2024 W. NCAA Previews: Can OSU Throw a Wrench in UVA Medley Relay Dominance?

by Mark Wild 15

March 19th, 2024 College, News, Previews & Recaps

2024 WOMEN’S NCAA SWIMMING AND DIVING CHAMPIONSHIPS

Women’s 200 Medley Relay

  • U.S. Open Record: 1:31.51 – Virginia (G. Walsh, A. Walsh, L. Cuomo, K. Douglass) 2023
  • American Record: 1:31.51 – Virginia (G. Walsh, A. Walsh, L. Cuomo, K. Douglass) 2023
  • NCAA Record: 1:31.51 – Virginia (G. Walsh, A. Walsh, L. Cuomo, K. Douglass) 2023
  • 2023 NCAA Champion: 1:31.51 – Virginia (G. Walsh, A. Walsh, L. Cuomo, K. Douglass) 2023

The UVA women have not lost a relay at an NCAA Championship meet since the opening night of the 2022 NCAAs when they placed 2nd to Stanford in the 800 free relay. Since then, they have gone eight for eight, winning the three remaining relays in 2022 and sweeping the lot last year.

Last year, the Cavaliers won this event convincingly. The quartet of Gretchen Walsh, Alex Walsh, Lexi Cuomo, and Kate Douglass erased the entirety of the record board, taking down the U.S. Open, American, and NCAA records. Their time of 1:31.51 won by nearly a second and a half and broke their own record of 1:31.81 set at the 2022 ACCs.

Virginia lost both Cuomo and Douglass to graduation but return both of the Walsh sisters. The question is, do either of them swim this relay? Remember you can swim a maximum of seven events, of which a maximum of three can be individual. It is an interesting question and made a little more interesting as their relay record streak may come to an end if they don’t load this relay, but if they make that decision, they may be putting themselves in a great position to capture the one relay record they don’t own: Stanford’s 800 free relay time of 6:45.91.

“To be, or not to be…”

Don’t come at me, OSU fans. I know we usually start with the team or swimmer at the top of the rankings (and OSU will get there due), but this relay is all about Virginia, or rather it is all about Gretchen Walsh.

Walsh, who did not swim on this relay at ACCs, instead swam the fastest 50 freestyle split ever (19.95) as well the fastest 100 back (48.10) and the 3rd fastest 200 freestyle ever (1:40.23). If Todd DeSorbo decides to use Walsh on the relay, Virginia should be the out-and-out favorite for the title, but that is a big if.

At ACCs, the Cavaliers went with the squad of Reilly Tiltmann, Jasmine Nocentini, Carly Novelline, and Maxine Parker. The quartet finished in 1:33.84, well off the team’s times from 2023, but they still did enough to win ACCs and take the #2 seed heading into Wednesday night.

While two seconds slower than the time from last year, the addition of fifth-year transfer Nocentini, who split a blistering 25.49, a time that ranks her behind only Lily King. For reference, on the record-setting NCAA relay last year, Alex Walsh split 26.30.

If they opt to use G. Walsh, she would instantly improve either the backstroke or freestyle legs, as Tiltmann went 24.28 (Walsh’s first 50 split in the 100 was 22.96) and Parker went 21.27.

Gretchen is not the only Walsh that could make an impact if brought into the relay, as her sister Alex Walsh‘s opening fly split from the 400 medley relay (22.52) was faster than Novelline’s 22.80 from ACCs.

The case against using the Walsh sister on the relay is that UVA was only .37 away from tying the NCAA record in the 800 free relay, and with both relays occurring in the same session, swimming the medley may be harmful to the team’s chances of accomplishing that goal. One fellow SwimSwam writer posited that G. Walsh should be left off the 400 free relay as UVA is deepest in the 100 free, and the team of Nocentini, Aimee Canny, A. Walsh, and Parker could battle for the title in the 400 without using G. Walsh. UVA could also choose not to use the younger Walsh sister on the 800 despite her blistering 200 free as the UVA team of Canny, A. Walsh, Tiltmann, and Ella Nelson won the 800 free relay by nearly a second last year.

“There is a time in the affairs of [wo]men…”

Numerous teams can certainly jump into the void left by UVA in the relay (should they not use their best possible line-up), but no one is more hungry than perhaps the top-seeded Ohio State. Usually, the top seed would receive more fanfare and billing, but with UVA being the defending champion and record holder and having the star power of the Walsh sisters, OSU may be sneaking in under the radar.

After starting the Big Ten Championships with a massive bang, taking down the conference championship record in the 200 medley by posting a time of 1:33.47, faster than their 4th place NCAA time (1:33.94), OSU finished in a disappointing 2nd place to rival Indiana by just half a point.

That relay comprised of Nyah Funderburke (23.61), Hannah Bach (25.92), KitKat Zenick (22.45), and Teresa Ivan (21.49) all swam at NCAA last year, and all but Zenick were faster last month than at NCAAs, hopefully meaning that the quartet can drop even more time, although several teams behind them in the rankings may not have been fully tapered and could leapfrog them.

The only other team with an entry time under 1:34 is the team from Cal, which, like OSU, reset its own conference championship record. The team of Isabelle Stadden (23.64), Jade Neser (26.24), Mia Kragh (22.42) and Stephanie Akakabota (21.59) came together to stop the clock in 1:33.89. A time that is nearly a full second faster than the 1:34.75 that Cal swam to 6th place last year at NCAAs, with the only difference being the anchor leg with Akakabota taking over for Emma Davidson, who transferred to Texas for their 5th year. Like OSU, only one leg was slower at PAC-12s than at NCAAs in 2023, with Stadden being just .07 away from her personal best and similar to OSU, this can be seen as a double-edged sword, Cal seems to be in a much better position than last year but also may have already shown what they can do in this relay.

“Cry Havoc…”

After the top three, this event gets messy, like real messy. The teams seeded 4th through 7th are separated by just .15 of a second, and all of the top seven are within three-quarters of a second of one another.

Katherine Berkoff (photo: Jack Spitser)

Finishing runner-up last year in a time of 1:32.42, nearly a full second behind UVA but also nearly a full second clear of 3rd place, was the team from NC State. Seeded just 7th this year, the Wolfpack used a very different order at ACCs this year. Star backstroker Katharine Berkoff slid to the freestyle leg while last year’s anchor, Abby Arens, jumped into the breaststroke. With Berkoff being the team’s fastest freestyler and backstroker and Arens placing highest in the 100 breast and 100 fly at ACCs, the other two legs will certainly be the Achilles heel of this team. Kennedy Noble put in a respectable 23.80 lead-off time, but it is a far cry from the 22.88 Berkoff swam last March.

Also seeded below their place of finish last year is Texas. Finishing in 3rd in a time of 1:33.22, the Longhorns enter as the 5th seed with a time of 1:34.14, a time that was not accomplished at Big 12s (1:34.47) but rather at their home mid-season invite. The entirety of that bronze medal-winning team returns to the NCAAs, but some questions circle on whether Olivia Bray will swim the backstroke as Emma Kern got the nod for the A relay at Big-12s (24.26), but Bray did swim a faster 50 from a time trial (24.02).

Two teams already much faster than their times from last March are #4 USC and #6 Florida. USC swam just 1:35.52 last year finishing 10th, but have already been as fast as 1:34.07, also from the Texas Invitational. The same quartet was a little slower at Pac-12s, posting a time of 1:34.52, with Kaitlyn Dobler being over .5 slower, so if she can dip back under 26, then USC could make their way into the top three.

On the other hand, any time Florida posted this year has been faster than what they swam last NCAAs as the team was DQed (splits add up to 1:35.25). Entered this year with a time of 1:34.18, the Florida Gators might not have the out-and-out sprint talent needed to crack the top 3 but have depth enough to have both Bella Sims and Isabel Ivey not swim this relay and still have a squad post a time of 1:34.25, with Aris Runnels and Micayla Cronk stepping in for the aforementioned Sims and Ivey at the 2024 SEC Championship.

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be..”

With the top seven separated by less than one second, it’s going to be hard for anyone in the five or six spots below to try to breakthrough, especially since all of them are either missing a key piece or lacking that one true star to push them into that upper echelon, but that’s not going to stop them from trying.

Teams like Louisville, which finished 5th last year, and Alabama, who finished 7th last year, either don’t return those key legs that help support their strongest swimmers or have, in fact, lost their stars. Abby Hay of Louisville went 23.75, leading off last year, but has been replaced with Karoline Barrett‘s 24.55 (from ACCs). However, Louisville, who is entered as the #13 seed, could sneak up into the top 8 if the back half of Christina Regenauer and Gabi Albiero can get back to their times from last year. Alabama, on the other hand, has lost both Rhyan White and Kalia Antoniou and while they swam a strong 1:35.32 at SEC, they find themselves ranked just 12th and lacking in that big trusted star to drop another second.

Tennessee, which finished 11th last year (1:35.62), finds itself in the unenviable position of being the number eight seed. They returned the front three legs from last year’s NCAAs and add in Florida transfer Katie Mack. At SECs, Mack anchored the Tennessee Lady Vols to a second-place finish in a time of 1:34.89, just a few tenths slower than her time at NCAAs for Florida (albeit her -.04 reaction time likely caused the DQ). All of the other legs for Tennessee have improved upon their splits, so while Tennessee may be the lowest on paper in the top eight, their improvement curve, as compared to last year, should give notice to some teams.

“The Game’s Afoot…”

I won’t couch these previews too much, but I know that much of it all of it revolves around the Walsh sisters. If Gretchen swims this relay, UVA will move to the front easily. If Alex hops into the fly leg, then UVA improves, but not as by much. If neither do, which seems like a possible course based just upon their line-ups at ACCs, then this relay will be a great start to the meet and a great ruin-er of many of your pick’ems. However, as mentioned above, whatever relay Gretchen Walsh is left off, UVA still has a chance of sweeping the relays again. As for OSU, they had a great swim at conferences, but can they capture that magic again? Despite swimming faster than their 4th place finish last year, the squad’s time now would still have placed them 4th, so they have more work to do to pierce that top three.

SwimSwam’s Picks

Place Team Season-Best 2023 NCAA Finish
1 Virginia 1:33.69 1st – 1:31.51
2 Texas 1:34.14 3rd – 1:33.42
3 Ohio State 1:33.47 4th – 1:33.93
4 USC 1:34.07 10th – 1:35.52
5 Cal 1:33.89 6th – 1:34.75
6 NC State 1:34.22 2nd – 1:32.42
7 Florida 1:34.18 DQ
8 Tennessee 1:34.89 11th – 1:35.62

Dark Horse: Auburn – While it may have been easier to pick Stanford as their ranking is not based on their conference time as they were DQed or go with the aforementioned Louisville, who I suspect may just as likely place in the top 8 as not, the squad from Auburn has quietly been putting up so fast times and rank 10th in this event with their 1:35.25. The team finished just 19th last year in a time of 1:37.00 and the three returning legs have all been faster already this year.

Women’s 400 Medley Relay

  • U.S. Open Record: 3:21.80 – Virginia (G. Walsh, A. Walsh, K. Douglass, A. Canny) 2023
  • American Record: 3:22.34 – Virginia (G. Walsh, A. Wenger, A. Walsh, K. Douglass) 2022
  • NCAA Record: 3:21.80 – Virginia (G. Walsh, A. Walsh, K. Douglass, A. Canny) 2023
  • 2023 NCAA Champion: 3:22.39 – Virginia (G. Walsh, A. Walsh, K. Douglass, A. Canny)

Logic would dictate that by doubling the distance, the difference in times between the top eight would roughly double as well (give or take). However, logic doesn’t take into account UVA. Less than a second separated #1-7 in the 200 medley, yet UVA is the top seed in the 400 by nearly two and a half seconds. In that same span from 1st to 7th, the gap is nearly seven seconds, more than half a pool length.

UVA’s dominance in this event is unquestionable. They are the two-time defending champs in the event and the only team to have ever been under 3:23, let alone 3:22. They are also the only team that has had multiple relays where three legs have been under 50.00. Stanford appears to have done it once: in the 2023 Pac-12, where Claire Curzan went 49.26, Torri Huske went 49.74, and Taylor Ruck went 46.85. NC State has been close, but I couldn’t find a time when both Berkoff and Kylee Alons were under 50 at the same time.

UVA did so at least twice in 2022 when they set the American Record, and then again last year twice, and again this year at ACCs, where they swam 3:22.49, just .10 off their winning time from last year.

While much of this event’s preview will contain many of the same names and teams, the vastly larger spread differences in seeds times and the very different nature of swimming 100s as compared to 50s means some teams may see their odds increase while other fall by the wayside.

“For whoso hath too much of any good…”

This relay is very unusual for UVA in a way. They could easily take the title but still seem as if they didn’t accomplish enough. At ACCs, the quartet of G. Walsh (48.10), Nocentini (57.82), A. Walsh (49.13), and Parker (47.44) swam a speedy 3:22.49, despite Nocentini’s split being slower than her individual 100 (57.01). Parker could remain on the relay but could also find her spot filled by Aimee Canny, who took on a light relay load at ACCs but split 47.27 on this relay last year. (Parker did split 47.04 on the 400 free relay at NCAAs, so it’ll likely fall to who the coaches think is swimming best).

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Virginia is essentially a lock. However, last year’s 2nd through 4th teams are unlikely to repeat in that same order.

The safest among the three is Texas, who finished 3rd last year in a time of 3:25.18 and is entered just .07 off that time with a 3:25.25 from the Texas Invitational. The back two of that relay seem to be locks, with Emma Sticklen and Kelly Pash swimming on both of the mentioned relays. The front half, however, will likely fall to whoever has the best performance in the individual 100. Last year, Lydia Jacoby got the nod over Anna Elendt, but with Jacoby red-shirting the first half of the year, Elendt has had a lot more yards racing and swam on the A relay at Big 12s, but Jacoby enters with the faster individual seed time 57.27 vs 57.51, respectively. The backstroke likely falls to freshman Berit Berglund, who has a season-best of 50.77, meaning that last year’s backstroker Olivia Bray will likely not swim. Bray entered in the individual 100 with a time of 51.70 but has a personal best of 50.61, so relay decisions may come down to the wire.

In a more dangerous position are NC State and Stanford, last year’s runner-up and 4th place finisher. Stanford is entered as the 16th seed and is in danger of not scoring, but this situation was not unexpected and is not a result of poor performance by the swimmers; they just lost to graduation, transfer, or redshirt the entirety of their line-up. Curzan and Huske red-shirted, Allie Raab finished her eligibility, and Ruck announced an end to her NCAA swimming.

NC State will look to defend their runner-up trophy but is greatly hurt by the departure of Heather MacCausland and Alons. Last year, Arens swam the freestyle leg but now shifts to the breaststroke, and Berkoff swapped out of the back and into the free. NC State last year did a great job covering their weakness but the cracks are beginning to show. Arens, who has placed as high as 9th in the 100 fly, having to cover the freestyle and now breaststroke legs, and the move of Berkoff, the prohibitive favorite in the 100 back to freestyle, just shows the importance of a strong breaststroker in the medley. Seeded 8th with a 3:28.23, NC State has its work cut out for them, but if Miriam Sheehan can swim closer to her PB of 51.67 than the 53.05 she swam on the relay, NC State could remain on the podium.

“All the world’s a stage…”

Texas, already mentioned, has two strong breaststrokers, both hailing from far away; Elendt is from Germany and Jacoby is from Alaska (I know it’s in the United States, but it’s still far away). And like Texas, the two teams expected to make the biggest moves up the rankings from last year both went across the ocean to find their breaststrokers, coincidentally both of them come from Ireland.

Leading the charge for the #2 seeded Tennessee team is Mona McSharry. The Irish national record holder and Olympian helped power Tennessee to a new SEC record of 3:24.92, splitting a ridiculous 55.94, making her the only swimmer to split under 56.00, save Lily King, who has done it on multiple occasions.

McSharry is not doing it alone, however. Backstroker Josephine Fuller was out nearly a second faster at the 2024 SECs than she was at the 2023 NCAAS. First-year swimmer Camille Spink dropped a speedy 46.33, which is more than a second faster than last year’s equivalent split. Brooklyn Douthwright took on the fly duties at SEC, going 51.70, but if Sara Stotler can replicate her 51.18 from last year’s NCAA, Tennessee should easily be in contention for runner-up.

McSharry’s countrywoman Molly Mayne followed her to the SEC but landed in Gainsville and helped shore up a weakness for the Gators. While not as fast as McSharry, Mayne has helped fill the reoccurring issue for the Gator medley relays and split 58.88 to help the team place 2nd at SECs in a time of 3:25.16.

Mayne, however, is not the only new face to the relay. The addition of the versatile Bella Sims and Isabel Ivey elevate any relay they are on, and together will prove to be a tough obstacle to overcome. Sims, who barely missed Rhyan White‘s SEC record in the 100 back of 50.02, and Ivey, who nearly entered the 45-second realm (46.09), were joined by perhaps Florida’s secret weapon, Olivia Peoples. Peoples, who has dropped over a second in her 100 fly over the course of the season, split 50.12 at SECs and will clash with the Texas Trio for 2nd in the individual event.

Both teams find themselves seeded in better positions than their placing from last year 2nd and 3rd as compared to 5th and 7th and with Texas make a firm top four along with UVA.

“I am but mad north-north-west”

With a difference of over 1.5 seconds between 4th and 5th, we have our likely top four. One must go North and West from Athens, Georgia (where the meet is being held) to find our next set of contenders.

More than a second behind 4th but more than a second ahead of 6th is USC. The Trojans, who placed 10th last year, have relied upon Kaitlyn Dobler to lead their medley relays but have started to build a stronger group around her, whether that be by marked improvement or new additions. Dobler split just 57.27 on their Pac-12 winning relay (3:27.28) but threw down a blistering 56.38 at the Texas Invitational (3:26.90). Joined with Caroline Famous‘s emergence as a suitable backstroker and Minna Abraham‘s arrival, USC will certainly look to improve up last year’s 10th.

Shadowing USC by one spot in both last year’s results and this year’s psych sheets is USC’s northerly neighbor Cal. Much like in 200 medley, Cal has reloaded and their seed time of 3:28.05 is nearly two seconds faster than their 11th place finish last year (3:29.96). Isabelle Stadden is looking like she is back on track and Leah Polonsky‘s 47.20 from Pac-12’s is over a second faster than their anchor leg last year.

North of Athens, Georgia, is the Big Ten Champ, Ohio State. While seeded 1st in the 200, OSU’s straight-up sprinting prowess finds them seeded 7th. The team is seeded with a 3:28.10, which was swum at their mid-season invitational and relied upon a speedy anchor from Amy Fulmer (46.40) and a swift 2nd leg from Josie Panitz (57.63) but may, like Texas,, wait for the dust to settle in the individual 100 breast as Hannah Bach is seeded higher and took on the relay duties as Big-10s.

“The Game’s Afoot… Part 2”

While the 200 preview held a lot more uncertainty, especially regarding Virginia, the 400 is much more clear.

Virgina should and is the clear favorite, but the next two rungs are a little more muddled. Do you go with the experience of Texas or look to the youth of Florida? Can Tennessee get all four legs firing and hold both of them off, or for that matter, can USC do the same and jump into the fray? I give the nod to Texas to place runner-up, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Tennesse jumps them. I think it all comes down to the middle legs and if Jacoby or Elendt can try to match that 55.94 of McSharry’s, and if they can, how much of a lead can Sticklen give Pash to try to hold off Tennessee’s anchor Spink and for that matter Florida’s Ivey.

SwimSwam’s Picks

Place Team Season-Best 2023 NCAA Finish
1 Virginia 3:22.49 1st – 3:22.39
2 Texas 3:25.25 3rd – 3:25.18
3 Tennessee 3:24.92 5th – 3:27.92
4 Florida 3:25.16 7th – 3:28.36
5 USC 3:26.90 10th – 3:29.56
6 Cal 3:28.05 11th – 3:29.96
7 Ohio State 3:28.10 6th – 3:28.18
8 NC State 3:28.23 2nd – 3:24.66

Dark Horse: Louisville – Louisville is seeded 12th at 3:30.28, and while Albiero can hopefully drop more than half a second in her fly split, Louisville will desperately need Cecillia Viberg to swim closer to her 100 individual entry time (59.66) than her time from her 20th place finish at ACCs (1:01.81). They could use Ella Welch, who was given the nod to swim the relay at ACCs was just 1:00.54 and will be at the meet but is only entered individually in the 50 free.

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CavaDore
2 months ago

UVA should 100% take Gretchen off the 400 FR to swim the 800 FR instead and keep her leading off the 200 MR. For the 400 FR, Canny and Parker can split 47s and Walsh and Nocentini could split 46s or faster (maybe not faster than 46 at the end of the 4 day meet though) and still win. If UVA had missed the 800 record by 2 seconds or more they wouldn’t potentially load the 800, but they should want to start off strong on night 1 with two relay wins and having another crack at a legendary record that they just missed.

Last edited 2 months ago by CavaDore
Aragon Son of Arathorne
2 months ago

short answer, no. Long answer, no. Both Walsh’s, Nocentini, and fill ins like Maxine and/or Canny for freestyle make them unstoppable.

Juan Cena
2 months ago

No

oxyswim
2 months ago

Bray’s backstroke hasn’t been as sharp this year (she’s been racing it way less so that’s probably w why), and Elendt hasn’t been as good either. I don’t see Texas in 2nd.

the olden days
2 months ago

Could be my afternoon cup of coffee but Mark Wild absolutely crushed this preview.

Kudos!

Mr. One Millionth Comment
2 months ago

Go Buckeyes!

Swimmer I.M.
2 months ago

I feel that the chance that OSU wins over UVA is very very slim. Now I believe if you have a lane you have a chance so I’m not saying it’s impossible I’m just saying it’s highly unlikely. OSU has had a great season and KitKat is swimming very well right now but I just don’t feel that they have the depth to beat UVA (especially when they are fully suited tapered and trying to defend their title). The Ohio girls are certainly capable of it but it will be very difficult not just for them but for anyone. I feel that if there were to be an upset it would most likely be either Florida or Texas beating UVA… Read more »

iLikePsych
2 months ago

I wouldn’t have thought Gretchen would be on the 800 before ACCs, but I see the logic now with their depth in the 100 free. Gretchen on the 200 Medley should be enough to secure them to where they can put Alex on the other 4 relays. Only question is if the double on Wed will tire Gretchen out too much especially if she goes ham and dies leading off the 8 like at ACCs

oxyswim
Reply to  iLikePsych
2 months ago

The 200 medley is first, that doesn’t detract at all from the 800 free relay so Gretchen should be fine if they decide to do both and leave her off a different relay. I’d argue that their depth is actually in the 200 FR more so than the 100. I would bet on Canny, Parker, Nelson, A Walsh (Tiltmann at her best is in that relay conversation as well) to beat Florida, just a matter of how much holding all 5 relay records matters to UVA.

Swimfan27
Reply to  iLikePsych
2 months ago

Agreed. Hadn’t thought about leaving her off of the 400 free relay, but if the goal is to win all 5 relays, then it does make sense…

I think regardless of what Gretchen does, they’ll leave Alex off the 200 medley relay. She’s too valuable in the other 4, and Nocentini seems to have that breaststroke spot locked up. Pretty sure they can find a few more tenths in the fly leg without Alex, but they need Gretchen for that backstroke split tbh.