Key Additions: Danielle Nack (MN – fly/free), Brooke Zeiger (RI – IM/back), Brooke Lorentzen (CA – distance free), Yu Zhou (China – diving), Isabel Wyer (MN – back/free), Rae Bullinger (MN – breast), Beth Etterman (MN – diving)
Key Losses: Maggie Keefer (29 NCAA diving points), Erin Caflisch (2 NCAA relays), Tess Behrens (2 NCAA relays)
The Golden Gophers began last season as under-the-radar as a returning top-10 team typically gets. A very strong rising junior class was overlooked a bit as the major question – how would the team replace former NCAA champ Haley Spencer – seemed most pressing. The team peaked for the Minneapolis Grand Prix, which is unique for two reasons: it’s a few weeks earlier than the mid-season rest meet for most colleges, and the Grand Prix competition is more professionals than college athletes, making it difficult to get a good read on the team mid-way through the year.
By the post-season, though, the picture was crystal clear. Hosting both Big Tens and NCAAs, the Gophers went on a late-winter tear. What looked like a close battle with Indiana for the conference title turned lopsided, with the Gophers triumphing by over 100. Spencer’s replacement stepped up in a big way – Canadian sophomore Kierra Smith won both conference breaststroke titles while her classmate and fellow Canadian Samantha Harding chipped in a pair of runner-up finishes in a breakthrough season.
That made it three titles in a row for the Gophers, following a run of three-straight from Indiana, and the team really rolled along on depth, winning only the two events from Smith, two diving titles (Maggie Keefer on 3-meter and Sarah McCrady on platform) and a single relay, the 800 free.
That depth showed through again at home for the NCAA Championships, where 10 different women scored points to put Minnesota into the top 10 for a second-straight season. Keefer was the heavy lifter, scoring on all three boards, and the Golden Gophers managed to score in 4 of the 5 relays to beat out Virginia by just over 13 points for 10th.
Power class comes of age
For the past several years, Minnesota has been powered by a bruising recruiting class they pulled in several years ago, a crew that are now seniors. It’s a group that’s very wide-ranging, event-wise, and has been the driving force behind the conference three-peat and the team’s past three NCAA finishes of 11th, 10th and 10th.
It’s hard to even pick out a centerpiece of this group. Kiera Janzen has been a dominating force across a big range of freestyle distances in her three years. She was a championship finalist in the 500 and 1650 frees at NCAAs last year, and missed scoring in the 200 free by just under half a second. Canadian Jessica Plant had a huge junior season and swims just a tick more on the sprint side than Janzen – Plant scored in the 200 free at NCAAs and is also accomplished in the 100, 500 and swims some backstroke.
On the sprint side of things, Becca Weiland is both the best sprint freestyler and sprint butterflyer in program history. A former Big Ten champ, Weiland is a returning NCAA scorer in the 50 free and 100 fly. Devin Ste Marie handles the 200 fly along with Tori Simenec, who’s also become a stud IMer for the Golden Gophers. Meanwhile Blake Zeiger is one of those do-everything sprinters who specializes in the 50 free but has also been dangerous in the 100 fly and helped fill the team’s void in breaststroking depth last year.
Attack of the Canadians
Besides Plant and Ste Marie, the Gophers have done great recruiting in the Great White North, mining Canada’s talent pool as well as anyone else in the NCAA over the better part of a decade.
Kierra Smith is a big piece of the team’s continuity moving forward. She made the championship final of last year’s wild 200 breast final, and she’s followed that up with an even better summer. She tied for fourth at the Commonwealth Games and followed that up by going even faster and taking 4th at Pan Pacs. Just outside of medal reach internationally all summer, look for Smith to be on the medal hunt this NCAA season as a junior.
Samantha Harding was another big contributor, scoring in the 500 and 1650 frees as a sophomore at NCAAs, and she looks like a solid bet to back up Janzen in the distance events. Harding also brings a fast 400 IM to the table, where she pairs with now-sophomore Breanne Siwicki, yet another Canadian, who finaled in the 400 IM and 1650 free at Big Tens.
Nack and the Brookes make up the next generation
With such a big senior class, this year will be as much about developing succession plans in those events as it is about wringing maximum points out of a strong senior crew. With that in mind, the Gophers made a big recruiting push last fall, picking up some big names that made for our 8th-ranked recruiting class of the year.
One of the more important gets was Danielle Nack, a top-10 recruit from right inside the state of Minnesota. Nack is a top-tier butterflyer and has the potential to contribute immediately at the NCAA level before taking over for Weiland & co. after that. She’s also got some solid freestyling potential and could wind up as a 4-relay-type swimmer with a solid freshman season.
Further bolstering the distances behind Janzen is Brooke Lorentzen out of California. She’s another of those rangy freestyle talents who could see her biggest developments anywhere from 200 to 1650 yards in a Minnesota program that’s done big things with freestylers of late.
The other big addition in this class is another Brooke – Brooke Zeiger out of the East coast’s Bluefish Swim Club. Zeiger’s a 400 IMer with a ton of versatility, which should give head coach Kelly Kremer some serious lineup options. Zeiger’s got a great 200 back, but is also intriguing in the lengthier freestyle distances. As the Gophers still have some shaky depth in the breaststrokes behind Kierra Smith, it’s not out of the question that Zeiger could wind up filling in there during dual meet season much like her older sister Blake did last year.
Who will step up on the boards and in the backs?
Though the Gophers only graduated 3 off of their NCAA team, the loss of Maggie Keefer on the boards is a big one. Keefer was the team’s top point-scorer in 2014, putting up 29 points herself between three diving events. Renowned diving coach Wenbo Chen is great at coaching up talent, but even he’ll be hard-pressed to replace Keefer’s production this season.
Jessica Ramberg was an NCAA qualifier last year, and she’ll be one of the top candidates to fill Keefer’s spot. Also in the hunt will be Big Ten finalist Katy Etterman, now a senior, and Minnesota also brought in a pair of freshman divers, Etterman’s younger sister Beth and China’s Yu Zhou.
Keefer isn’t the only graduation to cover. Though Erin Caflisch and Tess Behrens were only relay-scorers at NCAAs, they were also a big part of the Golden Gophers’ sprint depth, a spot they’ll be a little thinner at this season. Probably hardest hit will be the 200 free relay and 200 medley relay, which featured both now-departed seniors. The addition of Nack will help, but the Gophers will probably need another fast-twitch sprinter to step up to really round out those relays.
Behrens was also the team’s top backstroker, and her absence leaves a noticeable lineup hole in both the individual races and the medley relays. Minnesota is hoping for big developments from last year’s freshman class, which included Katelyn Holmquist, Maddie Hoch and Ellen Bloom. Holmquist scored in the 100 at Big Tens a year ago, and seems like an early front-runner.
With such a strong senior class, Minnesota seems to once again have the talent of a top-10 program. They’ll be relatively well-rounded, and nearly all of their major contributors have the experience of at least one full NCAA meet under their belt.
The loss of Keefer in diving is the biggest hurdle to overcome, and it’ll probably take a combination of swimming and diving newcomers to make up her 29 points. In the pool, the Gophers desperately need a backstroker to develop, but that’s the only event they’re not strong in at the top. From there, it’s on to developing depth in the sprints and breaststroking events.
The sprints appear especially important. If the Gophers have designs on moving further into the nation’s top 10, they’ll need bigger point boosts from their relays. Only one of the team’s five relays finished in the top 8 last spring, and that was the 800 free relay. With the same few teams grabbing the championship final spots in almost every relay, teams like Minnesota won’t be able to crack the next level until they can elbow their way to the table for a shot at those nourishing double relay points.
The Golden Gophers are an intriguing team on the rise, but one that seems to thrive on flying under the radar. With one of the nation’s earliest mid-season focus meets (the Minneapolis Grand Prix in mid-November), the lady Gophers tend to make a big statement but then watch that statement get lost in the shuffle of early December’s flood of mid-season invites. But no matter how low-profile it gets, this doesn’t seem like a team to sleep on, especially with such a loaded senior class. Keep an eye on the relay depth, particularly, because that’s going to be the biggest determining factor in how high this team eventually rises.