year was the year to move up in the team rankings. Texas was off Cal still improving but Indy surprised everyone. Amazing to see what the coaches can put together without any star studded recruits. A top five finish is always good after that point totals really drop off

Silent Observer
Reply to  Swimmer
4 years ago

I would say NC state did move up last year. In overall swimming points (not including diving), Cal & NCState were 1&2, diving is what saved Texas and kept IU in the hunt.

If anything, NCState became not just a sprint school last NCAAs. Like Robert says in his breakdown above.

4 years ago

Can’t wait for the NC STATE meet schedule to come out!

Tea rex
4 years ago

Semi-related: is Cullen Jones training there? How big is the Wolfpack post-grad group?

Silent Observer
4 years ago

Is anyone else interested in seeing what Bernadino does with the distance group???

I think that is the biggest wild card for me. And with his coaching history/resume, is the most exciting part to watch this season.

NCState also seems to have one or two major breakouts each year. Vazaios in 2016, Ress in 2017, Stewart in 2018… Who’s next?

Reply to  Silent Observer
4 years ago

Yes I am excited! I’ve always been a fan of Bernardino when he was at UVA! It’s great having a legendary coach here in town!

Reply to  Silent Observer
4 years ago

Hoping it’s Knowles to give them the distance ace they need. Either way, I think this sophomore class is due to breakout. Probably the best recruiting class State had ever brought in on paper (over the last 20 years that is) and they did pretty well last year, but State had so much depth, they went somewhat unnoticed. Even Izzo who actually had a pretty damn good year for a frost.

Should be a fun season!

Reply to  Silent Observer
4 years ago

Agreed on the enthusiasm, but Vazaios is hardly a breakout given his success prior to showing up in Raleigh.

The Diamond
4 years ago


About Robert Gibbs