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.
#11 Cal Golden Bears
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.
Cal’s rapid fall from the top of the NCAA went into hyperdrive last season. In 2021, the Bears finished outside of the top three at the Women’s NCAA Championships for the first time since 2008, placing fourth, and then after dropping to eighth in 2022, they placed 11th last season, the team’s lowest finish in 27 years.
The team was already in a state of decline prior to the news that head coach Teri McKeever was under investigation after numerous allegations of misconduct came to light in May 2022, but the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding the program really hurt their prospects in 2022-23.
Their top scorer of 2022, Isabel Ivey, ended up sitting out for the season before transferring to Florida, while they also lost Alicia Wilson (16 points in 2021), who did the same and has transferred to Texas for the upcoming campaign.
But for the Bears, it wasn’t all bad, as one of the best backstrokers in the nation, Isabelle Stadden, ended up coming back after briefly entering the transfer portal, and she turned out to be their top scorer by a wide margin in 2023 with 29 NCAA points.
Stadden placed third in the 200 back and sixth in the 100 back (setting a new PB of 50.73 in the prelims), and she also provided some key relay splits, including 21.63 and 47.99 in the sprint free events.
Stadden was also very impressive at Pac-12s, setting new lifetime bests (at the time) in the 100 back (50.79), 200 back (1:48.75) amd 200 IM (1:55.52), placing second in all three.
Also scoring individually at the 2023 NCAAs were Rachel Klinker, Leah Polonsky, Mia Motekaitis and Mia Kragh, who combined to chip in 16 points, while the relays had two top-six finishes and scored a total of 92 points.
Along with Stadden, Polonsky was a bright spot at Pac-12s with two conference titles in the 200 and 400 IM, while Motekaitis had three top-six finishes.
But after several years of piling up points, including 11 straight seasons of scoring at least 350 at NCAAs (2009-19), Cal’s total in 2023 was a mere 137. At Pac-12s, they fell outside of the top two for the first time since 2016, edged out by USC by seven points.
SPRINT FREE: ★★
With Emma Davidson transferring to Texas for her graduate season, Cal loses their top sprint freestyler from last year, as Davidson led the team with times of 22.21 in the 50 and 48.27 in the 100 free.
At the NCAA level, Davidson’s departure will be felt much more on relays, having contributed to all but the 800 free relay, but she was also an individual qualifier and placed as high as 26th (100 free).
McKenna Stone is one to watch in the 50 free after she had multiple 21-point relay splits last year. It took 21.98 to score last season, and her PB is 22.23 (from a dual meet), so there’s potential.
The Bears had four sub-49 100 freestylers last year, with Eloise Riley, Stadden and Emily Gantriis all returning to give them a solid base for the 400 free relay, but individually, there’s not much scoring potential.
That changes in the 200 free, where Mia Motekaitis returns as a fifth-year after earning a second swim last year, taking 16th at NCAAs. She set a lifetime best of 1:43.92 leading off the 800 free relay at Pac-12s, which is two one-hundredths shy of the ‘A’ final cut-off at NCAAs.
That gives the team one swimmer with a scoring chance in the sprint free events, but that appears to be all there is.
Ayla Spitz, who was 1:44.9 in the 200 free last year, has transferred to Northwestern for her graduate season, while returners Rachel Klinker and Leah Polonsky are capable of 1:44 splits but likely won’t race it individually.
DISTANCE FREE: ★★
Klinker (4:40.30) and Motekaitis (4:40.80) give Cal two returning scoring threats in the 500 free, with Motekaitis putting up three points last year by placing 14th at NCAAs.
The departing Spitz was their fastest swimmer last season at 4:39.93, done at Pac-12s, while Hungarian Fanni Fabian returns for her junior year after clocking 4:43.19 last season, just shy of her freshman PB of 4:42.46.
Incoming recruit Kathryn Hazle certainly has potential to make an impact here, entering with a PB of 4:45.09 set this past November, and she’s also strong in the 1000 free (though a non-championship event, it is valuable in dual meets, and her PB of 9:46.25 would’ve been tops on the team last year).
In the 1650 free, Cal is losing their only swimmer who hit an NCAA ‘B’ cut last season, Sarah Dimeco, so Hazle will be their primary option in that event, having logged a time of 16:33.29 last November.
In terms of NCAA scoring potential, it comes down to Klinker and Motekaitis, who both have a chance to finish in the top 16 of the 500 free, but with the majority of last year’s scorers returning, and several incoming freshmen who have been sub-4:40, it will be tough.
Stadden alone makes Cal’s backstroke group a four-star squad, having scored all of her 29 NCAA points last year in the back races.
As mentioned in the 2022-23 Lookback, Stadden was sixth at NCAAs last season in the 100 back, hitting a PB of 50.73 in the prelims, and also took third in the 200 back (1:49.38) after hitting a lifetime best of 1:48.75 at Pac-12s. Claire Curzan, who won the 200 back and was third in the 100 back last year, won’t be racing collegiately this season, increasing Stadden’s scoring potential. Stadden was also the second-fastest swimmer over the course of the season in the 200 back behind Curzan, so she’s certainly got legitimate title hopes there.
Annika McEnroe was an NCAA qualifier in both events last season, earning a pair of third-place finishes at Pac-12s with respective times of 51.97 and 1:52.61 in the 100 and 200 back.
Her 200 back time was actually under what it took to score at NCAAs (1:52.76), though she placed 28th in 1:53.69, while in the 100 back her Pac-12 time was within four-tenths of the scoring cut-off (51.60).
Another potential scorer is Motekaitis, who went 1:53.18 in the 200 back last year, within a half-second of NCAA scoring territory.
Breaststroke was a massive weakness for the Cal women last season, as they had no one swim it individually at NCAAs and Jade Neser was the only swimmer to make an ‘A’ final in either distance at Pac-12s (sixth in the 100).
Neser, who will return this season as a senior, put together a strong split in the 200 medley relay (26.67) to give the Bears a sixth-place finish at NCAAs, while her 59.57 split in the 400 medley relay was third-slowest among scoring teams (Cal placed 11th).
Brunzell figures to be an upgrade regardless, though she hasn’t quite been able to match the career-best form she showed in 2021, when she topped the ‘B’ final at NCAAs in a lifetime best of 58.50. She also took 10th in the 200 breast, recording another PB of 2:06.60, but didn’t qualify individually last season, producing respective season-best times of 59.76 and 2:10.11.
Last year’s scoring cut-off in the 100 breast was 59.19, so Brunzell really isn’t too far off based on what she did last year, but there are a plethora of women in the 59-second range.
She also went 59.11/2:08.09 during the 2021-22 season, so we’ll have to wait and see if last year was more of an anomaly or a sign that she’s declined.
Alicia Henry was Cal’s only woman other than Neser sub-1:01 in the 100 breast last season at 1:00, while she was the team’s fastest 200 swimmer at 2:12.30.
Cal has a solid base intact with four swimmers fast enough to score in butterfly last season, though only two of them managed to do so.
Mia Kragh set a personal best time of 51.38 in the prelims at NCAAs to make the 100 fly ‘B’ final, and had the second-fastest swim of her career to place 15th in 51.58.
Now entering her junior year, Kragh is a strong candidate to score once again next season if she can hold on to that form. In the 200 fly, she set a PB of 1:55.83 at the Minnesota Invite in December 2021, but really strayed away from racing it last season, only taking it on at Pac-12s where she failed to crack 2:01.
The 200 fly is where Cal is strongest, as Rachel Klinker led the way by placing third at Pac-12s as a senior in 1:53.57, and followed up by taking 11th at NCAs in 1:54.03.
Seto to return to use her fifth year of eligibility, Klinker was sixth at the 2022 NCAAs in a PB of 1:52.19, so she’s certainly capable of moving up into ‘A’ final territory this season (cut-off for top eight was 1:53.86 in 2023).
Leah Polonsky (1:54.44) and Lizzy Cook (1:54.70) both set personal bests at Pac-12s in times quicker than what was required to score at NCAAs (1:55.18), but finished 22nd and 25th, respectively, after adding over a second each.
Both have a chance to score here, and another swimmer who will add to the team’s depth here is incoming freshman Ava Chavez. Chavez’s 100 fly PB (53.21) is still well shy of NCAA scoring territory, but she is coming off of hitting a massive best time in the long course event at U.S. Junior Nationals in early August (59.49), so she’ll surely be one to keep an eye on.
The Golden Bears’ medley group is spearheaded by Polonsky, who owns an elite best time of 4:03.90 in the 400 IM from the 2022 Pac-12s. She added at NCAAs that year and finished 13th (4:06.82), and a similar scenario occurred last season, as she won the conference title in 4:05.27 before falling to 14th at NCAAs (4:06.94 prelim, 4:07.49 final).
In the 200 IM, Polonsky also won the 2023 Pac-12 title with a new PB of 1:54.02, ultimately taking 16th at NCAAs (1:56.34) after a 1:55.01 morning swim.
Both of her Pac-12 times last year would’ve been good enough to make the NCAA ‘A’ final, and if she can time her taper right, she’ll be in the hunt for a pair of top-five finishes in 2024.
Isabelle Stadden swam a PB of 1:55.52 in the 200 IM to place second to Polonsky at Pac-12s, though she was DQed at NCAAs (initially touching in 1:56.70). It took 1:55.48 to score at NCAAs, so she’s in the hunt.
Cal is also getting a likely NCAA scorer in recruit Kathryn Hazle, who owns a best time of 4:07.44 in the 400 IM which is too seconds under the 4:09.61 that placed 16th in the NCAA prelims.
Rising junior Fanni Fabian (4:11.80) is also within earshot of scoring, while freshmen Hazle (1:58.36) and Chavez (1:59.23) are also solid in the 200 IM.
With no divers listed on their 2023-24 roster and zero points from the 2023 Pac-12s, Cal fans shouldn’t expect any NCAA points here.
The Cal relay performed reasonably well last season, swimming perhaps slightly better than what you’d expect from an 11th-place team as they had a fourth-place showing in the 800 free relay and also took sixth in the 200 medley.
The Bears will lose a key relay piece from last year in Emma Davidson, who swam on all four 200/400 relays (freestyle on the medley), so that’s a gap they’ll need to fill in, likely either with McKenna Stone, Eloise Riley or Emily Gantriis.
Ayla Spitz had the fastest split (1:43.84) on the NCAA 800 free relay that placed fourth, so Cal will need someone to fill in there, possibly Riley or Hazle, so they’re likely to drop a few spots.
But overall, the Cal relays are more or less standing pat to where they were last year.
They were 10th in the 200 free relay, 12th in the 400 free relay and 11th in the 200 medley to supplement their top-six showings in the other two races.
Total Stars: 19/40
Isabelle Stadden will once again be a driving force behind how Cal fares this season, and although they’re adding two swimmers who could make a small splash points-wise in grad transfer Hannah Brunzell and freshman Kathryn Hazle, losing two key relay pieces in Emma Davidson and Ayla Spitz might just cancel that out.
Rachel Klinker and Mia Motekaitis coming back to use their fifth year of eligibility is significant, and will help Cal keep pace in the Pac-12 battle with USC, and those two, along with Leah Polonsky, could see a scoring uptick at NCAAs if they hit their taper right.
But more or less, the team is very similar to last year and will be hard-pressed to return to the top 10.
Women’s 2023-24 College Preview Index
|Team||Sprint Free||Distance||Backstroke||Breaststroke||Butterfly||IM||Diving||Relays||Total Stars|
|#11 Cal Bears||★★||★★||★★★★||★||★★½||★★★½||★||★★★||19/40|
|#12 USC Trojans||★½||★★||★||★★★½||★★||★★||★★★||★★★||18/40|