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 North Carolina Tar Heels
Key Additions: BOTR Samantha Armand (NC – breast), BOTR Ava Muzzy (VA – IM/breast), Mary Macaulay (CO – back/IM), Maren Conze (MD – distance free), Katja Pavicevic (UCSD transfer – breast), Alexandra White (Kenyon transfer – free), Delaney Carlton (UNC Asheville transfer – free)
Returning Fifth Years: Ellie VanNote (5 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays)
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.
North Carolina had its best season in more than two decades last year, as a combination of diving prowess, individual performances in the pool and consistent relays saw them crack the top 10 at NCAAs for the first time since 2001.
The Tar Heels placed 10th with 152 points at the Women’s NCAA Championships, with diver Aranza Vazquez Montano contributing nearly a third of those on her own, as the Mexican Olympian swept the 1-meter and 3-meter events while also placing 10th on platform for 47 points.
Grace Countie, who was a freshman on the UNC team that finished 42nd and scored just two points at the 2019 NCAAs, had a monstrous graduate season, scoring in all three of her individual events (24 points) while contributing on all four of the team’s relays.
Countie, whose highest finish was a sixth-place showing in the 50 free, was a key cog on the Tar Heel relays that had three top-9 finishes, highlighted by her 20.99 anchor on the 8th-place-finishing 200 medley.
The team also placed 9th in the 200 free relay, 9th in the 400 medley relay and 13th in the 400 free relay to get 66 total relay points.
After consecutive eighth-place finishes in 2020 and 2021, UNC produced their second straight fourth-place showing at the ACC Championships in 2023, with Vazquez Montano sweeping the diving events for 96 points while fellow diver Emily Grund put up 75 and Countie led all swimmers with 63.
SPRINT FREE: ★
The loss of Countie will really hurt UNC’s sprint free group this season, as she scored 15 of her 24 points in the 50 and 100 free.
Olivia Nel, who is entering her junior year, was the second-fastest Tar Heel last season in both events, with her 21.92 50 free under what it took to score at NCAAs (21.98). However, she was well off the mark when it counted, clocking 22.48 to tie for 43rd.
Nel was 48.42 in the 100 free last year (at the midseason Tennessee Invitational), which is just over four-tenths shy of NCAA scoring in 2023 (47.99).
Another rising junior, Greer Pattison, swam respective times of 22.22 and 48.55 last season to give the team two strong sprint options, and we also can’t discount the fact that Skyler Smith split 21.91 on UNC’s 200 free relay at NCAAs last season (Nel and Pattison were also sub-22). However, Smith, primarily a breaststroker, would need to essentially match that from a flat start to challenge for individual points in the 50 free.
The team will add Kenyon transfer Alexandra White to the mix, who may be a contender for a spot in the 200 free relay with a split as fast as 21.96 at the 2023 NCAC Championships, though her flat start best is back at 22.82.
Another transfer, fifth-year Delaney Carlton, qualified for NCAAs last season for UNC Asheville and owns best times of 22.07 and 49.43 in the 50 and 100 free.
The Tar Heels are relatively weak in the 200 free, evidenced by the fact they didn’t field an 800 free relay at NCAAs last year. They’re losing their fastest swimmer from 2022-23, Amy Dragelin (1:46.63), to graduation, making Ellie VanNote (1:46.90) their top returner, though she tends not to race it individually.
DISTANCE FREE: ★
UNC doesn’t have any distance swimmers projected to qualify for NCAAs this year.
Last year, it took respective times of 4:41.09 and 16:13.73 to earn NCAA invites.
The Tar Heels will add first-year Maren Conze to the mix this season—she owns a 500 free PB of 4:47.09, but that was set in February 2020.
UNC backstroke performed well last year, as not only did they score 14 points between Countie (100 back) and Sophie Lindner (200 back), but they also had four swimmers finish inside the top 24 at NCAAs in the 100 back.
The group will take a significant hit this season with the losses of Countie and Lindner, leaving them with zero returning points, though there’s hope some of that can be recovered.
Pattison and Nel, both entering their junior year, swam respective times of 51.96 and 52.19 in the NCAA prelims last season in the 100 back, putting them within striking distance of scoring (51.60 was 16th). At least of six of last year’s top 24 won’t be racing collegiately in 2023-24, so both have a solid shot to crack the top 16.
Pattison swam a PB of 51.93 at the Tennessee Invite, while Nel’s NCAA swim was more than a second under her previous best after she didn’t even race it at ACCs.
The team’s prospects aren’t as intriguing in the 200 back, where Lindner led the team by nearly four seconds last year in 1:51.72, a swim that earned her 10th in the NCAA prelims before she took 12th in the final (1:52.35).
Skyler Smith was UNC’s top breaststroker last season by a wide margin, and she enters her junior year with a chance at cracking the NCAA ‘A’ final in the 100 after she missed it by 11 one-hundredths in 2023.
Smith clocked a PB of 59.01 in the NCAA prelims to qualify for the ‘B’ final in 9th, and then she fired off a career-best 58.94 at night to take 12th overall.
Smith will be joined by incoming recruits Samantha Armand (1:00.6) and Ava Muzzy (1:01.2), along with grad transfer Katja Pavicevic (1:00.8) in the 100 breast, while Pavicevic highlights the 200 breast lineup with a PB of 2:09.06.
That time, which she produced to win the 2023 MPSF title, puts Pavicevic under the NCAA cutline and within eight-tenths of scoring position (2:08.30).
Armand (2:10.8) also brings a solid 200 breast to the table, while Smith was UNC’s fastest last season at 2:12.2.
Ellie VanNote returning to use her fifth year of eligibility is a big boost for UNC, salvaging a thin fly group that has no potential scorers outside of the Waxhaw native.
VanNote peaked early last season, setting new personal bests of 51.59 and 1:54.07 in the fly events at UNC’s dual with Duke in late January. However, she managed to hold that form reasonably well into March, scoring in the 200 fly at NCAAs with a 12th-place finish (1:55.04) after clocking 1:54.84 in the heats.
She also took 19th in the 100 fly (51.73), while her lifetime best would’ve snuck into the consolation final in 16th. In the 200 fly, her PB would’ve been 9th in the prelims.
The Tar Heels don’t have any swimmers in position to score in the medley events this season barring a significant time drop, with VanNote their only NCAA entrant last season.
She placed 26th in the 200 IM in a time of 1:56.97, which leaves her over a second shy of scoring (1:55.48).
Sowards (1:58.53) is the next-fastest returner on the team in the 200 IM, while Michelle Morgan (4:14.97) was their fastest swimmer in 2022-23 in the 400 IM.
UNC is gaining a pair of intriguing recruits in Ava Muzzy (1:59.5/4:12.7) and Mary Macaulay (1:59.0/4:15.0), with Muzzy having the potential to vie for NCAA qualification in the 400 IM if she can drop a bit of time.
Aranza Vazquez Montano put the team on her back last season by winning national titles in the 1-meter and 3-meter diving events and adding a 10th-place finish on platform, scoring 47 points to singlehandedly make this a four-star diving group.
With the loss of Countie, UNC’s relay prospects are significantly impacted for NCAAs, and between her and Lindner graduating, the team loses six of the 16 relay positions that earned them 66 points last season.
In the 200 free relay, Kenyon transfer Alexandra White is the top candidate to fill in for Countie, as she’s split sub-22 before. Countie led off in 21.77 at NCAAs last year, so if the team can get a sub-22 lead-off from Nel, they might not lose too much from their ninth-place showing in 2023.
They’ve also got Delaney Carlton joining the squad who has been 22.07 from a flat start.
In the 400 free relay, Pattison and Nel will need two additions with the losses of Countie and Lindner, plus they used another grad, Dragelin, over Lindner on the team at ACCs.
Georgia Nel and Sowards are the only other returners who broke 50 last year (and White’s PB is 50+), so the team will have to see some career-best splits dropped in order to score (3:14.77 was 16th last year, averaging 48.69).
Carlton can also fill in with a PB of 49.43 leading off UNC Asheville’s 400 free relay at last season’s CCSAs.
The medley relays are in better shape with only Countie being a key leg to replace on free, though her 20.99 NCAA anchor was a primary reason why UNC managed a top-eight finish last year in the 200 medley. With Pattison on back, Smith on breast and VanNote on fly, they can look to (Olivia) Nel to fill in on free.
In the 400 medley relay, they used Lindner on back last year but can swap in Pattison, while Nel can take over for Countie on free.
Despite not competing in the 800 free relay, last year’s total would make UNC a fringe four-star relay team after they piled up 66 points.
They project to lose a few places in each event, and given the nature of relay points being double, if they go from finishing 8th/9th/9th/13th to, for example, 10th/12th/12th/16th, all of a sudden they lose 30 points and get just two stars based on our format.
It’s difficult to see them field an 800 free relay at NCAAs after they went 7:08.66 last year at ACCs, nearly three seconds short of the ‘B’ cut, and will lose half of that squad this year. That really hurts their chances of getting more than two stars.
Total Stars: 15/40
Ultimately, beyond Vazquez Montano, UNC’s final result next season will largely hinge on the performance of their relays, and they’ll need Pattison and Nel to really perform without Countie to rely on.
In addition to fifth-year VanNote, the junior trio of Nel, Smith and Pattison will be their diving force in the pool.
It will be a bonus if transfers Alexandra White and Katja Pavicevic can make an impact at the NCAA level points-wise, while they’ve got a few talented recruits that will be ones to watch in future seasons.
Women’s 2023-24 College Preview Index
|Team||Sprint Free||Distance||Backstroke||Breaststroke||Butterfly||IM||Diving||Relays||Total Stars|
|#10 UNC Tar Heels||★||★||★★||★★||★★||★||★★★★||★★||15/40|
|#11 Cal Bears||★★||★★||★★★★||★||★★½||★★★½||★||★★★||19/40|
|#12 USC Trojans||★½||★★||★||★★★½||★★||★★||★★★||★★★||18/40|