According to some college swimming enthusiasts, the women’s NCAA crown has been all-but settled for some time now.
Read the comments section of any recruiting article over the past few seasons and you’ll get a strong sense that Stanford should be the runaway favorites for this year’s NCAA title, if not for a streak of several years.
And while it’s true that Stanford has ruled recruiting for the past several seasons and that the Cardinal still are the clear frontrunners for the title, recent swims by California have made that frontrunner status far less cut-and-dried as it has appeared the rest of this season.
Solving the Breaststroke Problem
The headliner, of course, is the 1:36.83 200 medley relay that Cal used to throttle USC this week. It’s not even a season-best time for Cal, but a swim that fast at this time of year is still significant for a number of reasons. The first is that it’s almost a full second faster than any other team in the nation has been this January, and a second and a half faster than any other team went in January of 2016, including eventual NCAA champs Stanford, who were no faster than 1:38.2 during that month.
It’s also a growing sign that Cal has perhaps fixed its breaststroke problem, a weakness that has held back the team’s medley relays for years. By using Abbey Weitzeil on breaststroke, Cal has been able to secure a 27-low split, already nine-tenths of a second faster than Cal’s breaststroker went in the NCAA finals last year. (Cal finished 2nd to Stanford in that race by three tenths). Weitzeil’s season-best breaststroke split of 27.07 is faster than all but 5 splits from last year’s NCAA finals. And because Farida Osman gives the Golden Bears so much depth in the 50 free, using Weitzeil on the breaststroke leg doesn’t leave Cal without a stud anchor, like some other breaststroke-deficient teams who have tried the “throw-your-best-sprinter-into-breaststroke” strategy. (Looking at you, Florida men…)
But it’s not just that medley relay showing a spark for the Golden Bear women. Cal currently leads the NCAA ranks in two relays (400 medley and 200 free) and ranks no lower than 3rd in any of the five relays. Beyond that, the running NCAA ranks show Cal as a relatively tight match with a loaded Stanford team.
Despite Stanford’s dominance in sprint recruiting (and the return of Olympic champ Simone Manuel from redshirt), Cal is able to match the Card with 3 swimmers in NCAA scoring position in the 50. Weitzeil is currently #2 nationwide, Osman #10 and Amy Bilquist #16. Though Stanford is far better in the distance races (thanks to world-beater Katie Ledecky), Cal outranks a tough Cardinal backstroking group by putting two swimmers in the top 8 of the NCAA ranks in both backstrokes. Bilquist sits #1 in the 100 back, and Olympian Kathleen Baker and Bilquist hold the 1 and 2 spots in the 200 back.
Both teams are bad at breaststroke, but Cal at least has #8-ranked Marina Garcia to its credit while Stanford has no one even in the top 30 in either breaststroke. And to top it off, Cal has no less than four 100 butterflyers inside the NCAA’s top 12, including national leader Noemie Thomas.
Scoring out the NCAA Championships (based on current NCAA ranks) through our Swimulator tool shows Stanford winning, but only by a scant 38 points over Cal.
Those rankings don’t include diving (where Stanford is traditionally better), but also doesn’t account for any major changes that could happen in the coming months. Recall that at this time last year, no one realized Cal would be swimming the postseason without an injured Katie McLaughlin, or that Stanford would DQ its NCAA title-winning 200 free relay, which turned into a 46-point swing in Cal’s favor, and a 42-point swing against eventual champs Georgia.
The Recruiting Lag
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time a team was hailed the inevitable champs due to strong recruiting efforts only to see things much closer in reality than it appeared in the crystal balls of fans. The team in question most recently? Those same Cal Bears.
Remember when coach Teri McKeever recruited Elizabeth Pelton and Rachel Bootsma and Kristen Vredeveld and Osman and Celina Li and Garcia and Missy Franklin and Thomas and Cierra Runge and Baker and Bilquist and McLaughlin all in a span of four years? At that point, the recruiting comments were almost identical to what they are now, only for a different program. Fans were concerned the NCAA would lose all parity, that Berkeley would be untouchable for a decade, that college swimming would become predictable and less fun.
That group – for a number of reasons – only turned out to account for just a single NCAA title, in 2015. But one result of that stellar recruiting spree was that one phenomena became much more apparent: the recruiting lag, or the idea that there was a noticeable lag between a huge recruiting haul and the corresponding results in the pool.
It makes sense at a base level. Freshmen in the NCAA are wildly unpredictable. Some swimmers immediately respond to a new environment and drop staggering amounts of time. Others take a year or two to find their footing and adjust to the myriad changes in training, setting and lifestyle. Some never find the stability they had earlier in their careers. For that early Cal crew, it took a number of years for the talent accumulated in recruiting to fully show itself in NCAA results. In some ways, the current California roster is finally experiencing the full effect of those recruiting classes, even with big names like Franklin and Runge no longer on campus.
Perhaps the same will be true for Stanford. It’s already been two and a half years since the absurd Manuel/Janet Hu/Ally Howe/Lindsey Engel/Heidi Poppe class showed up on the Stanford campus, and the Card has yet to win an NCAA title. Is this the year the seeds sown in recruiting finally blossom into national championship dominance? Or is the “recruiting lag” longer than we as fans and media tend to expect? Ironically enough, it may be the very Cal program that set up this idea of recruiting lag that determines the answers for the current Stanford group.
All this, of course, is a very longwinded way of saying what swimming fans (and sports fans in general) already know: nothing is certain. It’s the unpredictability of sports that keeps us continually on the edge of our seats. NCAA titles are never decided until March. And that fact could make the next three months an incredibly exciting roller coaster ride that none of us will want to sleep on.