We’ll be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s programs from the 2017 NCAA Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24. Can’t get enough college swimming news? Check out the College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine for some inside looks at the life of a college swimmer as told by college swimmers themselves, plus full-length profiles of a few of college swimming’s biggest names, including our cover athlete, Simone Manuel.
We’ve tightened up our criteria from last year, where our first stab at a letter grading system got hit by a little bit of classic grade inflation. Again, bear in mind that all of these grades are projections more than 6 months out – and as none of us has a working crystal ball, these projections are very subjective and very likely to change over the course of the season. Disagreeing with specific grades is completely acceptable; furiously lashing out at a writer, commenter, or specific athlete is not.
- A = projected to score significant (10+) NCAA points per event
- B = projected to score some (3-10) NCAA points per event
- C = projected on the bubble to score likely only a few (1-2) or no NCAA points per event
- D = projected to score no NCAA points
Key Losses: Marwan El Kamash (12 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Bob Glover (2 NCAA relays), Sam Lorentz (2 NCAA relays), Anze Tavcar (1 NCAA relay)
Key Additions: Bruno Blaskovic (Croatia – sprint), Nikola Miljenic (Croatia – sprint), Gabriel Fantoni (Brazil – back), Corey Gambardella (CT – fly), Spencer Lehman (IN – IM)
The Hoosiers had been holding steady heading into the 2016-2017 season, finishing between 9th and 12th at each NCAA championships from 2012 to 2016. Indiana opened up the season with a big win over Texas and Florida in their annual LCM/SCY tri meet, and kept the momentum going through the Big Ten conference championships in February, where they won by a comfortable margin over Michigan and Ohio State. That was the first conference championship for the Hoosiers since 2006, and just the second since 1985 when the legendary Doc Counsilman was still the head coach.
Although the relays and several of the top swimmers couldn’t quite match the times they put up at Big Tens, Indiana still moved up to 7th overall at NCAAs on the strength of three top 8 relays, a strong pair of divers in Michael Hixon and James Connor, and a great showing by newly-minted Olympic gold medalist Blake Pieroni.
Indiana as a whole continued the momentum through this past summer. Pieroni, current women’s team member Lilly King and post grads Cody Miller and Zane Grothe all earned medals at the World Championships in Budapest, and several of the Hoosiers’ international swimmers represented their countries as well. Additionally, the Hoosiers are bringing in a couple of big name assistant coaches in Coley Stickels, formerly head coach of the Canyons Aquatic Club, and Mark Hill, who was one of Michigan’s assistant coaches when they won the 2013 NCAA championships.
Sprint Free: A-
At last year’s NCAAs, rising seniors Ali Khalafalla and Blake Pieroni combined for 33.5 points across the 50/100/200 freestyles. Khalafalla was one of five competitors in the 50 free who came into the meet with a sub-19, and slipped to the B-final after an incredibly tight prelims, but finished 11th overall. He should be right on the edge of championships/consolation finals once again. He could probably score in the 100 free, as well, but last year scratched that event to focus on the 400 free relay.
Similarly, Pieroni was one of five men swimming the 100 free who had broken 42 prior to NCAAs, and while he couldn’t match his 41.44 from Big Tens, he comfortably made the championship final before finishing 8th against a stacked field.
Since Pieroni trends toward the sprint side of things, we’ve included the 200 free here as well. In one of the more memorable races of a meet that was full of memorable races, Pieroni raced stroke-for-stroke with Townley Haas and Dylan Carter, ultimately tying with Carter for 2nd.
Indiana made the A-final in both the 200 and 400 free relays, and while they’ve lost sprinter Sam Lorentz to graduation, they’re bringing in a number of sprinters who should be able to ably fill in that gap. The big names here are Bruno Blaskovic and Nikola Milienic, both from Croatia, and who both sport lifetimes bests in the low 22s in the long course 50 free. It’s never easy to estimate exactly how long course times will translate to the short pool, but it’s probably safe to assume that at least one of the two will be able to fill in the gap left by Lorentz.
Distance Free: D
The Hoosiers take a big hit here with the loss of three seniors. El Kamash placed 7th at NCAAs, and he and fellow graduates Jackson Miller and Max Irwin were the only three men on the team under 4:20 in the 500. While there were another four returners with ‘B’ cuts, and they’ve all been steadily chipping away at their times the past few years, there’s nothing readily apparent to suggest that any of them is poised for the kind of drop that would score points at NCAAs.
The situation is similar in the 1650, where no returner has cracked the 15 minute mark. Of course there’s always a chance that someone makes a big move, but even allowing for that, there’s a ways to go before anyone currently on the team figures to score in the longest event in college swimming.
Incoming freshman Spencer Lehman has been 4:23 in the 500, but also has a very strong 200 IM, so it’s too early tell which event he’ll end up focusing on at the collegiate level.
Indiana crushed it at Big Tens, but putting the focus on the conference meet may have taken some focus off of NCAAs, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the 200 IM. Vini Lanza and Ian Finnerty both blasted 1:41s at Big Tens, good for the 5th and 6th seeds on the NCAA psych sheet. However, neither swimmer was able to come close to matching that time at NCAAs. Lanza managed to make the B final after posting a 1:42.44 in prelims, while Finnerty faded to 25th.
The Hoosiers didn’t even qualify anyone for NCAAs in the 400 IM, with freshman Brian Valedon’s 3:53.04 from December the fastest time on the team. The previously-mentioned Lehman comes in with a best time 3:49.57, so while that’s still a way long ways off from qualifying for NCAAs, much less scoring, he looks to be Indiana’s best chance in that event in the near future.
Last year, Lanza was the Hoosiers’ sole scorer in the butterfly events at NCAAs. He was seeded 7th in both butterfly distances coming into NCAAs, and made the A final in the 100 fly and the B final in the 200 fly. Lanza has had a pretty incredible progression, after not making NCAAs as a freshman, and then placing 11th in the 100 fly and 10th in the 200 fly as a sophomore.
Lanza should be able to repeat his performance at NCAAs this year, but there’s not much depth behind him. No one else on the team broke 47 in the 100 fly or 1:46 in the 200 fly. However, incoming freshman Corey Gambaredella has a solid 1:44.76 lifetime best, so has a decent chance at qualifying this year, and scoring eventually.
Just as in distance free, the Hoosier are taking a big hit here with Bob Glover’s graduation. Although he didn’t score any individual points at NCAAs this year, he was a key part of both medley relays, and there’s no one on last year’s roster who was anywhere close to Glover.
Gabriel Fantoni could be the Hoosiers’ saving grace here. He’s coming from Brazil, where he’s the junior national record holder in the 50 back (LCM). His LCM backstroke times convert to roughly 21.4/46.7 in short course yards. So, while LCM/SCY always have to be taken with a grain of salt, Fantoni certainly appears to have the ability to keep Indiana in the thick of things for relays, and possibly even score in the 100 back.
Rising junior Ian Finnerty had one of the fastest times in the country coming into NCAA (51.38), but placed 17th in prelims. Still, he provided the Hoosiers with a very strong 51.7 split in the 400 medley relay final. His lifetime best 1:54.43 in the 200 breast suggests that he has the ability to score in that event, as well, but he’s been unable to replicate that time at NCAAs.
Continuing a theme we’ve seen across the strokes, Indiana doesn’t have a ton of readily apparent depth here, but Levi Brock has dropped time steadily over his three years at IU and was only a couple tenths of a second away from being invited to NCAAs in the 100 breast.
The Hoosiers retain a solid core and the sprint additions (both swimmers and coaches) should help keep the momentum going. It’s certainly reasonable to expect Indiana to win back-to-back Big Ten titles. When it comes to NCAAs, Indiana’s still a ways off from they’ll need to mount a challenge for a national title. Texas and Cal seem insurmountable, and the Hoosiers would need to get everyone to swim faster at NCAAs than at Big Tens. But, if they can figure out how to make that happen, Indiana has the ability, especially with their divers, to at least move up a couple spots at NCAAs.