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.
#10 Auburn Men
Returning Fifth-Years: Aidan Stoffle (14 NCAA points, 67.5 SEC 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 2022-23 season was the Auburn men’s best since 2016. Two years after not scoring any NCAA points, the Tigers clawed their way back into the top 10. Both their 10th-place showing at NCAAs and their runner-up finish at SECs were their best performances since 2016. At NCAAs, they scored more points than they have in the last three seasons combined, showing their rebuild was moving faster than we thought.
Their success, particularly at NCAAs, was a full team effort. They had just one ‘A’ finalist at NCAAs. So, they weren’t relying on just one or two swimmers—their place in the standings came from everyone doing their part.
As such, the relays were the backbone of Auburn’s NCAA points. They had more than double the individual scorers they did in 2022, but about 64% of their 127 points (82) came from relays. Eighty-two relay points is more than both Stanford and Virginia Tech—the teams just ahead of Auburn—scored. Every one of those relay points mattered as they had to beat Ohio State in the 400 free relay to secure a position in the top 10.
That’s not to say their swimmers didn’t have strong individual performances. Among them, Nate Stoffle went sub-45 in the 100 backstroke for the first time, Aidan Stoffle won the 200 back NCAA ‘B’ final, and Evan McInerny qualified for the 200 fly NCAA consolation final in 16th before vaulting to 12th. It’s just to point out that Auburn is best understood as a team where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Sprint Free: ★
Here’s a wild fact–if you want to be sure that you’re getting a second swim at NCAAs in the 50 freestyle, you better be breaking 19 seconds in prelims. Last year, it took 19.04 to make the final, a significant drop from the 19.16 it took in 2022. In the 100 freestyle, it took 41.95 to qualify for finals, and 1:32.61 in the 200 in Minneapolis.
Those times are why this preview starts on a rough note for Auburn. None of their sprinters have hit any of those three times, and given the speed returning to the NCAA for 2023-24, they can’t rely on a regression to help them out. Despite that, Auburn has reasons to be positive about their sprint group heading into this season. For the 50/100 freestyle, they’ve got a solid 1-2 in sprinters Logan Tirheimer and Kalle Makinen.
Tirheimer, a rising senior, is closest in Auburn’s sprint group to breaking the 19-second barrier. He’s swum a personal best in the 50/100 free each of his three years at Auburn. In the 50, he went a PB of 19.05 at the 2023 SECs and ultimately tied for seventh. At that meet, he also went a best in the 100 free, clocking 42.59. Meanwhile, Makinen holds bests 0f 19.20/42.62. He’s also thrown down multiple sub-19 splits on relays, the fastest of which is his 18.37 from anchoring the 200 medley relay at NCAAs.
Tirheimer and Makinen both swam their best times before NCAAs. And in Minneapolis, though both had qualified for three individual events, they each only swam the 50 free and DFS’ed the rest, presumably to focus on the relays. Given their roster compared to others in the top 10, it’s likely we’ll see a similar tactic from them this season. For Auburn, the relays–which we’ll get to in a bit–are key. That makes Tirheimer and Makinen crucial parts of their roster.
Rather than having 50/100 swimmers that climb up to the 200, Auburn’s 200 free swimmers tend to be distance guys who drop down. That includes Michael Bonson, who owns the fastest 200 free time on Auburn’s roster–1:32.77. He swam that time leading off Auburn’s 800 free relay, and it would’ve just missed qualifying for the individual race.
Behind him, Ryan Husband and Mikkel Gadgaard own respective bests of 1:33.38 and 1:33.84. Husband is their 50/100/200 freestyle guy, slashing 19.77/43.17/1:33.38, making him a valuable relay asset for Auburn. Mason Mathias and Danny Schmidt own times in the 1:34 range, but have been substantially faster on the relays. Mathias split 1:32.07 and Schmidt was 1:33.60 at NCAAs. Both swam over a second faster than their flat-start bests of 1:34.00 and 1:34.94, signaling that there’s room for both to drop in the event.
Overall, all the Tiger sprinters need to drop if they want to make individual finals, but when teamed up they’ve shown they can produce solid relay results.
Distance Free: ★★
Last season, Auburn put two swimmers into the 500 freestyle ‘B’ final. Mathias finished 15th and Bonson was 16th, off the personal bests they swam in prelims. In those prelims, Mathias swam a school record of 4:12.15, and Bonson hit the #2 time in school history with a 4:12.50.
Both return this season and together they form the backbone of the Auburn distance group. One thing that they’ll be looking to improve on this year is sustained performance at NCAAs. The two swam very well on the first two days of the meet, swimming their fastest times in the 500 free and 200 free splits on the 800 free relay. However, they were off their bests in the individual 200 free, and added even more time in the 1650 free. Mathias finished 17th in the 1650 at NCAAs, just outside scoring position. However, if he’d swum his personal best (14:42.99 from 2023 SECs) he would’ve been ninth.
Auburn also has junior Grant Davis in their distance group. He qualified for NCAAs in both distance events after hitting 4:16.98/14:51.37 bests last season. He added time at NCAAs last year, but one thing in particular worth watching is his mile time. His 14:51.37 marked the first time he’d been sub-15:00 in his career–a 9.11-second drop. It took 14:48.63 to score at NCAAs last year; so, if Davis continues to improve and do it at the right time, he’s another potential NCAA scorer for Auburn.
Backstroke is one of Auburn’s strengths, thanks to the Stoffle brothers. And with Aidan Stoffle staying at Auburn for a fifth year, he and his brother Nate Stoffle again form a solid 1-2 punch in this discipline.
N. Stoffle was Auburn’s lone ‘A’ finalist at the 2023 NCAAs, taking eighth in the 100 backstroke (45.38). His lifetime best stands at 44.89 (also the school record) from leading off the 400 medley relay at 2023 SECs. He’s followed closely by his older brother, who finished 12th at NCAAs in a personal best of 45.09.
It’s the reverse in the 200 back, with A. Stoffle leading the way. He was the Tigers’ best individual point scorer at NCAAs, racking up 14 points. Those points were courtesy of a pair of backstroke ‘B’ final appearances, which were highlighted by his ‘B’ final win in the 200 back. He clocked 1:39.30, a new personal best and the #2 time in school history. N. Stoffle didn’t make the 200 back finals, but his best time (1:40.03) from earlier in the season would’ve landed him in the ‘B’ final with an eventual 13th-place finish.
Aidan and Nate Stoffle qualified for NCAAs in three events: 100 back, 200 back, and 100 fly. Both scratched the 100 fly, avoiding a double with the 100 back. That seems to suggest that they’re more focused on backstroke at the moment, or at least believe it’s where they have the chance to score the most points. The decision paid off last season, and they’ll be hoping for similar (or better) results this season.
This is where Reid Mikuta‘s departure is really going to hurt. Mikuta has scored at NCAAs the last two seasons, finishing 10th in the 100 breast in 2023. He has bests of 51.06/1:52.09 and was easily the fastest breaststroker on the roster last season.
Without Mikuta, Auburn will likely turn to junior Henry Bethel. An NCAA qualifer, Bethel has swum PBs in the 100 breast during both his freshman and sophomore campaigns. Last season, he broke 52 seconds for the first time at SECs, then lowered his personal best again at the Bulldog NCAA Qualifier to 51.93. He followed that up by finishing 23rd at NCAAs–which Auburn will be hoping he improves on this year.
In the 200 breast, they have a trio of 1:55s. That includes Bethel’s 1:55.19, Jacques Rathle‘s 1:55.76, and Alejandro Flores‘ 1:55.08. All three scored at 2023 SECs, with Rathle–who is primarily an IMer–best placed of the group at 15th. There were only 33 men entered in the event, and it took 1:58.16 to earn a second swim. So, the three are safe bets for SEC scoring, but need to have big seasons if they want to get involved at the NCAA level, where 51.66/1:52.26 made finals.
They’ve also got three breaststrokers in their freshman class, giving Auburn a busy breaststroke group. Liam Heary is the fastest of the three, having already swum 54.43/1:58.03 before he arrives on campus. His classmates will be good training partners for him–Avery Henke‘s swum 54.96 in the 100 breast and Britton Spann‘s been 1:59.44 in the 200. Developing all three into both NCAA and SEC scorers may take more than a season, but it’ll be an important part of Auburn maintaining its current position.
Tirheimer and the Stoffle brothers all scratched the 100 fly at the 2023 NCAAs, leaving Auburn with no swimmers in the event. It was a calculated call, which paid off. Not only was the finals qualifying time (45.24) faster than any of them have been, Aidan and Nate Stoffle made finals in the 100 back, and Tirheimer got a session off to stay fresh for the relays.
A. Stoffle has the fastest PB on the roster; his 45.68 is the only one on the roster sub-46. Depending on how the season goes, we could see him opt for the 100 fly instead of the 100 back on Day 3 of NCAAs. But, as he’s already proven he can make finals in the backstroke, it would certainly take a big PB to see that happen. His brother, with a 100 fly best of 46.33, will almost certainly stick with the 100 back. So, while all three are poised to once again score at SECs, the 100 fly will probably continue to not be their NCAA focus.
The 200 fly is a different story. NCAAs is already an unpredictable event, but the 200 fly–the last individual event on the last day–can take the chaos factor to new heights. In prelims last year, nine swimmers went 1:42. Evan McInerny surprised by making it back for finals, finishing 16th in prelims by a hundredth. He moved up in finals to 13th, ultimately scoring 4 points for the Tigers. Both of those swims were within two-tenths of the 1:42.22 best he swam at the Bulldog NCAA qualifier.
Mathias is their second-fastest 200 flyer (1:42.95), but with the mile on the same day; don’t expect to see him take on that double. Instead, it’s sophomore Danny Schmidt who looks to take advantage of the morning chaos in the 200 fly. He’s a bit outside the action right now, with a 1:43.25 best that he swam at NCAAs. Schmidt is from Germany, and it will be interesting to see what gains he’ll make this year with a full season of yards training under his belt.
Auburn’s also padded out their butterfly group with freshmen Andrew Billitto (47.40/1:48.49) and Harrison Ranier (48.28/1:49.65). They’ll both have to drop if they want to score at SECs, where it took 46.93/1:45.84 to make it back last season.
NCAA qualifiers Rathle and Schmidt return in the IMs this season. We’ve talked about both in other disciplines, but IMs are their primary events, with Rathle branching out to the 200 breast and Schmidt to the 200 fly. The two both went personal bests in the 200/400 IM last season. Rathle got under 1:44 in the 200 IM for the first time, swimming 1:43.90 at SECs. He followed that up with a 3:41.74 in the 400 IM at the Bulldog NCAA qualifier. Had he done that at NCAAs, he would’ve been just outside of the finals picture.
In addition to his 200 fly best, Schmidt swam a PB in the 200 IM at NCAAs, clocking 1:44.09. He owns a 3:42.99 best in the 400 IM, and like we said earlier, a full year of yards training could do a lot to keep his momentum going and drop those times. If they want to get in on the action at NCAAs, Rathle and Schmidt need to not only drop time, but also be at their best at NCAAs.
Bethel scratched the 200 IM at NCAAs, but he did qualify for it, and he scored at SECs, swimming a personal best 1:45.15. Now the fastest breaststroker on the team, that’s likely where Bethel’s focus will be this season. It’s a solid third event for him at the conference level though.
Heary currently projects as a breaststroker whose third event is the 200 IM. He has a best of 1:48.61, faster than both Ranier (1:49.00) and Henke (1:49.77). The freshmen’s development in the IMs will be something worth keeping an eye on, especially at the fall invite. IM is a discipline where Auburn stands to pick up a lot of ground, and developing the freshmen is one way to do that. In the SEC, the 400 IM is a light event–only 27 men swam in prelims–so that’s an event where it’s easy to pick up some extra points in what’s shaping up to be a tight conference race.
Conner Pruitt finished 11th on the 3-meter board at NCAAs and was Auburn’s lone NCAA scorer on the boards. However, he doesn’t show up on the roster, so it doesn’t seem that he’s taking a fifth year. His fellow NCAA qualifier Walker Creedon seems to have made the same choice.
It’s not just them who’s gone though. After 24 seasons, Jeff Shaffer retired as head diving coach. John Fox, most recently the head coach and CFO of Moss Farms Diving Club, has the reins now. How he makes the transition from club to college coach will dictate a lot about how the season goes for the Auburn divers.
They’ll be looking from big seasons not only from returners Hunter Kebler and Whit Andrus, but also their newcomers Talan Blackmon and Alex Just.
Relay success is an important benchmark for the depth of any program, particularly one in a rebuild. It’s safe to assume the relays will remain a focus for Auburn this year, as they are the team’s greatest asset in maintaining a place in the top 10.
So, it’s even more important for the relays’ sake than the individual events that they find a replacement for Mikuta. It’s a big ask– Mikuta split 22.84/50.53 on the breaststroke legs of the medley relays, which were the sixth and fifth-fastest splits in the field, respectively. Again, on paper, it looks like it’s Bethel the Tigers will turn to. It’s unrealistic to expect him to fire off the same splits as Mikuta did, but they’ll need him to be at his best to keep them in the mix.
Aside from that, the Auburn relays are in pretty good shape. The only other NCAA relay leg they’re losing is Mihalis Deliyiannis‘ 18.85 anchor on the 200 free relay. As things stand right now, that relay spot will likely belong to either A. Stoffle or Husband. The two both swam personal bests last season, hitting 19.75 and 19.77 to rank fourth and fifth fastest on Auburn’s roster, respectively.
That means they return all four legs of their All-American 800 freestyle relay. Bonson (1:32.77), Husband (1:33.20), Mathias (1:32.07) and Schmidt (1:33.60) clocked 6:11.64, lowering their own school record and earning the team’s first true All-American honor since 2018, and the first in that event since 2017. None of the members of this relay qualified for finals in the individual 200 free, but together, they finished top-8 in the NCAA. It’s a perfect example of Auburn’s ability to be better than the sum of its parts.
Eighth was their highest relay finish last season, but their lowest was only 12th (400 medley relay). They return 17 of 20 NCAA relay legs, giving them plenty of reasons to expect similar results.
Total Stars: 15/40
Only 15 stars make things look more grim than they actually are. There are lots of reasons for Auburn to be positive about the upcoming season, and to expect that they’ll continue to build on the success they’ve already had under head coach Ryan Wochomurka.
A team that only had one ‘A’ finalist at NCAAs last year is always going to have fewer stars the way that we’ve designed our system. However, it may just be that our system just simply isn’t the best metric for a team like Auburn. Wochomurka told us post-NCAAs that if the aim is to build a national contending team, “you have to build around relays first,” because they score double. That’s been Auburn’s strategy, and they’ve found a way to effectively use the depth they have to get results. Our points system doesn’t weigh relays heavier than individual events, so on paper, Auburn looks less successful than they have been.
They’ve also proven that they know how to commit to this strategy and maximize their points. Plenty of their swimmers scratched individual events to stay fresh for the relays, where their swims would make more of an impact. They also made the right moves with swimmers like the Stoffle brothers, who scratched the 100 fly and went on to score in the 100 back.
They haven’t lost too many pieces this season, and developing their freshmen will be key. It’s still going to be a fight to stay in the top 10, but other teams on their national tier look shaky, as they get hit harder by Olympic redshirts. That could play right into Auburn’s hands; they’ve proven they’ll take full advantage of each opportunity that arises.
Men’s Preview Index:
|Team||Sprint Free||Distance||Backstroke||Breaststroke||Butterfly||IM||Diving||Relays||Total Stars|
#10 Auburn Tigers