Key Additions: Kyle Gornay (CA – free/back/fly), Justin Lynch (CA – fly), Connor Hoppe (CA – breast), Kyle Coan (CA – free/fly), Nick Silverthorn (CA – breast/free/IM), Ryan Kao (CA – free/fly), Connor Green (MA – back/IM), Matt Whittle (CA – breast/fly/IM), Zach Stevens (CA – breast), Finn Scribbick (TX – diving)
Key Losses: Jeremy Bagshaw (26 NCAA points), Marcin Tarczynski (25 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Tony Cox (21.5 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays)
An undefeated regular season led into what would be a defining post-season for the California Golden Bears. Cal had won two straight NCAA titles (2011 and 2012) by coming up huge in the clutch, and were developing a reputation as a team that always shows up to swim come post-season. But in 2013, the Bears were usurped by Michigan, who swam lights out to run away with the title. Was the mantle of “clutch NCAA performers” moving on to new programs? Had Cal’s window closed? With the graduation of star butterflyer Tom Shields, Cal seemed to be without a true superstar and perhaps uncertain in its identity.
But the 2014 NCAA Championships shut down those concerns in a hurry. The Golden Bears were absolutely suffocating, scoring points in every single swimming event and placing at least one swimmer into the championship final in 14 of the meet’s 16 prelims/finals swimming events.
Answering the “superstar” question was freshman Ryan Murphy, who filled the role once held by Shields (and by Nathan Adrian before him). The freshman from Florida was a sensation, sweeping the NCAA backstroke titles and putting himself into the conversation for “nation’s best collegiate swimmer” with 5 total event titles.
The Cal depth at the top end was just overwhelming. The Bears got championship finals appearances from Josh Prenot, Jeremy Bagshaw, Seth Stubblefield, Chuck Katis, Tony Cox, Jacob Pebley, Tyler Messerschmidt and Marcin Tarczynski individually, along with B finalists in nearly every event. The relays were bruising, as the Bears lived up to their “golden” moniker by sweeping the first 3 relay events before finally being toppled in the 800 free relay Friday night.
Despite all that, the NCAA team race was as thrilling as we’ve seen in years. Night one set up a legitimate 4-team battle before Cal and Texas pulled away on day 2. The point standings were sitting on a razor’s edge all weekend. Texas led by 1 after Thursday night, and increased their lead to 6 by Friday evening. After prelims on Saturday morning, scoring projections showed a 4-point Longhorn victory.
But Cal, a program traditionally known for its sprint prowess, got its biggest boost from the meet’s longest event when senior Jeremy Bagshaw absolutely crushed his 1650 swim out of the morning heats, shattering a school record by 10 seconds. Even after the fastest 8 seeds swam at night, that time stood up in 2nd place overall, a huge points boost that ultimately gave Cal a 51-point victory over Texas.
Murphy and the Backstroking Buzzsaw
On to this season. Cal is notable in that of its myriad point scorers, only three graduated. Bagshaw was one, triple event-scorer Tony Cox another and 3rd-place 200 flyer Marcin Tarczynski was the third. That, combined with an unbelievable incoming freshman class, makes it hard to pick against the Bears to finish this season atop the NCAA.
It all starts with their young star Ryan Murphy. An NCAA record-breaker in the 200 back last year, Murphy now sets his sights on a pair of Ryan Lochte-held records – the NCAA 100 back mark and the American 200 back time. Both are well within his grasp, as he was .03 and .52 off last season, respectively.
He also leads a small army of elite backstrokers that could combine to do catastrophic damage to opponents this season. Jacob Pebley is a returning All-American in the 200 back. He finished 4th last year and is a legitimate All-American threat in both the 100 and 200 yard distances. On top of that, Cal brought in Bluefish’s Connor Green, a bronze medalist at the Junior World Championships and one of the best backstrokers in the entire freshman class nationwide.
All three are relatively young – Pebley is a junior, Murphy a sophomore and Green a freshman – and they make up the most imposing backstroking corps in the nation. For Cal, it’s the kind of buzzsaw of an event that has the potential to slice undeterred through nearly any opponent.
Free relays return nearly untouched
Though Bagshaw is a big loss in the distance races, the sprint freestyles saw nearly no attrition for the Bears. The 400 and 800 free relays (2nd and 6th in the nation, respectively) didn’t graduate a single leg, while the national champion 200 free relay only lost Tony Cox.
The bulk of the sprinting corps returns intact. Seth Stubblefield was the leader last year, and he’s now a senior after finaling in both the 50 and 100 frees last spring. Tyler Messerschmidt, who won the B final of the 100 free in 2014, returns for his junior year, and the team also has a potent relay sprinter in Murphy, who split 18.7 and a team-best 41.6 on the free relays last year.
Waiting in the wings is Fabio Gimondi, who could only crack one relay last year, but could be the next man up in the 200 free relay this season. Add in a handful of top-tier freshmen like Kyle Gornay, Kyle Coan and Ryan Kao, and you’ve got a deep and talented crew that should easily fill out NCAA relays with top-end talent.
The 800 free relay, Cal’s lowest-finishing team at 6th (when your lowest finish is 6th, you know you’ve got a pretty solid squad) returns in full, led by Will Hamilton, who anchored in 1:33.9 last year and has already been swimming fast early on this season.
Cal is still going to be a bit weak in the distance races. Bagshaw was the team’s only scorer in the 500 and 1650 last year, though then-junior Adam Hinshaw was 20th in the 500. Hinshaw was a B finalist as a sophomore, but dropped off a little last year. He’ll be the guy the Bears look to for senior leadership, and perhaps a fire-up swim like Bagshaw had last year in the mile.
Wanted: butterflyer, Applicants: many
The biggest “holes” (if you can call them that) in Cal’s relay lineup are in the medleys, where both butterflyers graduated. Tony Cox manned the 200 while Marcin Tarczynski was on the 400. Coach Dave Durden seems to have noticed this well in advance, and he decided to go the “overkill” route on filling that need.
Durden brought in two of the nation’s best freshman butterflyers. Kyle Gornay and Justin Lynch are both 46-second guys, blue chip talents and potential All-Americans as freshmen. This first-year class is so deep that a swimmer like Ryan Kao can essentially serve as a utility guy filling in wherever he’s needed, even though he by himself would be a decent succession plan in the butterly leg.
Already on the roster is Seth Stubblefield (10th in the NCAA in the 100 fly last year), who could slide to butterfly and let Tyler Messerschmidt handle freestyle. The team also has Josh Prenot, who can basically swim anything, though he’s better over a longer distance, making him a little less of an ideal relay factor.
Expect Durden to let all the dogs out this season (enjoy that sly Baha Men reference for a moment) before letting the dust settle and taking the top finisher to round out his medley relays, which look primed to repeat as NCAA champions in both distances.
Breaststroking depth fills in
The biggest lineup hole Cal had heading into last season was breaststroke. The Bears filled that need with Harvard transfer Chuck Katis, who worked his magic (pun intended; he’s actually a magician) to give Cal two top-5 finishes and two great relay legs, but the depth was still hurting in those events.
Once again, recruiting did its best to fill in the gaps. Cal got two of the top breaststrokers in the nation, including national public high school record-breaker Connor Hoppe and 53-second man Nick Silverthorn. Just to make things feel a little more unfair, Cal added a pair of 55-second 100 guys in Matt Whittle and Zach Stevens, to go along with Prenot, who took 6th at NCAAs in the 200 breast last year.
Then there’s sophomore Hunter Cobleigh, who might be the most likely of all the young swimmers to break out in 2015. Cobleigh was just outside of scoring range at NCAAs last year as a freshman, taking 18th in the 100 and 25th in the 200. Now more comfortable in his second season in the Cal system, Cobleigh could be an NCAA scorer with merely marginal improvements, and could turn out to be an All-American with a breakout season.
In one recruiting sweep, Cal went from dangerously thin to ridiculously loaded in an event. Depending on how well these freshmen pan out (breaststrokers can sometimes be hit or miss in recruiting) this discipline has the potential to become Cal’s bell-cow down the road as its top backstrokers and sprint freestylers eventually graduate.
Cal locks down the borders
If you haven’t noticed by now, this recruiting class is loaded. We ranked them #1 in the nation in our recruiting rankings, and it wasn’t a terribly hard decision. What’s most impressive, though, is that the vast majority of these prospects come out of the state of California.
For any major public university, keeping in-state talent within state borders is a major key to building a successful roster. Cal has a unique spin on that challenge. California is a big, well-populated state in terms of competitive swimmers, and among the nation’s most talent rich. On the other hand, though, Cal has plenty of in-state competition, primarily from the state’s two other premier programs, Stanford and USC.
But the Golden Bears won a decisive victory over their Cali rivals last recruiting season, absolutely mining the state’s talent. Of the team’s 10 freshmen, 8 are Californians, and that includes a vast majority of the state’s blue chip talent.
It starts to become mind-boggling to speculate on Cal’s scholarship distribution. With only 9.9 men’s scholarships available, a team like Cal probably has well over 20 guys on its roster who could be drawing major money at any college in the nation. When you add in their already stellar recruiting haul this fall (including the nation’s #1 prospect Andrew Seliskar), you start to realize what Cal has built. Swimmers are flocking to Berkeley to join a movement, to swim under Dave Durden and to be a part of a storied program. It might not feel “fair” to other programs in the nation, but it’s a major testament to the reputation Cal has built up, especially considering Durden has only headed the program for 7 seasons.
Suddenly… a diver
Diving hasn’t played much of a role in Cal’s run of dominance the past few seasons. The three diving events were the only three in which Cal didn’t score last year, and it was that weakness that kept Texas in the meet, as Texas continually milked 1st-place finishes from freshman Michael Hixon.
But the Bears did bring in a noteworthy diver this offseason. Finn Scribbick is a Texas high school state champ, and an international veteran, having qualified for the Junior Pan American Games and earned a bronze medal in a synchro event there. He’s probably not a huge point-scorer as a freshman, but Cal has proven it can win NCAA titles without any diving points. All it needs is enough points from Scribbick to stay afloat, and he appears to have the talent to do that and more early on in his career.
Other Names to Watch
There are plenty of returning contributors on this team, and plenty more potentials. Here’s a quick run-through of just a few more names to keep an eye on:
- Trent Williams: the junior freestyler scored in the individual 200 free last year, then came back with a clutch leadoff swim on the 800 free relay later in the session.
- Long Gutierrez: just a freshman a year ago, Gutierrez was scored in the 200 fly, helped the 800 free relay take 6th and was close to scoring places in the open 200 free. A World Championships qualifier for Mexico, Gutierrez is one of the rising talents who should see an expanded role in 2014-2015.
- Janardan Burns: the sophomore is coming off a big summer in which he made the final of the 1500 free at U.S. Nationals. Cal could use a breakout year from a distance swimmer, and Burns might be the most likely candidate.
- Will Hamilton: we mentioned Hamilton in passing above, but it’s worth noting that he beat out Ryan Murphy to win the “King of the Pool” title earlier this fall and looks primed to build on a junior season that included two B final appearances.
- Josh Prenot: same story with Prenot – he was mentioned above, but deserves a little more recognition as a key piece in Cal’s plans. The versatile Californian was 3rd in the nation in the 400 IM last year, plus 5th in the 200 IM and 6th in the 200 breast. Were Chase Kalisz not around in Georgia, he’d probably be a national title contender, but as it is, he’s probably worth at least 40-45 individual points this season.
Cal’s obviously on a roll at this point. They’ve now crushed the past few recruiting cycles and have to be considered the favorites* to repeat as national champions. On the other hand, NCAA Championships are not swum on paper, as we learned from the Cal women (off-season favorites to 3rd-place finishers) last year.
There are plenty of reasons to believe in the Golden Bear men, though. This team is reliant on so many different athletes to succeed. The squad claimed the NCAA trophy last year with just 1 individual champion. Spreading out the points means that even if one or two swimmers regress or have an “off” season, Cal won’t be devastated points-wise.
The Golden Bears have also shown a tendency to come up big in the clutch. The NCAA is fast enough and tightly-packed enough that if a team shows up flat, they will move backwards in a hurry, sometimes with no second chances to climb back up. Cal has typically been at its best when it needs to be, but it will of course have to repeat that feat in 2015 to stay on top.
They’ll have plenty of competition. As outstanding as this roster is, Texas can match it in many events, courtesy of its own killer freshman class, including arguably the class’s best prospect, Joseph Schooling. Texas also lost very little to graduation, though the transfer of diver Michael Hixon will hurt. Then, too, Michigan brought in a great recruiting class and is developing its own reputation for showing up when it needs to.
But if Cal can top all-comers this year, it’ll give the Golden Bears 4 of the past 5 NCAA titles on the men’s side, the most dominant stretch since Auburn won 6 straight in the mid-2000s. With the rich talent coming into Berkeley next fall, it could signal the start of a true NCAA dynasty.
*Calling Cal the favorites is somewhat bold, and will probably draw the ire of Longhorn fans everywhere. One thing is clear: it’s a very, very close call between Cal and Texas at this point. Both swam great at NCAAs last year and sustained minimal losses from their rosters. Three reasons I consider Cal the narrow favorites at this point:
- Cal has more returning points: I tallied up each team’s point total from last year and took out all the points scored by seniors or outgoing transfers, including each senior’s share of relay points (1/4 of the relay’s total points for each leg). The results are extremely close, but Cal still has a visible advantage:
- Cal: 366 returning points out of 468.5 (lost 21.8%)
- Texas: 336.5 returning points out of 417.5 (lost 19.4%)
- Cal’s freshman class is a little bigger and deeper than Texas’s: the Longhorns have just 5 freshmen, and though they all look like major prospects, freshmen always have a chance of struggling to make the transition and falling a bit short of expectations in their first collegiate seasons. Cal, with 10 frosh, has a much bigger cushion to absorb a freshman flame-out or two. For Texas, even one of the five not coming through would be a major hit.
- Texas won’t have home-pool advantage in 2015: when it looks this close, even the little things matter. Longhorn fans and alums absolutely took over the aquatic center last year and created a raucous environment in which Texas thrived. The atmosphere will be a little less friendly this coming season. With things so even on paper this early in the season, it’s minor details like this that can set apart a pre-season winner pick.