It’s that time of the year again. SwimSwam will be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s teams (and then some) from the 2023 NCAA Championships. Follow along with the College Swimming Preview Channel. Want to read even more? Check out the latest edition of the SwimSwam magazine.
#12 USC Trojans
Returning Fifth Years: Nike Agunbiade (18 NCAA points)
Over the years, we’ve gone back and forth on how to project points, ranging from largely subjective rankings to more data-based grading criteria based on ‘projected returning points.’ We like being as objective as possible, but we’re going to stick with the approach we’ve adopted post-Covid. The grades will rely heavily on what swimmers actually did last year, but we’ll also give credit to returning swimmers or freshmen who have posted times that would have scored last year.
Since we only profile the top 12 teams in this format, our grades are designed with that range in mind. In the grand scheme of college swimming and compared to all other college programs, top 12 NCAA programs would pretty much all grade well across the board. But in the interest of making these previews informative, our grading scale is tough – designed to show the tiers between the good stroke groups, the great ones, and the 2015 Texas fly group types.
- 5 star (★★★★★) – a rare, elite NCAA group projected to score 25+ points per event
- 4 star (★★★★) – a very, very good NCAA group projected to score 15-24 points per event
- 3 star (★★★) – a good NCAA group projected to score 5-14 points per event
- 2 star (★★) – a solid NCAA group projected to score 1-4 points per event
- 1 star (★) – an NCAA group that is projected to score no points per event, though that doesn’t mean it’s without potential scorers – they’ll just need to leapfrog some swimmers ahead of them to do it
We’ll grade each event discipline: sprint free (which we define to include all the relay-distance freestyle events, so 50, 100 and 200), distance free, IM, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and diving. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.
Also, keep in mind that we are publishing many of these previews before teams have posted finalized rosters. We’re making our assessments based on the best information we have available at the time of publication, but we reserve the right to make changes after publication based on any new information that may emerge regarding rosters. If that does happen, we’ll make certain to note the change.
The USC women have seen a steady progression up the NCAA rankings over the last three seasons, bouncing back from a rough 2021 with consecutive 100-point seasons.
After 11 straight years in the top 12, including 10 in the top 10, the Trojans plummeted to 22nd place at the 2021 NCAA Championships, marking the program’s worst finish since 1989. They managed to double their point total the following season, scoring 102 points to place 16th, and then last season, USC got back up into the NCAA’s upper echelon by placing 12th.
Points are points, and results speak for themselves. But USC’s performance last season comes with the caveat that they only had four individual scorers, two of which were divers, and they had no relays score top-eight points.
Graduate diving transfer Carolina Sculti came over from Stanford and had the best NCAA performance of her career, scoring 26 points after placing sixth in both the 1-meter and 3-meter events. Senior diver Nike Agunbiade added 18 points on the boards, highlighted by her fifth-place finish on platform.
In the pool, Kaitlyn Dobler and Isabelle Odgers scored in both breaststroke events, with Dobler placing fourth in the 100 breast after coming in as the defending champion. Odgers was an ‘A’ finalist in the 200 breast, but perhaps the biggest takeaway of NCAAs was the fact that neither swimmer managed to hit a season-best at the biggest meet of the year.
However, that came after the Trojans scored an upset runner-up finish at the Pac-12 Championships, inching out Cal by seven points, so the all-in mindset on the conference meet paid off.
At Pac-12s, Dobler and Odgers went 1-2 in both breaststroke events, and Agunbiade won the platform event and added a runner-up finish to lead the team with 86 points.
Coming in as a highly-touted recruit, Kozan perhaps underperformed in her freshman year, but still had a pair of fourth-place Pac-12 finishes and should be coming into next season riding some momentum after a big summer.
SPRINT FREE: ★½
USC’s freestyle sprinting isn’t particularly strong by any means, and while there is a chance they get a few scorers this season, it’s hard to give them two stars and say they’re “expected” to score.
Anicka Delgado clocked 21.97 in the 50 free at the Art Adamson Invitational early in the season, under what it took to make the consolation final at NCAAs (21.98), and Dobler (22.03) was just shy of the mark. Henderson is also right there in the 50 free at 22.13.
Delgado (48.26) and Henderson (48.43) are the only two returning swimmers who broke 49 seconds in the 100 free last year, and things are even bleaker in the 200 free, where Kozan was the only swimmer on the team sub-1:46 last season, going 1:45.35 on a relay lead-off.
However, there are reinforcements coming in the form of recruits, as Hungarian Lilla Minna Abraham joins the squad with long course bests of 25.98, 55.59 and 1:58.23 in the sprint free events, good for respective conversions of 22.88, 49.14 and 1:44.51 in the 50, 100 and 200 free.
Abraham’s conversions probably undersell her, given that she was four one-hundredths shy of gold in the 200 free at the 2022 World Juniors, and she’s certainly got the potential to earn a second swim in the event at NCAAs.
USC also gets a significant addition in the form of transfer Claire Tuggle, who comes over from Virginia after swimming personal best times (in her primary events) for the first time in five years last season.
Tuggle broke 49 seconds for the first time in the 100 free in February, clocking 48.99 to give USC an option on the 400 free relay, but her individual impact in this section will come in the 200 free, where she lowered her 2018 PB (1:44.96 when she was 13) last year with swims of 1:44.81 and 1:44.95 at the 2023 Cavalier Invite.
If she’s able to continue to improve in Los Angeles, she could be a scorer in the event, with 1:44.47 being the top-16 cut-off at NCAAs last season.
Domestic recruit Macky Hodges focuses elsewhere individually, but does hold a 1:45.69 best time in the 200 free.
With Delgado and Tuggle both within striking distance of scoring, USC gets 1.5 stars here, though
DISTANCE FREE: ★★
USC has a big addition on the horizon in the form of multi-time European junior Merve Tuncel, though she won’t join the team until next season.
The distance group is currently headed up by Austrian Marlene Kahler alongside Kozan, and it will be enhanced with the addition of Tuggle and Hodges.
Kahler swam personal bests in both the 500 free (4:40.57) and 1650 free (16:13.73) at the Art Adamson Invite last season, with the 500 time under the NCAA scoring line (4:40.81), but couldn’t back them up in the postseason.
Kozan will likely lean towards racing the 200 IM individually but did clock 4:41.09 in the 500 early last season, while Hodges comes in with a lifetime best of 4:43.51.
The big addition this year is Tuggle, who set a personal best of 4:40.41 last season, which is fast enough to earn a second swim at NCAAs (qualifiers 10th-16th were between 4:40.43-4:40.81 at NCAAs in 2023).
In the mile, Tuggle swam the event for the first time since 2016 at ACCs, clocking 16:15.91, and she could be an outside threat to score (16:02.99 cut-off last year) if she focuses on it.
Hodges certainly has the potential to make an impact in the 1650 (16:42 LCM 1500 best time), though the 200 back might make more sense for her Day 4 event.
USC only had one swimmer entered in each backstroke event at NCAAs last season, and Hanna Henderson DFS’ed the 100 back and then Ashley McMillan added a bunch of time and finished 51st in the 200 back.
With best times of 52.95 and 1:54.42, Henderson is a solid backstroker for the Trojans and can be relied upon for big Pac-12 points.
Hodges has some potential to make an impact, coming in with backstroke times of 53.38/1:54.23.
McMillan produced times of 54.42/1:55.69 in her freshman season, and given her long course pedigree in the 100 (1:00.00 PB), we could see her take a step in her sophomore campaign.
But in terms of NCAA points, USC has no clear scorers this season.
With 31 points between the two events last season, USC had a four-star breaststroke group with Dobler and Odgers, but they’ve lost half of that equation this year. Dobler will be back for this season and next, but Odgers wrapped up her eligibility in March.
Dobler may not have repeated as the NCAA champion in the 100 breast, but she is coming off a very impressive season that included a new lifetime best in the 200 breast (2:05.66) and coming within .01 of her PB in the 100 at the Art Adamson Invite (56.94).
On top of that, she was on fire this summer, placing third in the 50 breast and 100 breast at U.S. Nationals while adding a fourth-place finish in the 200, narrowly missing a spot on the World Championship team.
If she can hit her taper at NCAAs, she’s a slam-dunk ‘A’ finalist in the 100 and 200 breast, with legitimate title hopes in the 100 and she’s really not far off in the 200.
Things really thin out behind her, with no recruits projected to make an impact and Katherine Adams the next-fastest returner with 1:01.0/2:11.4 times from last season.
Dobler on her own gets 3.5 stars, as she’s not quite a lock to average out fourth-place finishes in the two events (to reach the 15-point floor for four stars), but she could easily hit that and even surpass it if she’s on. The 17 points she scored last year seems like the low end of what she can do this year, and her best times would result in double that (34 points for four stars), so somewhere in the middle feels about right.
Just like backstroke, USC only had one entrant per event in the fly races at the 2023 NCAAs, as Delgado placed 41st in the 100 fly and Kozan took 38th in the 200 fly.
If she was at her season-best (52.03), Delgado would’ve been within earshot of a second swim in 23rd, while Kozan’s 1:54.91 swim from Art Adamson would’ve actually made the ‘B’ final.
Kozan is also coming off a solid long course performance at U.S. Nationals, nearing her 2019 PB in 2:10.34, and could easily be under her SCY best of 1:54.28 from 2021 this season, which would put her in the fight for an ‘A’ final spot.
Hodges, who is so well-rounded she’s seemingly a contender to race anything but breaststroke at taper time, does have some fly potential with times of 53.84/1:56.74, both set this past December.
Given that it only took 1:55.18 to score last year, Kozan should be able to push USC into scoring position in the 200 fly to earn them two stars.
Despite the departure of their top IMer last year in Odgers, the Trojans should be in good shape given the form Kozan has shown this summer.
She swam season-best times of 1:56.62 in the 200 IM and 4:09.33 in the 400 IM at her debut Pac-12s, placing fourth in both events, and then had small adds at NCAAs (1:57.00/4:11.25). Her 400 IM time from the conference championships is under what was required to score last year (4:09.61), and her PB of 4:05.67 would’ve comfortably made the ‘A’ final.
In the 200 IM, she wasn’t far off her best time of 1:56.31 last season, and would likely need to get down into the 1:55s to secure a scoring spot at NCAAs, though she’ll certainly be in the mix.
McMillan also has scoring potential after swimming respective times of 1:57.29 and 4:11.21 in her first season swimming yards, while the incoming freshmen should also factor into the equation.
Hodges owns a PB of 4:09.29 in the 400 IM, good enough to score, and that seems likely to be one of her focuses individually.
USC’s diving outlook is strong considering Nike Agunbiade is returning to use her fifth year of eligibility, a massive sigh of relief given they’re losing their top point scorer from the 2023 NCAAs in Carolina Sculti.
Agunbiade, who made history last season by becoming the first black woman to win two Pac-12 diving titles, will be in the running for the NCAA platform title this season, having placed ninth, sixth and fifth over the last three years. She’s scored double-digit points in all three of her NCAA appearances, led by last year’s 18-point haul, and her presence will play a pivotal role in the Trojans’ NCAA success this season.
The Trojans did nothing spectacular in the relays last season, but they were very consistent by placing between 10th and 12th in the four shorter events, opting not to field an 800 free relay at NCAAs (they went 7:06.03 at Pac-12s, which would’ve been 1.2 seconds shy of scoring).
In the 200 medley relay, they managed to match their time of 1:35.52 from the Art Adamson Invite at NCAAs to place 10th, fielding a lineup of Caroline Famous, Dobler, Delgado and Henderson who will all return this season.
The 400 medley relay saw Aria Bernal lead off Dobler, Delgado and Henderson en route to a season-best time of 3:29.56, also placing 10th, where Famous could take over backstroke duties or Henderson could swap out of free in favor of Abraham.
The free relays were also solid, with Delgado, Henderson and Dobler all returning from last year’s lineup in the 200 free relay, and they’ll just need someone (likely Abraham) to fill in for Elise Garcia. That’s also the case in the 400 free relay, where freshman Hannah Kuchler anchored the team home last season at NCAAs in 48.58 (with no Dobler).
As a whole, USC’s prospects in the 200 and 400-yard relays look similar to what the results were last year—a team that’s capable of breaking into the top eight, but is a safe bet to be in the 10-12 range.
And with the additions the team has made in Tuggle, Hodges and Abraham to go along with Kozan’s abilities, they should be able to field a scoring 800 free relay this year. Even Delgado, known for her sprints, had 1:45-mid and 1:46-low splits last season.
Total Stars: 18/40
Most of the USC’s core from last season remains intact, which is a big positive, but in terms of NCAA points, losing Sculti and Odgers is a big blow to their hopes of retaining a top-12 finish.
Big seasons from Kozan and swimmers such as Tuggle, McMillan and Henderson continuing their improvement would go a long way to Trojan success in 2023-24, with Dobler, Delgado and Agunbiade being relied upon to continue what they’ve been doing.