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.
#1 VIRGINIA CAVALIERS
Key Additions: Jasmine Nocentini (Northwestern transfer – breast/sprint free), #4 Cavan Gormsen (NY – distance free), #5 Tess Howley (NY – fly/back), BOTR Lainey Mullins (DE – IM/fly), BOTR Maggie Schalow (CA – fly)
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.
Virginia absolutely dominated the 2023 NCAA Championships with a 127-point margin of victory over Texas for the program’s third national title in a row — the first to pull off a three-peat since the legendary Stanford squad from 2016-18.
Between senior Kate Douglass (60 points), sophomore Gretchen Walsh (57 points), and junior Alex Walsh (53 points), the Cavaliers boasted three of the top four scorers at NCAAs. That trio, along with senior Ella Nelson (48 points), represented their “Big Four” as the quartet combined for a whopping 218 points.
Sixth-year head coach Todd DeSorbo & Co. developed a ton of depth with a dozen different Virginia scorers at NCAAs, featuring breakout performances by freshman Aimee Canny (3rd in 200 free), Georgia transfer Maxine Parker (5th in 200 free), and freshman Emma Weber (8th in 100 breast). Reilly Tiltmann (6th in 200 back), Anna Keating (7th in 200 breast), and Abby Harter (7th in 200 fly) repeated their ‘A’ final efforts from years past. And that depth paid off big-time in relays as the Cavaliers became the first team to sweep all five relays since Stanford in 2018.
Yes, they lost their superstar in Douglass as well as a key contributor in Lexi Cuomo, but there are reinforcements on the way. Northwestern graduate transfer Jasmine Nocentini chose Virginia as her fifth-year destination over the offseason, and a pair of top-five recruits also arrived on campus this fall.
Sprint Free: ★★★★★
G. Walsh leads the Cavaliers’ sprint crew after winning the 100 free (45.61) and earning a runner-up finish in the 50 free (20.85) last season as a sophomore. The only swimmer who beat her at NCAAs was Maggie MacNeil (20.79 50 free), who’s exhausted her collegiate eligibility, leaving Walsh as the favorite in both events this season.
South Africa’s Aimee Canny dropped nearly four seconds in the 200 free as a freshman, culminating in a 3rd-place finish (1:42.50) at her first NCAAs. Less than a second behind her was Georgia transfer Maxine Parker in 5th (1:43.48), who improved by almost a full second as a junior. Parker scored in all three sprint freestyle events with a 10th-place finish in the 100 free (47.72) and 14th-place finish in the 50 free (22.01) while Canny also placed 14th in the 100 free (48.10). Just scratching the surface in her first year swimming short course yards (SCY), Canny could be an ‘A’ finalist in three events this season with a personal-best 22.31 in the 50 free.
The loss of Lexi Cuomo hurts Virginia as she put up an 8th-place finish in the 50 free (21.71) and a 16th-place showing in the 100 free (48.31). But the Cavaliers found a gem in the transfer portal (two, actually, but Claire Curzan isn’t eligible until the 2024-25 season because she entered after the window closed) by snagging Northwestern grad transfer Jasmine Nocentini. The Italian fifth-year comes in with best times of 21.59 in the 50 free and 47.76 in the 100 free, which would have placed 6th and 11th, respectively, at NCAAs last season.
No. 4 recruit Cavan Gormsen is a distance specialist, but her best 200 free time of 1:44.48 (albeit from 2021) would have only missed last season’s NCAA ‘B’ final by one one-hundredth of a second.
Distance Free: ★★★★
If Virginia had one “weakness” last season, it was in the distance freestyle department.
Fifth-year Maddie Donohoe still made ‘B’ finals in both the 500 free (10th – 4:39.46) and 1650 free (15:56.83) as a senior for a total of 13 points, but she was the lone Cavalier scorer in those events at NCAAs.
Virginia addressed that relative shortcoming this offseason by adding No. 4 recruit Cavan Gormsen, whose personal-best 500 free time from March (4:36.34) would have won the NCAA title a day before. Her best 1650 free time from last December (15:57.20) would have placed 12th at NCAAs for a total of 25 hypothetical points.
However, Gormsen won’t be the favorite in the 500 free next season as Florida freshman Bella Sims owns a lifetime best of 4:28.64 from last December. Still, she’s a bonafide top-tier distance freestyler — something the Cavaliers have been missing since Paige Madden’s graduation in 2021.
Sophia Knapp showed potential last season as a freshman with a personal best 16:12.11 in the 1650 free at last November’s midseason invite, but she couldn’t replicate that speed the rest of the year. Perhaps she’ll get back on the improvement trajectory as a sophomore with another 10-second drop needed to reach NCAA scoring range (16:02.99).
G. Walsh ripped a stunning NCAA-record 48.26 in the 100 back to highlight a near-perfect performance in Knoxville. She had help, too, with fellow sophomore Reilly Tiltmann scoring in both the 100 back (12th – 51.46) and 200 back (6th – 1:50.84) for a total of 18 points.
The pair might soon be joined by a third backstroke scorer at NCAAs. No. 5 recruit Tess Howley has a lifetime best of 1:53.28 in the 200 back, only about half a second outside of scoring range from last season (1:52.76). She also goes 52.93 in the 100 back, within 1.4 seconds of scoring range (51.60). If Howley enjoys a breakout freshman campaign, she could single handedly elevate this group from four stars to five stars. For reference, Tiltmann dropped more than three seconds in the 200 back during her first season at Virginia while G. Walsh shaved 1.5 seconds off her best 100 back time as a freshman.
The Cavaliers are deeper than ever at breaststroke with the return of fifth-year Ella Nelson (3rd in 200 breast – 2:04.33) and the addition of Jasmine Nocentini (58.31 100 breast) from Northwestern. Nocentini would have placed 8th in the 100 breast at NCAAs with her personal-best 58.31 from last November’s Purdue Invitational, but her season ended early before Big Tens due to a shoulder injury.
Throw in junior Anna Keating (7th in 200 breast – 2:06.73) and freshman Emma Weber (8th in 100 breast – 58.95), and Virginia is looking at four ‘A’ final candidates across the two breaststroke events. They’re projected just under 50 points in total — leaving them slightly short of the 25 point-per-event threshold required for a five-star ranking — but all it would take to get them there is Keating or Weber adding a second scoring event.
Keating’s lifetime best of 58.81 in the 100 breast would have scored at NCAAs last season, but she hasn’t been sub-59 since starting college. Weber, meanwhile, only needs to drop a couple tenths off her personal-best 2:08.41 in the 200 breast to sneak into NCAA scoring range (2:08.30). Plus, considering Weber was even faster in the 100 breast at ACCs (58.61) compared to NCAAs (58.95), it wouldn’t be shocking to see her improve her placement in her primary event as well.
Texas was “Butterfly U” last season with three of the top five 200 butterfly specialists in the nation, but Virginia might be more deserving of that moniker this year.
Alex Walsh returns for her senior season as the runner-up in the 200 fly (1:50.23) with her sights set on dipping under the 1:50 barrier for the first time. Then there’s Abby Harter, who placed 7th in the 200 fly (1:53.56) as a junior and is only about a tenth of a second away from scoring in the 100 fly (51.71). And don’t forget about a stacked recruiting class of butterfly specialists led by No. 5 recruit Tess Howley, whose personal-best 200 fly time of 1:52.76 would have placed 6th at NCAAs. Howley’s lifetime best is from 2021, but she also posted an impressive 1:53.04 in December.
Howley has gone sub-52 in the 100 fly before, so it may not be long before she’s scoring in multiple events at NCAAs. Joining her in the freshman class is “Best of the Rest” butterfly recruit Maggie Schalow, a 52.56/1:56.75 talent already on the cusp of NCAA scoring range (51.62/1:55.18). “Best of the Rest” IMer Lainey Mullins isn’t far off, either, with her best 200 fly time of 1:57.02. If everything goes right for the Cavaliers this season, they could potentially have five scorers in the 200 fly.
Last season, A. Walsh and Nelson went 1-2 in the 400 IM (3:57.24/3:59.54) and 3-4 in the 200 IM (1:50.07/1:53.13) behind Kate Douglass and Torri Huske. Now that Douglass has graduated and Huske opted to use an Olympic redshirt this season, A. Walsh and Nelson are the favorites in both events.
The veterans also get some young blood in the IM group courtesy of freshman Lainey Mullins, whose best 400 IM time of 4:13.29 from March is only a few seconds outside of NCAA scoring range (4:09.61).
The Cavaliers graduated their best diver from last season in Jennifer Bell, a top-4 finisher at ACCs in the 1-meter and 3-meter. Their best returner, junior Elizabeth Kaye, was just outside of ‘A’ final range at ACCs in the platform (11th), 1-meter (13th), and 3-meter (15th). Virginia added a pair of freshmen — Ruby Borzekowski and Colorado 5A state champion Morgan Manley — but barring a major breakout, this unit does not seem slated for the national stage.
It will be a challenge for the Cavaliers to triumph in all five relays again without two of their three best sprinters from last season — Kate Douglass and Lexi Cuomo — but they have the tools to pull off another sweep.
Northwestern grad transfer Jasmine Nocentini figures to play a key role on Virginia’s sprint freestyle and medley relays. She swam one of the fastest 50 breast splits ever for Northwestern’s 200 medley relay last November at 25.79, quicker than what Alex Walsh went at NCAAs last season (26.30). Nocentini owns a best 100 breast flat-start time of 58.31 from last November as well, about a second and a half slower than A. Walsh’s breast split on the Cavaliers’ 400 medley relay at NCAAs.
Nocentini is also an elite freestyler with lifetime bests of 21.59 and 47.76 in the 50 free and 100 free, respectively. She might be the favorite to replace Douglass on Virginia’s 400 free relay at the moment, but South African sophomore Aimee Canny’s personal-best 100 free time (47.98) is only a couple tenths slower, so there will be some good competition for the final spot alongside Alex Walsh (personal-best 48.56, 46.58 split at NCAAs), Maxine Parker (personal-best 47.42, 47.02 split at NCAAs) and Gretchen Walsh (personal-best 45.61, 45.85 split at NCAAs). For the 200 free relay, both Nocentini and Canny (22.31 flat-start 50 free) will need to step up to replace Douglass (21.01 leadoff at NCAAs) and Cuomo (21.33 split).
The Cavaliers’ sprint freestyle relays could face some formidable competition from Florida’s Bella Sims and Isabel Ivey, but they should still be the favorites come next March. Virginia’s 800 free relay is in prime shape with all four of its members (Canny – 1:42.34, A. Walsh – 1:41.18, Reilly Tiltmann – 1:43.38, and Ella Nelson – 1:42.92) returning this season.
As for Virginia’s medley relays, the coaching staff has plenty of options for how to replace Douglass and Cuomo. G. Walsh is the top butterfly specialist on the team (22.86/49.34), but it’s tough to take her off the backstroke leadoff (22.65/48.26) because she’s currently the best on the roster in that discipline by an even wider margin. The next-best 50 fly time from last season belonged to Carly Novelline (23.81), the next-best 100 fly time belonged to Abby Harter (51.71), the next-best 50 back time belonged to Novelline (24.38), and the next-best 100 back time belonged to Tiltmann (50.90).
Total Stars: 34/40
It feels like the end of an era with Douglass gone, but a stacked recruiting class combined with a veteran core has the Virginia women looking like the makings of a true dynasty.
Many elite NCAA programs are plagued by redshirts during Olympic training years, but not the Cavaliers. They sent three women to Tokyo, all of whom competed in the NCAA that season and went on to win Olympic medals. Expect Paris 2024 to be a motivation rather than a distraction for this squad.
A fourth national championship would tie Virginia with Cal for the fifth-most ever. No program has pulled off a four-peat since Stanford nearly three decades ago (1992-96).
Women’s 2023-24 College Preview Index
|Team||Sprint Free||Distance Free||Backstroke||Breaststroke||Butterfly||IM||Diving||Relays||Total Stars|
|#1 Virginia Cavaliers||★★★★★||★★★★||★★★★½||★★★★★||★★★★½||★★★★★||★||★★★★★||34/40|
|#2 Texas Longhorns||★★★½||★★★★★||★★★★||★★★★★||★★★★★||★★★★★||★★★★||★★★★★||36.5/40|
|#3 Stanford Women||★★★||★★★||★||★★★||★★★||★★★||★||★★★||20/40|
|#4 Louisville Cardinals||★★★★½||★||★★||★||★★★★||★★★||★★★||★★★★½||23/40|
|#5 NC State Wolfpack||★★★||★★||★★★★½||★||★★★||★★★||★½||★★★★||22/40|
|#6 Ohio State Buckeyes||★★★★||★★||★★||★★★½||★★★||★★||★★||★★★★½||23/40|
|#7 Indiana Hoosiers||★★★||★★★★||★★||★★||★||★||★★★★★||★★★★||22/40|
|#8 Tennessee Volunteers||★★★||★★★★||★★★||★★★★||★★||★★||★||★★★||22/40|
|#9 Florida Gators||★★★||★★★★||★★||★★||★★||★★★★★||★||★★★★||23/40|
|#10 UNC Tar Heels||★||★||★★||★★||★★||★||★★★★||★★||15/40|
|#11 Cal Bears||★★||★★||★★★★||★||★★½||★★★½||★||★★★||19/40|
|#12 USC Trojans||★½||★★||★||★★★½||★★||★★||★★★||★★★||18/40|
|#12 USC Trojans||★½||★★||★||★★★½||★★||★★||★★★||★★★||18/40|