Key Additions: Kylie Stewart (GA – back), Meaghan Raab (PA – IM/free), Courtney Weaver (MI – fly/free), Megan Kingsley (SC – fly/back/IM), Stephanie Peters (GA – distance free), Anna McKenzie (AL – sprint free/breast), Olivia Ball (OH – diving)
Key Losses: Melanie Margalis (48 NCAA points, 3 NCAA relays), Shannon Vreeland (44 NCAA points, 3 NCAA relays), Laura Ryan (56 NCAA diving points), Jessica Graber (1 NCAA relay), Ann-Perry Blank (SEC Champion diver)
A year ago, the Georgia Bulldogs were pulling off something that doesn’t often happen in big-time sports: still reigning as defending NCAA champs, the ‘Dawgs were somehow flying under the radar.
Most of that can be attributed to the opposite coast, where Cal brought in a giant, star-studded recruiting class and grabbed most of the headlines. But Georgia had a pretty good class of its own and rattled off an undefeated season, its closest shave coming on the road against Texas A&M, where the Bulldogs and Aggies tied.
Georgia officially broke that tie by winning its 5th-straight SEC title, blowing out a good A&M team by over 400 points. Freshman Olivia Smoliga showed she was a force to be reckoned with, taking home the Commissioner’s Trophy, given to the highest scorer of the meet. Smoliga tied for the award with Olympian and Florida Gator Elizabeth Beisel.
And that was just the start of a stellar post-season for a Georgia team that was like a freight train, picking up steam rapidly as the season progressed. The Dawgs took over the NCAA Championships lead on the meet’s second event and never trailed from then on. That second event was the 500 free, where no less than 5 Bulldogs finished in the top 16, including national champ Brittany MacLean and 3rd-place finisher Amber McDermott.
In fact, that race was probably the biggest momentum swing we saw in the entire post-season, men or women. After Georgia took third behind Stanford and Cal in the opening relay, the Golden Bears had Olympic icon Missy Franklin leading their 500 free charge. But UGA sophomore Brittany MacLean came up with perhaps the swim of the meet, tearing off a 52.98-second split on the final 100 to chase down and beat Franklin, one of the world’s best closers. MacLean beating someone as high-profile as Franklin in that kind of dramatic fashion seemed to set the entire pool area on fire. In hindsight, it’s no surprise Georgia seemed like an unstoppable runaway train for the rest of the meet’s 19 events.
What people still might not remember from those NCAA Championships is exactly how dominant Georgia was. Though Stanford were the flashy relay heroes, and Franklin’s 200 free tends to stand out in fans’ memories, Georgia was easily the most impressive team at the meet. The Bulldogs took home the biggest trophy, and it wasn’t close. UGA led by 53 after the first day and ultimately built that lead to 125.5 points before Harvey Humphries and the ‘Dawgs took the championship plunge into the Minneapolis diving well.
Big freestyle production from the Macs
The M&M combo – junior Brittany MacLean and senior Amber McDermott – is easily one of the most imposing 1-2 punches in the NCAA right now. The duo combined to sweep the top two spots in the 1650 free last season and also added a 1&3 finish in the 500. In between, MacLean was 4th in the 200 free and McDermott 6th in the 400 IM.
For those keeping score at home, that’s a grand total of 101 points between the two, not counting relays. That means Team ‘Mac’ (MacLean and McDermott) would have placed 13th at last year’s NCAA Championships.
There seems to be little reason to suspect much dropoff from that in 2015. McDermott has already been fantastic this year, leading the nation in the 1000 and sitting 3rd in the 500. MacLean is second in that 1000 as the two look to be in great shape to repeat their 1-2 sweep of the mile come March.
Georgia has been great at churning out freestylers over the past few years, and it’s likely the depth behind MacLean and McDermott will continue to take steps forward this year. Jordan Mattern was already an A-finalist in the 200 free last year and also scored in the 500 free. Rachel Zilinskas was a triple NCAA point-scorer as a freshman, and now former Junior National teamer Stephanie Peters will join the program as another potential scoring threat in the distances.
As you move down in distances, Georgia gets no less threatening. Olivia Smoliga was the team’s top freshman a year ago, and actually went undefeated in NCAA finals in 2014. The sprinter won a national championship in the 50 free, then won the B-finals of the 100 back and 100 free over the next two days.
A young swimmer like Smoliga would typically be predicted to improve upon her finishes, even finishes as highly-successful as hers. But even while using the expensive crystal ball we SwimSwam staff share amongst ourselves, Smoliga’s three events are extremely hard to predict this coming season.
In the 50 and 100 frees, Stanford freshman Simone Manuel joins the hunt. Already the American record-holder in the 100 free, Manuel seems to be the best young sprinting talent in years, and is probably the favorite to win both the 50 and 100 frees in March.
But here’s where it gets complicated: Stanford has been using Manuel in the 100, 200 and 500 free so far this season, content to let Maddy Schaefer handle the splash-and-dash. The Cardinal is extremely weak in the distance races, and may want to use Manuel in the 500 this year, which would give Smoliga the inside track to repeat in the 50.
Then there’s Missy Franklin, 3rd in the 100 free last year. Franklin was in Manuel’s exact position last year, swimming off-events to help the team fill out a well-rounded lineup, but there’s a good chance she returns to the 200 back this coming season. Her presence or absence in the 100 is another factor that could affect Smoliga.
And then there’s the 100 back, which is so deep in the NCAA right now that predicting anything is a virtual nightmare. Smoliga could be a national title contender, but then again, she could wind up making a return trip to the B final – the difference between the two scenarios could basically be a few tenths of a second.
All that aside, Smoliga should still put up big points. Wherever she finishes, it’d be a surprise if she didn’t score in three races, and she’s a key relay component. She’s joined in several of her events by one of Georgia’s top freshmen, Hershey, PA’s Meaghan Raab. Raab is probably best in the 100 and 200 frees, but can also put up a solid 50 and a great 100 back, especially if some of Smoliga’s short speed rubs off on her in training.
Returning in the sprints are Maddie Locus and Chantal Van Landeghem. Locus took 5th in the 50 and missed scoring in the 100 by just .06. Van Landeghem, meanwhile, was top-25 in both of her events and has a great shot to score individually as a junior.
Uncertainty in program leadership
The Bulldogs are still in limbo a bit in terms of program leadership. Longtime head coach Jack Bauerle continues to serve an indefinite suspension for alleged academic violations. Though he had a hearing in front of the NCAA in mid-October, no news has come out about his long-term standing.
It can’t be easy for the team to continue plugging away with the fate of a coach who remains beloved by the swimmers and alumni still hanging in the balance. Then again, the Bulldogs dealt with this situation during their outstanding postseason run a year ago, and didn’t show any ill effects.
Assistant Harvey Humphries is still the acting head coach, and the Georgia program has seemed to respond well under Humphries command. This is one case in which coaching uncertainty feels more like a tangential storyline, and not one that will have a huge impact in the pool.
Diving was another big narrative for the ‘Dawgs last spring. Senior Laura Ryan earned NCAA titles on 1- and 3-meter, diving back in her home state of Minnesota in the pool in which she trained and competed as a high-schooler.
Ryan exits in 2014-2015, as does another big contributor, Ann-Perry Blank. Blank was an SEC Champion, beating Ryan on 1-meter, but struggled at NCAA Zones and missed qualifying for the NCAA Championships by a single spot.
That leaves Georgia pretty thin in the diving ranks, though they won’t be totally without threats. Freshman Olivia Ball has been pretty solid already, winning a couple events early on this season, including a 3-meter victory over Florida’s Kahlia Warner, a returning SEC finalist.
The Bulldogs graduated 7 of their 20 relay legs from a year ago, but the lineups could see even more turnover than that. The shifting will start with the medleys.
Last season, Olivia Smoliga was the team’s top sprinter, but also its top backstroker by a wide margin. With solid freestyle depth, UGA elected to use Smoliga as its leadoff leg on the medleys, leaving the freestyles to Shannon Vreeland (400 medley) and Chantal Van Landeghem (200 medley). This season, though, the team added Kylie Stewart, one of the nation’s top backstroking prospects in a very strong backstroking class. Stewart, an in-state recruit, is excellent through all three backstroking distances (24.41/51.96/1:49.85) and should allow the Bulldogs to slide Smoliga back to the freestyle leg on both medleys.
The breaststroke leg will also swap out, with Melanie Margalis graduating. The heir apparent is Annie Zhu, now a junior out of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Zhu was a double point-scorer at NCAAs last year, taking 8th in the 200 and 16th in the 100. She’ll have to summon up the best short speed she’s got to be a force on the medleys, but with a sub-minute 100 already under her belt, she should have enough to keep the team afloat. The other options would be sophomore Emily Cameron, who’s been just a step behind Zhu so far this year, or senior Shannon O’Malley, who hasn’t been swimming much breaststroke so far.
The butterfly legs return, as both were held down by Lauren Harrington, but even they could change by the post-season. Harrington was a quick 52.07 at SECs last year, but dropped off by four tenths at NCAAs, and that was enough to keep her out of scoring range. This year, she’ll have plenty of competition as Georgia brought in a pair of good young butterflyers in Megan Kingsley and Courtney Weaver. Weaver is probably the bigger threat in the sprint distances; the Flint, Michigan product has already been 52.51.
That leaves the possibility of all four legs swapping out on each medley relay. With each new leg likely faster than its predecessor (with the exception of breaststroke, which might be more of a wash) the medleys could be big areas for Georgia to move up this season.
Then there’s the free relays. The Bulldogs were NCAA runners-up in the 800 free relay and only graduated a single swimmer, though that was stud leadoff leg Shannon Vreeland, who split a 1:43.10. Still, it’s likely the freshman Stewart will replace her, and Stewart has already been 1:44.66 prior to training with Georgia, which always seems to produce great freestyle performances. Also in the hunt will be Raab, who’s been 1:45.10 there. This squad should have an outside shot to run down Cal for the national title, though Cal graduates no one off its winning relay, and has American record-holder Missy Franklin as its virtually uncatchable anchor.
Both Vreeland and Margalis are gone from the 400 free relay, and will probably be replaced by some combination of Chantal Van Landeghem, Raab and Stewart. The 200 free relay loses Jessica Graber, but had its other three legs under 22 seconds last year.
Other Names to Watch
A team as deep as Georgia has a lot of important swimmers, too many to cover in full in a 3000-word story. Here’s a brief overview of a few more swimmers who merit mention. A few were noted in passing above, but should get a bit more analysis before we move on.
- Hali Flickinger: Flickinger is one of those classic workhorses who excels in the most brutal of events. She scored in the 400 IM and 200 fly at NCAAs last year, finishing as high as 6th in the butterfly. She’s probably too much of a distance specialist to have a big relay impact – even the 200 IM feels too short for her – but could easily put up double top-5 finishes next season individually.
- Rachel Zilinskas: A freshman last year, Zilinskas took on one of the most punishing doubles in swimming, competing in the mile and the 200 back on Saturday of NCAAs. She had enough to make top 16 out of prelims of the 200 back and then score in the 1650, but ran out of gas in the 200 back final and faded to 15th, beating only a DQ’d swimmer. If Georgia chooses to enter her in the same lineup this year, the same scenario is basically what they’ll expect: she’ll shoot to make finals of the 200 back, hit the 1650 hard in heats and then take whatever points she’s guaranteed in the 200 back final. That combination takes too much out of a swimmer’s legs to expect much more. It’ll be interesting to see if Georgia starts experimenting with a different third event, though – perhaps the 200 free, or even 400 IM?
- Megan Kingsley and Courtney Weaver: we noted these two earlier as potential butterflyers for the medley relay. They’re two of the better recruits in Georgia’s great freshman class, and should help out immensely in the butterfly races. The only event Georgia didn’t score NCAA points in a year ago? The 100 fly. As it stands now, Weaver is a little better in the 100 and brings some more freestyle potential to the table, while Kingsley has the edge in the 200 and is also a great backstroker and IMer. That IM potential might come in handy, considering the team graduated its top IM threat in Melanie Margalis.
- Jordan Mattern: one of the leaders of the team as a senior, Mattern is a returning All-American in the 200 free and a key member of the 800 free relay. She also scored in the 500 last year and was a hair away from doing so in the 200 back as well. A good final season could see her double her individual points to somewhere around 30.
- Meaghan Raab: coming out of the great swimming hub of Hershey, Pennsylvania, Raab has some intriguing versatility. You tend to see her as a 100/200 freestyler, since that’s been Georgia’s sweet spot in developing talent lately. But Raab’s got several event options at this point, including butterfly and backstroke (she’s been 53 in both). Georgia lists her as a freestyler on its roster, but her best fit early on might be as an IMer. Her lifetime-best 200 IM (1:56.92) would have scored at NCAAs last year, and the departed Margalis was Georgia’s only scorer in that event. Raab has been stuck a little bit in the freestyles lately, without a lifetime-best since 2012, and so it might make sense to ride the events where she’s hot, at least while the team is still loaded with freestylers.
- Nicole Vernon: Vernon is an underrated asset as a senior. Last year, she won the B final of the 400 IM at NCAAs and is the team’s second returning swimmer there after McDermott. She’ll also look to fill the void left by Margalis in the 200 IM and will probably also contest the 200 back, which will be without a returning point-scorer if Zilinskas breaks up the 1650/200 back double on the final day of nationals.
Georgia looks like a program in good shape at the moment. The Bulldogs now have a culture of success that has lasted past the graduation of stars like Megan Romano and Allison Schmitt, and even past the loss of the ship’s captain, Jack Bauerle. It’s safe to say there’s a good chance that culture still exists this year, even in the absence of names like Shannon Vreeland, Melanie Margalis and Laura Ryan.
Still, those three are big losses. Without them and without Bauerle, it now falls squarely on the shoulders of the juniors and seniors to help carry that culture on with the team’s bright young talents.
They’ll need it. The coming NCAA Championships are shaping up to once again be a solid three-team battle, and the early projections are probably closer than you might expect.
As we did with the men’s preview for the defending champs, let’s take a look at returning points from last year’s NCAA Championships. I tallied up total points for the top three teams from a year ago, then subtracted all seniors and outgoing transfers. Included in those subtracted points are relay legs – 25% of the relay’s total points for each departed leg. Here’s what we come up with:
- Georgia: 325.5 returning points out of 528 (lost 202.5, or 38.3%)
- Stanford: 225.5 returning points out of 402.5 (lost 177, or 43.9%)
- California: 318.5 returning points out of 386 (lost 66.5, or 17.2%)
The buzz early in the season has been all Stanford, thanks to a whale of a recruiting class. But the Cardinal also lost the highest percentage of its points from 2014, and after winning 4 of the 5 relays, has nowhere to go but down in the points for those events.
The big question between Stanford and Georgia: does Stanford’s killer freshman crew account for the 100-point deficit in returning points plus whatever Georgia gets from its freshman class?
At this point, I’m saying yes. Simone Manuel alone probably accounts for somewhere around 90 points (including her 25% of each relay she swims on), and the rest of the class has the ability to make up the rest of the gap. Still, that’s putting a lot of Cardinal eggs in a freshman basket, knowing that highly-touted prospects don’t always transfer their skills to the college level the way we’d expect. Some take years to adjust to the massive life changes college brings about. Some never really do make the transition.
Cal is the wild-card. They hardly lost anything in terms of points, and had what’s widely regarded as a down year across the board last season. Just 6 points behind Georgia in returning scores, Cal could make serious moves if they finally get high-level production out of talents like Rachel Bootsma or Marina Garcia. And the Bears have a very good recruiting class of their own, one we ranked one spot below Georgia earlier this year.
Still, most coaches would rather be in Georgia’s position than any other. Instead of relying on heavy lifts from unproven freshmen or breakout seasons from enigmatic talents, Georgia gets to lean on a nucleus of battle-tested Bulldogs who have already tasted the spoils of NCAA victory – many of them two years running.
So, preseason-favorite status probably falls to Stanford, but with one big caveat: this is still clearly a team battle that could go any which way, and the next four months of swimming will bring a lot of changes and revelations to each contending team. In fact, Georgia might be happy to be picked against this early in the year. After all, the Bulldogs were overshadowed by a flashier team at this time last year, too – and we all know how that season turned out.