The biggest mystery at the start of any NCAA season is the freshmen. We know who was fast in high school, but swimmers don’t always translate junior success to the college level. With the major mid season invites behind us we can get a look at how the freshmen classes have been preforming so far. Who’s been making it work so far? How much can we tell from the performances we’ve seen so far about the end of the year?
To get an idea of the freshmen’s performance so far, I grabbed some data from our Swimulator tool. Swimulator runs a projection of the national meet based on the top times so far this season (respecting event limits and rational event choices. No diving). Analysis of the general men’s Swimulator projection and the women’s projection.
The current projection of NCAA’s has the freshmen women scoring 319 points. This is more than double the 155.5 points last year’s freshmen class had in the Swimulator projection on December 15th last year. However, it’s behind the point totals the freshmen class had at this point the previous three years. In the 2016-17, mid season the freshmen projected to 341.5, in 2015-16 it was 379, and in 2014-15 it was 391.5.
Mid Season Projections vs Nationals
All mid season projections are the Swimulator projection as of December 15th. Nationals points are individual swimming events only.
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Mid season projected scores correlate pretty strongly with actual freshmen scores at nationals in individual swimming events. The last two years the mid season projected freshmen score and actual score at nationals were within 5 points. The two years before that were a bit more volatile with differences of 21.5 and 75.5.
This year may look a bit more like 2016 and 2015, the two years with the larger points changes. Isabel Ivey and Erica Sullivan will be joining Cal and USC mid season and both figure to score meaningful points at nationals (Ivey was high point scorer at Winter Juniors East, and Sullivan just put up the #3 1000 time ever). Also, long course sensation Taylor Ruck is currently projected to score only 26.5 points, a total she could plausibly double.
If those three live up to expectations, this could be one of the stronger freshmen scoring years of the past 5. The highest scoring recent year by freshmen was 2016 with 402.5 points.
Another interesting trend this year is that the freshmen appear on track to outscore the sophomores. Each of the last 4 years the freshmen have been the lowest scoring class. The freshmen beating the sophomores so far isn’t really a sign of strength for the freshmen. Instead it’s mostly due to the general weakness of the sophomore class. As freshmen last year that class scored 160.5 points, around half the number of points the previous three classes scored at nationals. While they project to score 265.5 points this year, a respectable improvement, they are still behind a typical sophomore class by about 200 points.
The relatively strong correlation between mid season projected points and nationals points leads to a more general conclusion. Among NCAA observers, it is commonly thought that NCAA championships is a tough meet on freshmen. They have difficulty scoring there no matter how hyped a recruit they were. It’s a huge pressure filled meet and often a year of experience is necessary to perform well there.
The data does not support this theory exactly. Yes, freshmen don’t score as much as upperclassmen, but if the reason for that was something about the NCAA meet specifically (the pressure, the hyper competitive prelims, etc.), we would expect them to under perform at nationals relative to their mid season projected points totals. Instead, the last three years in a row, freshmen have outscored their mid season projection at nationals. Whatever factor(s) causes freshmen to not score as much as upperclassmen appears to be a season long phenomenon rather than NCAA championship specific effects..
And there are plenty of candidate explanations for freshmen’s low scores. Adapting to a new coach/teammates/training environment. Living away from home for the first time. 18 year olds competing against 21 year olds. Maybe it’s all of those, or maybe it’s something else. I’m open to theories. The point is that the idea that there is something mystical about NCAA championships that it takes people a year or two to figure out appears to be a myth. Instead there’s something about swimming in the NCAA under any circumstances that takes some experience.
The NCAA championships mystique idea has never made much sense to me. Lots of top incoming D1 recruits have been to Olympic Trials, swam in finals of senior national championships, or been on competitive relays at Juniors or high school state meets. They’ve swum under pressure before. They’ve done multi day prelims finals meets. Most of them have raced big name swimmers before. There will always be swimmers who can’t handle the pressure of the big meet, but at the same time there should be swimmers who love the big pressure meet. The idea that freshmen universally wilt under the big lights of NCAA’s is fanciful. For every swimmer than melts, it appears another one shines.
Freshmen don’t compete as a homogeneous group for class glory. They compete for their teams.
Currently Florida have the most projected freshmen points with 73 points, an excellent return on their #3 ranked recruiting class. They are getting 41 from Vanessa Pearl, 26 from Leah Braswell, and 6 from Mabel Zavaros. Florida’s other 3 classes only project to 22 points. Youth rules in Gainesville.
Pearl hasn’t lit any single event on fire the way Michigan’s Maggie MacNeil has but the pair project to an equal 41 points, top in the class. MacNeil’s 41 account for all of Michigan’s projected freshmen points.
The top ranked recruiting class belonged to Stanford. Currently they have the 4th most freshmen points (36.5). 26.5 come from Ruck. The other ten come from Zoe Bartel with 5 and Lucie Nordmann with 5. At the Ohio State Invite this year, Stanford were a bit slower than were last year at their mid season meet and last year they saw a big points jump from mid season, so there is some room for growth here.
The biggest wild cards are the previously mentioned Ivey for Cal and Sullivan for USC. Using their lifetime bests, Ivey would project to 27.5 points (200 free 4th, 100 back 10th, 200 IM 7th) right now and Sullivan projects to 31 (1650 1st, 500 8th). The times required to score those points will likely be faster than what is ranked in those places right now, so achieving those point totals would require the pair to swim pretty well. Their recent form suggests they’ll be up to it, but they will have to put up qualifying times before the meet, something most top swimmers already did.
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For the purpose of this article Anna Hopkin is a junior. I know USA Swimming has her listed as a freshman, but she only has 2 years of eligibility left and she competed as a college swimmer in Great Britain.