Over the next few weeks, as the Long Course season closes out, new freshman are arriving on campus, and fans everywhere ramp up for another exciting NCAA Season, we will be running a team-by-team preview of the upcoming NCAA season. Starting with the no.12 teams and finishing with the defending National Championships (Texas men and Florida women) we will work our way down the top finishers from last year’s NCAAs and will also jump into some rising teams that we expect to break into the top tier this season. Click here to see the other women’s previews, and click here to see all of the previews, Men’s and Women’s.
Key Losses: Lauren Boyle (38 NCAA Points, 1 NCAA Relay), Alexandra Ellis (7 NCAA Points, 2 NCAA Relays), Heather White (15 NCAA Points)
Key Additions: Cindy Tran (Backstroke/Sprint Free), Melissa Bates (Breaststroke/Sprint Free/IM), Stephanie Au (Mid-Distance Free), Nathalie Lindborg (Sprint Free), Deborah Roth (Backstroke, Sprint Free)
2010 Revelations: At the beginning of the 2009-2010 NCAA season, The Cal women’s swim team was coming off of an NCAA Championship, but lacked a real collegiate superstar. Sara Isakovic, who was the silver medalist in the 200 free in Beijing, was well-known, but had finished no higher than 6th individually the year before. Liv Jensen and Hannah Wilson were key relay parts, but neither had become a standalone superstar. The now-graduated Lauren Boyle was one of the better distance swimmers in the nation, and was the biggest individual performer on this team; but even a top distance swimmer can only help so much on relays.
California didn’t know if they had a hammer: a swimmer who could score 45+ points, plus hammer down 3 or 4 NCAA Relays. Someone like Dana Vollmer in the National Championship season, or similar a Gemma Spofforth/Annie Chandler/Allison Schmitt/Julia Smit/Julia Wilkinson type that the other top teams had.
New Leadership: By the end of the season, however, Cal had found that hammer; were only 20 points away from an NCAA Championship; and will be entering 2011 loaded with big names. Jensen, who towers over most of her competition at 6’3, is the defending champion in the 50 free (22.04) and third in the 100 (47.77), and for the next two seasons will make Cal a contender in every relay she’s on. Isakovic has been stuck on the same bubble for a few years now, and it’s time for her to bust out some top-3 NCAA finishes in the 200 free and butterfly events (David Rieder believes that she shows up on 3-year cycles: 2005 World’s, 2008 Olypics). Sophomore Caitlin Leverenz had a total breakout at the 2010 USA-Swimming National and Pan-Pac Championships. She was the bronze medalist in both IM distances at Pan Pacs, and was also 7th at NCAA’s in the 200 breaststroke. She’ll go for 45+, and 3 A-finals, this year.
Relays: Wilson, a senior, is developing into one of the best sprinters in the country, which gives Cal a powerful 1-2 punch on the 200 yard free relay. Last season, she split as fast as a 22.1 in the 50 free at NCAA’s. Along with junior Colleen Fotsch, who was a 22.5 in NCAA finals, and Erica Dagg, who was 22.2, they will return a 200 free relay that will be very hard to beat by anybody in the nation.
The medley relays will prove to be a little tougher road for Cal. They’ve got what is arguably the best back half in the country returning, with Jensen locking down the freestyle and either senior Amanda Sims (3rd, 51.85) or Wilson (5th, 52.11) on the butterfly. Their front half last year, however, is what hurt them in these relays. Their backstroker was the aforementioned Fotsch, who was sort of thrust into the position last season by default, despite not being a true backstroker. Her split in the NCAA finals last season (53.89) was the slowest in the A-final and third-slowest in the event overall. Alexandria Ellis, who has since graduated, was a good but not great breaststroker. Her 1:01.5 at NCAA’s in the individual 100 breaststroke placed her 24th, although she split much better (1:00.4) in the relay: good for 5th best.
But with Ellis gone, Cal is left without a returning NCAA participant in either the 100 yard backstroke or 100 yard breaststroke.
Powerful Freshman: Enter two of the most outstanding freshman in the country: Cindy Tran and Melissa Bates. As a senior in high school, Tran shattered one of the most impressive and longest-standing high school records on the books when she beat Natalie Coughlin’s 100 yard backstroke time by 1.01 seconds. That means that Tran demolished a record, in textile, that withstood all of the suit developments that took place in the 12 years since it was set; and was held by Coughlin: A Cal alum who is the best backstroker in the history of the United States, if not the world. Her time of 51.85 would have placed her third at NCAA’s last year.
Tran’s 200 time, 1:56.1, puts her in the top 30 at NCAA’s based on last year’s times, and she should get to a B-final there. She also has a lot of potential in the 100 fly, 54.6, and could be a surprise in the sprint freestyles. As a senior in high school, her bests were a 23.30/50.6, but I have to believe that if she can go a 51.8 in the 100 backstroke, she can get down to a 48 in the 100 free.
Bates went a 1:01.66 in the 100 breaststroke as a senior, which will make her the Golden Bears’ number-one breaststroker this season. The 100 breastsroke is always a very tight event, but it took a 1:00.8 to B-final last year, which Bates should have no trouble getting to. Bates will also excel in the 50 free (23.28) and 200 IM (2:00.4).
International Connection: The third top-50 recruit for the Bears is Stephanie Au from Hong Kong. It is no accident that she ended up at Cal, as she is a 2008 Olympic teammate of Hannah Wilson. Wilson, who was born in and grew up in Hong Kong, renounced her British citizenship prior to the 2008 Games to compete for Hong Kong internationally. Between the two swimmers, they hold every Hong Kong freestyle record except for the short-course meters 50 free, and have teamed up for two National record-setting relays.
Au is a middle-to-distance freestyler, but is especially good in the 200. At the 2008 Olympics, she went a converted 1:45.6, and despite the backslide in suit technology, two years older and stronger should means she would have no problem getting back to at least that time as a freshman at Cal. That will be important for the Cal 800 free relay, which lost a 1:45.1 (relay start) 200 freestyler in the graduated Boyle. In the short-course meters 400 (40th) and 800 (19th) she ranked among the best in the world during the 2009-2010 winter season. Her long course conversions in the mile (16:31) and 500 (4:42)-albeit fairly unreliable for these two distances-make her a B-finalist threat in both.
This freshman class gives Cal a legitimate opportunity to win four relays at NCAA’s. The exception would be, of course, the 800 free relay, which is a veritable lock for Georgia, who will have one of the best NCAA relays ever assembled next season. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it happening, because relays are so unpredictable, but the Golden Bears are certainly in the conversation for every single other relay. The 200 free relay, which was third last season, is the only A-finalist that returns all four A-relay swimmers. The 400 free relay was second by a mere .3 seconds behind Stanford, who lost their anchor Julia Smit.
The 200 medley was fourth (although they may have dropped as low as sixth without two DQ’s in finals) but all of the squads ahead of them lost at least half of their relay members. The 400 was the lowest finishing, in seventh without Liv Jensen, but will get two-seconds better by the addition of Tran alone.
In most years, the 800 free relay would be a favorite for the title, but they happened to run into the Bulldog-buzzsaw this year. Despite, it’s unlikely that anyone will knock them out of second place, and they could break 7 minutes.
The Best of the Rest: Tran isn’t the only All-American backstroker in this class, as Cal also adds Deborah Roth. Roth had senior-year bests of 23.3/50.2 in the short freestyles, and had a 53.3 100 backstroke. Despite being hugely overshadowed by classmate Tran, this time in the 100 back is fourth-best in the class; is just outside of an NCAA B-final time from last season; and will help turn backstroke from Cal’s biggest weakness last season to one of their biggest strengths.
As if Cal wasn’t already impressive enough in the sprint events, they are bringing in Nathalie Lindborg from Sweden. She is a member of the Swedish National Team that is one of the best pure sprint programs in the world. This includes training with Therese Alshammar, who had the World’s best times in 2010 in both the 50 fly and 50 free. In the 100, Lindborg went a converted 49.5 at Euro’s, and in the 50 she just missed the semi-finals with a converted 22.52. At worst this season, she gives Cal relay depth and flexibility; perhaps allowing them to rest some swimmers during prelims at NCAA’s. At best, she scores in both events individually and steals spots in both sprint free relays: making Cal even more formidable there.
In total, the class of 12 (2 divers and 10 swimmers) features 10 freshman from California and 2 international imports.
Diving Disparity: At NCAA’s last year, Cal didn’t get any points from diving. Junior Molly Hayes has an outside chance of qualifying for NCAA’s in the 1-meter this season, and incoming freshman Kahley Rowell is a former Jr. Nationals qualifier on platform, and could contribute down the road, but Cal isn’t anticipating much NCAA scoring from their divers this season.
2011 Outlook: Cal is one of a handful of teams in the nation that are National Title contenders on the women’s side, which is much more wide-open than the men’s. They should be seeing a minimum of 170 relay points, which is 16 more than last season. Depending on freshman development, they could see as many as 8 individual medals. All told, Cal will probably beat out their point total from last year by about 30, and be just under the 400-point range. The question is whether or not 390 points will be enough to win this year. Last season, they were a quality diver away from a National Title, and this could bite them again this season. In a meet that could see the top 4 teams separated by 10 points or less, this will be a tough hill to climb. Another top-three finish is a definite, but beyond that it’s too close to call right now.