We’ll be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s programs for the 2019-2020 season – 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 more in-depth college swimming coverage, including a bird’s-eye view of the flood of coaching changes and our ever-popular rankings of the top 50 individual swimmers in college swimming.
#11 Kentucky Wildcats
Key Losses: Geena Freriks (6 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Haley McInerny (1 NCAA relay)
Key Additions: #8 Caitlin Brooks (FL – back), Gillian Davey (IA – breast/IM), Kaitlynn Wheeler (IL – IM/free), Lauren Poole (MD – IM/back), Beth McNeese (TX – distance free), Ashley Neas (GA – distance free), Emily Baeth (IA – free), Tori McCullough (MD – distance free), Trinity Ward (PA – sprint free/fly), Maddie Deucher (TX – back), Morgan Southall (OH – diver)
We’re unveiling a new, more data-based grading criteria in this year’s series. Our grades this year are based on ‘projected returning points’, a stat of our own making. We started with our already-compiled “no senior returning points” (see here and here), which is effectively a rescoring of 2019 NCAAs with seniors removed and underclassmen moved up to fill those gaps. In addition, we manually filtered out points from known redshirts and swimmers turning pro early, while manually adjusting points for outgoing and incoming transfers and adding in projected points for incoming freshmen with NCAA scoring times, as well as athletes returning from injury or redshirts who are very likely NCAA scorers.
Since we only profile the top 12 teams in this format, our grades are designed with that range in mind. In the grand scheme of college swimming and compared to all other college programs, top 12 NCAA programs would pretty much all grade well across the board. But in the interest of making these previews informative, our grading scale is tough – designed to show the tiers between the good stroke groups, the great ones, and the 2015 Texas men’s fly group types.
- 5 star (★★★★★) – a rare, elite NCAA group projected to score 25+ points per event
- 4 star (★★★★) – a very, very good NCAA group projected to score 15-24 points per event
- 3 star (★★★) – a good NCAA group projected to score 5-14 points per event
- 2 star (★★) – a solid NCAA group projected to score 1-4 points per event
- 1 star (★) – an NCAA group that is projected to score no points per event, though that doesn’t mean it’s without potential scorers – they’ll just need to leapfrog some swimmers ahead of them to do it
We’ll grade each event discipline: sprint free (which we define to include all the relay-distance freestyle events, so 50, 100 and 200), distance free, IM, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and diving. Bear in mind that our grades and painstaking scoring formula attempts to take into account all factors, but is still unable to perfectly predict the future. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.
Over head coach Lars Jorgensen‘s six-season tenure with the program, Kentucky has mostly hovered around 100 NCAA points and a finish right around 15th. 2019 was no deviation, with the Wildcats just cracking triple digits with 100.5 points and hauling in a 15th-place finish.
The vast majority of the production came from junior Asia Seidt, who has become one of the nation’s best backstrokers and IMers during her time in Lexington. Seidt was 3rd in a very-fast 200 back field and 5th in both the 100 back and 200 IM. Joining her in a stacked backstroke group was fellow junior Ali Galyer, who made an A final appearance in the 200 back.
Kentucky only entered three relays at NCAAs but scored in all three, and return 9 of the 12 legs from those relays.
Sprint Free: ★
Kentucky has generally struggled in sprint freestyle, and that’s been a big reason they haven’t been able to crack the top 12 nationally. Last year, they had no scorers at even the SEC level in the 50 or 100 freestyle, and they graduate their top 200 freestyler Freriks, who was still only 21st at NCAAs.
The big hope, though, is for rising sophomore Riley Gaines, who was an SEC C finalist in the 200 free (1:45.7) and was just outside of conference scoring in the 100 (27th, 49.7). Gaines dropped about a second and a half in the 200 free as a freshman and three tenths in the 50. She could conceivably get down to NCAA scoring level in the 200 this year, though it would require a pretty similar drop to last year, but most important is the work she could do on Kentucky’s freestyle relays with further improvements.
Galyer could be an individual scorer in the 200 free, but that’s an awfully tough double with her 100 back. She can do both in the expanded, five-day SEC format, but probably not in the four-day NCAA lineup.
For depth, the Wildcats will have rising junior Olivia Huffman (23.6), rising senior Kelly Rodriguez (50.9/1:50.4) and incoming freshman Trinity Ward (23.5/49.9/1:50.5).
Distance Free: ★
Freriks was a solid distance presence last year, but things are sparse in her absence. In fact, Kentucky graduates its top three 500 freestylers (Freriks, Paige Kelly and Meredith Whisenhunt), who were also three of the top four milers. Meanwhile SEC scorer and 16:20 miler Savannah Dupuis does not appear on the roster. She would’ve been one of Kentucky’s best scoring hopes in her junior year.
Junior Jaclyn Hill does returns as an SEC scorer in the 500 (4:46.27).
The recruiting class is deep with distance freestylers, but most of them are more developmental. Beth McNeese out of Texas might be most exciting; she dropped five seconds in her 500 last year (4:55 to 4:50) and went 4:16 over the summer in the long course 400 free.
Backstroke U just keeps chugging along. Kentucky has been one of the nation’s top backstroking programs over Jorgensen’s tenure, and they have more projected returning backstroke points than any other program in the nation at present.
A lot of that is Asia Seidt, who returns among the top 3 in both backstrokes and has her path further cleared by Taylor Ruck’s Olympic redshirt season. Seidt has a way to go to pass up Beata Nelson for NCAA titles, but she’s a clear-cut double-A-finalist who could score 30+ in the backstrokes alone after going 50.6 and 1:48.6 as a junior.
Ali Galyer also returns for her senior year. She was 8th in the 200 back (1:50.3) last year and could be a 100 back (52.5) scorer without that tough 200 free/100 back double on Friday of NCAAs.
Add in the team’s top recruit, Caitlin Brooks, and this just feels unfair for everyone else. Brooks is a top-10 overall recruit and one of the class’s best 200 backstrokers at 1:52.01 – already an NCAA scoring time. She’s 52.2 in the 100, just a tick from scoring there as well. Add in last year’s freshman Sophie Sorenson (53.0/1:52.9) and this is going to be one of the nation’s absolute best backstroking crews.
Kentucky has also risen fast in the breaststrokes. Just a sophomore last year, Bailey Bonnett is already among the best breaststrokers nationwide. She’s the second overall returner in the 200 breast after taking 5th last year in 2:06.91. She’s on the cusp of scoring in the 100 breast after going 59.7 at SECs and 59.9 at NCAAs. Bonnett’s improvement has been great, especially in the 200, where she was 2:12 out of high school, 2:07 as a freshman and 2:06 as a sophomore.
The Wildcats do lose NCAA qualifier Madison Winstead, who was 59.8 and 2:08.5 last year and earned an NCAA invite. She medically retired in the offseason. The recruiting class chips in a top talent with 2:10.4 Gillian Davey out of Iowa. In all, this group is definitely more geared to the 200 than the 100, but has potential to have three scorers in that longer breaststroke race.
Yet another young group. Kentucky’s top flyer last year was freshman Izzy Gati, who returns for her sophomore campaign after dropping from 53.6/1:56.8 to 52.8/1:55.3 as a rookie. She actually returns 17th overall in the 200 fly, so while Kentucky isn’t projected to score any butterfly points this year (hence the one-star grade), their scoring prospects aren’t necessarily that gloomy.
The freshman Brooks should also help out here – she’s 53.4 in the 100 fly, assuming she can pull off the 100 fly/100 back double in the NCAA format.
Obviously, Seidt carries this group with a likely A final appearance in the 200 IM. In fact, with a good number of last year’s top 8 graduating, Seidt is actually the 3rd overall returner and in line for major points after going 1:53.5 last year.
The 200 IM will have lots of crossovers from other strokes. The breaststroker Bonnett is 1:57.2 and the backstroker Sorenson 1:59.0. Sorenson, in particular, cut three seconds in that event last year. The team’s top true IMer is rising junior Lauren Edelman, a 1:59.6/4:10.2 swimmer who just barely missed an NCAA invite in the 400 IM last year.
The freshman class adds a bunch of true IMers to the group, too. Kaitlynn Wheeler out of Illinois could be the team’s best 200 IMer after Seidt graduates – she’s 1:58.9 out of high school, along with 4:14 in the 400. Maryland’s Lauren Poole (1:59.3/4:13.2) is a little better at the 400 IM, and the breaststroker Davey is also 4:13 out of high school.
None are super likely to score as rookies, but they’re in range where it wouldn’t take a mind-blowing drop to get there.
The freshman Kyndal Knight was a huge rookie addition last year, scoring on 3-meter and earning an NCAA invite on 1-meter. She actually returns 8th in that 3-meter event, and could conceivably score on both springboards.
Diving can be hard to project among recruits, but Morgan Southall was an Ohio state champion and should be a nice freshman addition.
For a team with such great back and breast talent, the medley relays aren’t quite as good as you’d expect. That’s because most of their stroke specialists are better at the 200 than the 100, and the relays probably don’t suit their endurance-based strengths quite as well.
The 400 medley should be better than the 200. It makes most sense to use Galyer on backstroke and Seidt on butterfly, unless Gati really comes along in sprint fly this season. Bonnett should handle the breaststroke, and Gaines was a very good 48.8 on the end last year, almost a second faster than her flat-start best.
That’s a theme for Gaines, who also split 22.2 at SECs, nearly another second better than her lifetime-best 50 free. If she can split 21, the 200 medley could have legs as well.
The team’s best relay last year was the 800 free, where they were 10th. But they lose two of the four legs, including a 1:44.3 anchor from Freriks. Galyer and Seidt can both be 1:44 or better, and Gaines can probably chip in a 1:45 or better, assuming they don’t want to use her on the other four relays. But they may have to scrape for a fourth leg – freshman Emily Baeth (1:48.2) might be the highest-upside option.
The 200 free relay is going to struggle, with no individual 22-second sprinters on the roster. But the 400 returns three of four legs and scored last year. Seidt, Gaines and Galyer are a solid core, again maybe one swimmer short but with some potential freshmen who could fill the void.
In general, this is a very young roster, even with top scorers Seidt and Galyer both in their final collegiate seasons. The relays just don’t look complete, and that’s going to put a cap on this team’s scoring in the relay-centric NCAA system. But Kentucky also has its areas of clear strength – back and breast should be huge boosts, and diving might just be in that ballpark too.
Long-term, the best thing that could happen for Kentucky this year is to see big develoment from its freshmen (Brooks, Davey, Wheeler and Poole in particular) and its returning sophomores like Knight, Gati and Sorenson. That said, with Seidt and Galyer set to do the heavy lifting points-wise, this year’s Wildcat team has a real shot to put up the school’s best-ever NCAA showing, knocking off a 12th-place finish back in 2007.