2019 SEC Women’s Champs Fan Guide: Tennessee Eyeing First-Ever Title

2019 SEC WOMEN’S CHAMPIONSHIPS

After a three-year Aggie reign, the tides may well be turning in the 2019 SEC women’s team battle. After wavering between as high as 2nd to as low as 5th the last thirteen years, and having never actually won an SEC title on the women’s side, this might finally be Tennessee’s time to shine.

Yes, it’s true, the Volunteers have never claimed 1st at the SEC Champs. Florida has won 17, Georgia 12, Auburn 5, A&M the last 3 (after joining the conference in 2012), and Alabama 1. The fact that UT has finished in the top 5 for thirteen-straight years shows their historical excellence as a program, and with A&M having lost such a vital senior class, the Georgia Bulldogs depending largely on their freshmen, and Florida and Auburn just working themselves out of program lulls, the red-hot Vols will be striking when the iron’s hot.

Erika Brown will lead the charge. It helps to have the best sprinter in the conference on your side when sprint speed is the way to maximize points in the college system, and Brown leads the SEC this season in the 50 free and 100 fly. She recently anchored Team USA to SC Worlds silver in the 4×200 medley relay, so she’s a lethal threat for any relay and has a viable shot to win three individual events at SECs. Tennessee’s sprinting is exceptional this year, with four women ranked in the top 10 of the 50 free and six in the top 25– senior Maddy Banic, junior Stanzi Moseley, and sophomore Bailey Grinter are key.

After a lackluster freshman campaign, Nikol Popov has had a momentous 2018-19 season, and leads the conference in the 100 breast (58.83). Last season, she was well off of her high school bests, failing to score a single point at SECs. This year, however, she’s poised to claim an SEC title in the 100 breast, score in the top 5 of the 200 breast, and potentially pick up some 200 IM points as well. Add in IMers Meghan Small and Tess Cieplucha (and Small is way more than just an IMer, too), and the Vols have a lot of power coming into this meet. 2018 SEC platform runner-up and 3-meter A finalist Rachel Rubadue and 2018 3-meter A finalist Ana Celaya-Hernandez are icing on top.

Losing All-Americans Beryl Gastaldello, Bethany Galat, Jorie Caneta, and Lisa Bratton deals serious blows to the A&M roster, especially as they’re now without top-tier sprint free or sprint backstroke talent. That said, this has always been a deep roster, and there are plenty of ways for this Aggie team to score. Sydney Pickrem is heavily favored to win the 200 IM, 400 IM, and 200 breast, while mid-distance freestylers Claire RasmusHaley Yelle, and Katie Portz and butterfliers Jing Quah and Taylor Pike are going to be part of this team’s core again this year. The name of the game for the Aggies is breaststroke once again, where they have four swimmers in the SEC top six in the 100 and the top two swimmers in the 200 this season (including Anna Belousova, the biggest threat to Popov in the 100). Their sprint free and backstroke shortcomings, however, may be insurmountable.

Georgia has found a breaststroker in Sophia Carnevale, a UNLV transfer, and freshmen Dakota Luther and Olivia Carter have been fantastic this season. Sprinter Veronica Burchill is clutch for UGA, who is otherwise looking thin in the sprints, and sophomore Courtney Harnish has been one of their rocks all season. What was once a breaststroke problem is now more of a backstroke problem, with nobody under 53 this year in the 100, but UGA is a team that does well with what it has, and their talented freshman class may really come together nicely for championship season.

Florida and Auburn have both shown serious growth this season, and Auburn’s sprinters (including ASU transfer Claire Fisch who is really finding her feet flippers) may really help them do damage with crucial relay points. Kentucky and Mizzou will again be fighting in that middle tier, as both teams have notable top-end talent but haven’t quite tackled depth issues to rise higher. Asia Seidt and Annie Ochitwa are both in the running for SEC titles, while Seidt is certainly a three-event title contender.

Arkansas will be fun to watch, especially, thanks to the heroic sprint capabilities of Briton Anna Hopkin and their star quality diver Brooke Schultz— how far can they distance themselves from their 10th place finish last year?

SCHEDULE

Tuesday:

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

Wednesday:

  • 500 Free
  • 200 IM
  • 50 Free
  • Men’s 1-meter diving
  • 200 Free Relay

Thursday:

  • 400 IM
  • 100 Fly
  • Women’s 3-meter diving
  • 200 Free

Friday:

  • 200 Fly
  • 100 Back
  • 100 Breast
  • Men’s Platform diving
  • 400 Medley Relay

Saturday:

  • 1650 Free
  • 200 Back
  • 100 Free
  • 200 Breast
  • Women’s Platform diving
  • 400 Free Relay

STARS

Alabama

Rhyan White (freshman backstroker), Kensey McMahon (freshman distance freestyler), Justine Macfarlane (senior breaststroker) – Freshmen White and McMahon have excelled, especially the distance specialist McMahon, the fastest miler in the conference this season. Macfarlane is on the cusp of making both breaststroke A finals.

Arkansas

Anna Hopkin (junior sprinter), Peyton Palsha (sophomore distance freestyler), Kobie Melton (freshman sprinter), Brooke Schultz (senior diver) – Hopkin is going to be monumental for the Razorbacks. She’ll elevate any relay she’s on, and she has a great shot at taking down Brown in either sprint free race. Schultz should rack up diving points, too.

Auburn

Claire Fisch (junior sprinter), Aly Tetzloff (senior freestyler/flyer), Emily Hetzer (freshman distance freestyler), Erin Falconer (senior freestyler/backstroker) – Gary Taylor has done a great job of getting this team back into fighting form, led by seniors Tetzloff and Falconer. Freshman Hetzer has been breaking bests and is in the hunt for SEC titles in the 500 and 1650 free events, while ASU transfer Fisch has seriously taken off.

Florida

Emma Ball (junior backstroker), Leah Braswell (freshman distance freestyler/IMer), Vanessa Pearl (freshman breaststroker/IMer), Mabel Zavaros (freshman butterflier/backstroker), Sherridon Dressel (junior backstroker), Kelly Fertel (junior IMer) – A great freshman class led by star IMer Pearl, plus a new-look coaching staff led by Jeff Poppell. There’s some big talent here, and we should learn a lot about how the new staff approaches conference season.

Georgia

Courtney Harnish (sophomore freestyler), Dakota Luther (freshman butterflier), Veronica Burchill (junior sprinter), Olivia Carter (freshman butterflier/backstroker/IMer), Sophia Carnevale (junior breaststroker), Gabi Fa’amausili (sophomore sprinter) – The Bulldogs have the deepest butterfly group in the conference, and Harnish and Burchill are already proven weapons. The sprint situation is not super great past Burchill, but the Bulldogs (like Florida) have one of the most impressive freshman groups in the country and will look to them to fill out their points.

Kentucky

Ali Galyer (junior backstroker), Izzy Gati (freshman butterflier), Geena Freriks (senior freestyler), Bailey Bonnett (sophomore breaststroker), Asia Seidt (junior backstroker/IMer) – Seidt and Galyer continue to hold the Backstroke U torch, and with freshman butterflier Gati in the picture, the medleys will be stronger than ever. Don’t count out Bonnett, a sleeper pick for a breaststroke title.

LSU

Summer Spradley (senior breaststroker), Haylee Knight (senior sprinter), Aimee Wilson (senior diver), Lizzie Cui (senior diver) – LSU is led by seniors right now, and Knight is coming into her own in sprint free, while she’ll be eyeing an A final appearance in the 100 fly, too. Cui and freshman Wilson will shore up a good amount of diving points.

Missouri

Annie Ochitwa (senior sprinter), Kylie Dahlgren (senior IMer), Hayley Hynes (junior sprinter), Sarah Thompson (senior everything) – Kentucky might rule the 200 back, but Hynes is the fastest 100 backstroker in the conference right now, while Ochitwa and Thompson rank 5th and 6th, respectively. The sprint free group is deep this year, too.

South Carolina 

Albury Higgs (junior breaststroker), Christina Lappin (junior sprinter), Emma Barksdale (senior IM’er) – Barksdale is one of the best IMers in the country, while Lappin leads the sprints for the Gamecocks. Higgs returns after making the 200 breast A final last season.

Tennessee

Erika Brown (junior sprinter), Meghan Small (junior everything), Maddy Banic (senior sprinter), Stanzi Moseley (junior freestyler), Tess Cieplucha (junior IMer), Nikol Popov (sophomore breaststroker) – The junior class is pretty outstanding, and Brown could certainly win three individual events at this meet.

Texas A&M

Anna Belousova (junior breaststroker), Jing Quah (sophomore butterflier), Katie Portz (junior freestyler), Sydney Pickrem (senior breaststroker/IMer), Claire Rasmus (senior freestyler) – Pickrem is perhaps the most versatile swimmer in the conference. All of these women finished in at least two A finals at SECs last year, and they’ll be even more heavily depended on after losing their iconic senior class from last year.

Vanderbilt

Tonner DeBeer (freshman sprinter) – DeBeer’s high school bests (53.0 fly, 53.3 back, 49.8 free) are either right on or significantly better than Vanderbilt’s best swimmer in those events last season. She’ll need to step up immediately as a freshman.

SHOWDOWNS

50 & 100 FREE

Tennessee’s Erika Brown won these events last year with relative easy, finishing well ahead of the field in both races (especially the 50). This is the SEC, though, and you’d be foolish if you didn’t think other swimmers could come out of the woodwork in just one season’s time.

The immediate (and most pressing) threat is Arkansas’ Anna Hopkin, who has hit the ground running in her first year in the NCAA. She’s split sub-22 countless times this year, and is just a tenth back of Brown in the 50 free. Hopkin’s 47.05 actually leads Brown by a tenth this season, and it’s exciting to think about what might happen when the two push each other in finals.

Of course, Mizzou’s Annie Ochitwa, UGA’s Veronica Burchill, and Auburn’s Alyssa Tetzloff are not to be messed with. Auburn’s Claire Fisch is definitely elevating her game after leaving Arizona State, and LSU’s Haylee Knight hit a PR of 48.04 at mid-season as a senior.

100 BREAST

Defending champion Anna Belousova is the latest proof that A&M head coach Steve Bultman is infallible when it comes to fostering breaststroke excellence in his program. Standing in her way of her crown, however, may not be another one of her teammates. Tennessee’s Nikol Popov is back and better, finally eclipsing her impressive high school times after a very quiet freshman season. Popov was 58.83 mid-season, which is .03 ahead of Belousova’s 58.86 winning time from last year.

For Kentucky’s Madison Winstead and Bailey Bonnett, breaking 59 is the next step in their progressions that they’ve made with the Wildcats.

200 FLY

A&M sophomores Jing Quah and Taylor Pike clash with two of the top freshmen in the country, Dakota Luther and Olivia Carter of UGA. Luther leads the conference this season (1:53.55), but Quah was 1:53.05 to win the title last year. Pike has been 1:54.0 this year, followed by Quah (1:54.9) and Carter (1:55.0). That was Luther’s best at mid-season, while Quah’s winning time last year is her best, and Pike’s mid-season time was her best. Carter, meanwhile, brings in a 1:53.49 from high school.

IMers Meghan Small of UT and Emma Barksdale of South Carolina are certainly factors in this race, but Small could also enter the 200 back and Barksdale the 200 breast.

1650 FREE

We haven’t talked about freshmen very much this entire preview, mostly because the class of 2022 hasn’t made much noise this year, yet. That is certainly not the case in the mile.

Kensey McMahon of Alabama leads the conference (15:59.46) by a mere hundredth over Florida’s Leah Braswell (15:59.47), and both women had never broken 16:10 before college. Also on a tear is the 4th-ranked Emily Hetzer of Auburn (16:05.48), who had also never broken 16:10 before college.

It’s a very young field, with sophomores Amanda Nunan of UT (16:05.34) and Haley Yelle of A&M (16:06.87) at 3rd and 5th in the conference thus far, along with UF’s Taylor Ault (16:14.26).

Yet another freshman, South Carolina’s Kate Sanderson (16:16.89), sits 9th right now.

Finally, sophomore Courtney Harnish was just 16:25.00 mid-season, but she’s actually the defending champion after going 15:57.68 last year. She was the only swimmer under 16 minutes, with Ault taking 2nd (16:03.36), and we should see at least a few swimmers breaking 16 in what will be a much quicker field than last year.

400 FREE RELAY

Tennessee, Auburn, and Mizzou have the strongest sprint groups in the conference right now. Tennessee is geared a bit more for the 200 free relay, and Auburn leads the conference at 3:13.75, just ahead of UT (3:14.09). Mizzou is actually 4th (3:15.11), with upstart Arkansas at 3rd (3:15.05).

Arkansas confirmed with SwimSwam that it has never had a relay finish higher than 4th at the SEC Championships, and they’re in position to make history with a finish of 3rd or higher in this event. They were 11th in this event in 2017 and 9th in 2018. This year, they’ve already taken a full second off of their program record.

SELECTIONS

Things are going to be incredibly close.

The Swimulator, which does not factor in diving (where Texas A&M looks to have a bit of an edge over UT and UGA), has Tennessee first with A&M close behind, while UGA and Florida are essentially tied. This is a big swing for Florida, who was only 6th last year but may well climb to 3rd (or higher, if things go exceptionally well for them and UT or A&M really falter).

In the next tier, Kentucky, Mizzou, and Auburn are clumped into battle. Alabama and Arkansas aren’t entirely that far apart, and the Razorbacks have a great diving program that way well put them on top when the dust settles.

Below are the Swimulator projections for the 2019 SEC Championships, with diving not included. This is going to be one of the most exciting meets in a long time, with Tennessee having a viable shot at its first SEC team title in history and A&M’s winning streak at-risk.

SWIMULATOR

Tennessee 984.5
Texas A&M 918.5
Georgia 832
Florida 830.5
Missouri 731.5
Kentucky 716
Auburn 700
Alabama 492.5
Arkansas 424.5
South Carolina 371
LSU 306
Vanderbilt 150

SWIMSWAM PICKS

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

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SaintJoseph

It is our time GirlieVols – Bring the Cookskin back to the top of the SEC,wear the BIG ORANGE with pride, show no mercy. Lets show the conference what real girl power can do! Lets out cheer, out start, out turn, out dove, out swim and out touch any swimmer or diver who thinks they can diss the LADYvOL NATION.Go go gogo Big LaddieVols! You can do it

ACC fan

This article is a MASTERPIECE! This type of in-depth coverage is why I love Swimswam! Incredibly well written! Thank you Karl for a job well done! It’s going to be an exciting championships season!! Grab the popcorn, meet mobile and stayed tuned to Swimswam!

SwimDawgFan101

I think Georgia is going to surprise some people. After all, the UGA team does not really rest much at all for the mid season invite. Definitely going to be close meet. Dawgs on top!

Superfan

No bias there?

About Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon

Karl Ortegon studied sociology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, graduating in May of 2018. He began swimming on a club team in first grade and swam four years for Wesleyan.

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