We’ll be previewing the top 10 men’s and women’s programs from the 2016 NCAA Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 20. Can’t get enough college swimming? Check out the College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine for more team previews and power rankings of every major Division I conference.
Key Losses: Arthur Mendes (5 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Jacob Molacek (transfer – SEC finalist sprinter/IMer), Justin Youtsey (SEC finalist diver), Sam Stewart (transfer – SEC finalist IMer)
It was an up-and down post-season for the Auburn Tigers. A huge SEC Championships showing had Auburn pushing conference powerhouse Florida for the SEC title right up until the final day, with only a 52-point final margin between the two. But Auburn fell off badly by NCAAs, sliding to 10th and finishing behind 5 other SEC programs.
Still, the year wasn’t without accolades. Joe Patching won hard-fought conference titles in the 200 IM and 200 back, Michael Duderstadt swept the breaststrokes (beating future NCAA champ Fabian Schwingenschlogl of Missouri) and Hugo Morris topped the 200 fly, plus the Tigers won their 11th consecutive SEC title in the 400 free relay to close the meet.
Sprint Free: A
With that kind of streak, it’s no surprise Auburn is built around its sprinters. Peter Holoda is the latest to spark, taking runner-up honors in the 50 free (19.17) and third in the 100 free (42.4, but 42.2 out of prelims) at SECs.
Both Holoda and Kyle Darmody scored at NCAAs in the 50, though neither went a season-best there. Holoda will be a junior and Darmody a senior, with SEC scorers Zach Apple (sophomore) and Ziv Kalontrov (sophomore) representing the next class down. Plus, Auburn added talented rookie sprinters Brody Heck (20.1/44.3) and Colin Bone (20.4/44.7/1:37.8).
That group will need to step up to replace Jacob Molacek (20.1/43.2 last year, 19.4/42.8 lifetime-bests), who is leaving the program and transferring to NC State.
Distance Free: C
The Tigers were completely scoreless in any individual event over 200 yards at NCAAs last year, and distance remains their glaring weakness. Even with the SEC scoring down to 24th, Auburn had just four swimmers score between the 500 and 1650 frees.
The team salvages some points here by using sprinters (Holoda, Apple) and versatile others(flyer/freestyler Hugo Morris) to pull points in the 200 free. Morris was also 5th in the 500 free, but beyond him, Auburn had no one else in the top 20.
Grant Schenk (15:11 in the mile last year) and Alec Morris (4:23/15:19) can both score at SECs, but the distance races are still a liability at the national level for the Tigers.
Then-junior Joe Patching had a monster SEC meet last season, winning the 200 IM and taking 3rd in the 400 against some stacked competition. He swam pretty similar times at NCAAs and wound up 11th in both, though a 9th-place finish in prelims of the 200 cost him at least 5.5 points.
The issue is depth behind Patching, as a pair of outgoing transfers have left the IM cupboard bare. Sam Stewart (6th at SECs in the 400) is off to Texas, while Jacob Molacek (6th in the 200) is still weighing his options but has left the Auburn program.
That leaves the breaststroker Duderstadt (1:44.7 in the 200 IM) and Thomas Brewer (1:46.8) as the only returning IM scorers from SECs. Still, Patching’s presence is enough to give the team big NCAA points, especially if he can sneak into the top 8 this coming spring.
Losing NCAA scorer Arthur Mendes hurts, but Luis Martinez (46.2/1:44.7) has become a force in his own right, particularly in the sprints. Hugo Morris returns in the 200 after winning SECs and taking 8th at NCAAs for All-America honors.
Plus, the Tiger freshman class is loaded with flyers. Italy’s Paolo Ricci has some big-time potential, coming off a 9th-place showing at Italian Olympic Trials. His lifetime-bests in long course convert to 21.2 in the 50 yard fly and 47.0 in the 100 yard fly – but as with all international recruits, the question is how well he’ll adapt to college swimming’s short course yards format.
Auburn didn’t score any backstroke points at NCAAs last year, and probably only have one really good shot this coming year. Joe Patching won the SEC title at 1:40.14 and looked like the next to join the sub-1:40 club. But he added eight tenths of a second at NCAAs and faded to 18th, just outside of scoring range.
Still, he’s a good bet to score this coming year, and could conceivably be top 8 with a modest time drop.
Kyle Darmody is the team’s best sprint option, swimming to a 46.0 in the 100 back in addition to his sprint free duties. Darmody would need a good swim to score nationally, but is a returning SEC finalist and a solid leadoff leg of the 200 medley relay.
Auburn also has pretty decent depth here, with Josh Booth (47.3/1:46.1) and Taylor Copeland (47.4/1:44.8) both solid SEC scorers.
Michael Duderstadt has become a great all-around breaststroker, but NCAAs last year weren’t kind to him. Duderstadt won SEC titles in the 100 (51.9) and 200 (1:53.5) breaststrokes, but at NCAAs faded to 52.2 and 1:58.0, scoring only in the 100 with a tie for 10th.
If the now-senior can swim his best times at NCAAs, he’s worth perhaps 30 individual points, but it’ll take a much better meet to do it.
Beyond him, depth is very questionable. Blue chip high school breaststroke recruit Molacek is gone to a transfer, leaving rising sophomore Thomas Brewer (54.1/1:57.1) as the only other swimmer in conference scoring range. (2015 NCAA qualifier Zack Warner is also gone, but left the team midway through last year, so he doesn’t affect points lost from last season to this one). That means Auburn’s breaststroke hopes will very much ride or die on Duderstadt’s performances.
With the exception of distance freestyle, this Auburn crew is pretty well-rounded for dual meet and invitational competition (and let’s be honest: in the NCAA’s relay-heavy format, a distance free weakness is probably the least damaging lineup hole).
There’s some turnover with the coaching staff – three different team officials have left this offseason – but Auburn added an undeniable coaching talent in Sergio Lopez, who previously coached at the powerhouse Bolles School in Florida and also led a national training center in Singapore leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Auburn is a somewhat hard program to read in terms of 2017 expectations. If the team had swum at NCAAs the way it did at SECs, Auburn would very likely have pushed for a top-5 spot nationally. But the team will have to balance out its postseason focus in order to make that happen.
Maybe the biggest question is whether the personnel turmoil within the program (outgoing transfers Molacek and Stewart, plus departed coaches Ozzie Quevedo and John Hargis) outweighs the addition of Lopez and a small-but-talented freshman class.