Key Additions: Kira Toussaint (Florida Gulf Coast transfer – back), Emily Allen (NC – free), Maddie Banic (VA – fly/back), Christina Paspalas (AZ – back), Carrie Johnson (TN – fly/back), Leslie Cole (VA – breast), Hannah Holman (AZ – breast/IM), Rachel Rubadue (OH – diving)
Key Losses: Molly Hannis (27 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Cherelle Thompson (1 NCAA relay), Erin Gaeckle (SEC scoring backstroker), Christina Leander (transfer to Miami, 2014 NCAA qualifier)
Despite an 11th-place finish at the NCAA Championships, 2015 was a year of some missed postseason opportunities for the Tennessee Volunteers.
There was plenty good news for the Volunteers. Senior breaststroker Molly Hannis was a force, posting top-6 finishes in both breaststroke races. She also had huge relay split after huge relay split for the Volunteer medley relays, which ultimately served as the core of the team’s points.
Junior Amanda Carner took six seconds off her lifetime-best in the 400 IM throughout the year, ultimately rocketing right into the NCAA’s A-final with a 7th-place finish. Fellow junior Faith Johnson scored in the 50 free.
In fact, Tennessee managed to place both medley relays inside the top 5 nationally. Those relays included Carner, Hannis, Harper Bruens and Johnson, who made up a brilliant relay corps that returns everyone but Hannis in 2015-2016. Both medleys won SEC titles, and the 200 medley topped out at third place nationally.
Unfortunately, NCAAs was also filled with a heartbreaking number of bad breaks for the Vols. Their best distance swimmer, Maddy Tegner, scratched out of the meet entirely at the last minute. Tegner, the school record-holder in the mile, would have almost certainly put individual points on the board. She likely would have helped the 800 free relay place higher as well.
Several key swimmers, including star sprinter Faith Johnson, weren’t quite able to match their times from the SEC Championships. The team got burned by three 17th-place finishes, finishing a combined 0.69 seconds away from scoring in the 1650 free, 400 IM and 100 free. (Johnson was .01 out of scoring in the 100, Lauren Driscoll .04 out in the 400 IM and Morgan Dickson .64 away in the mile).
In the very first event, the 200 free relay finished 9th, then put up the 7th-best time overall in finals – a 6-point swing right out of the gates. Those 6 points would have pushed them from 11th to 9th in the NCAA’s tightly-packed final standings.
Strong Senior Class Returns
The good news out of all their heartbreak is that Tennessee will field almost the exact same roster in 2015-2016, with only 3 graduating seniors and 1 outgoing transfer. The returning core of point-scorers is centered in the senior class, an experienced, talented bunch who should have something to prove after an adversity-laden 2015 postseason.
Molly Hannis is the only graduating point-scorer from NCAAs (more on her departure below), and the team returns 17 of its 20 relay legs. Besides Hannis, the only NCAA points graduating come from Cherelle Thompson, who swam on the 200 free relay last year.
Faith Johnson will still be a key piece for the Vols, both in the sprint freestyles and on the four sprint relays. She’ll also look to rebound from a junior season that saw her regress slightly from her outstanding 2014 times. Johnson was 21.84 in the 50 and 48.41 in the 100 as a sophomore, but last season could only muster 22.00 and 48.50. Getting Johnson back on track will go a long way in beefing up the Tennessee relays.
Also returning in the senior class is Harper Bruens, who has become a versatile sprinting power. Bruens filled the butterfly legs of both medley relays admirably last year (a 22.9 split in the 50 and 52.2 in the 100), but her best individual events are probably the 50 and 100 freestyles, where she was an SEC finalist last year.
This is a loaded senior class all-around, but Amanda Carner is the other big returnee after her All-America-earning 400 IM last year. Though Carner led off both medley relays, she specializes in the IMs where she was a double-SEC finalist last winter.
Though there haven’t been many personnel losses, Hannis is a huge asset to move on from. Counting her portion of relay points, Hannis put up 42 of the team’s 125 points at last year’s NCAAs, and you could argue that she deserves more than 25% of the relay points based on her crushing splits (26.4 in the 50, 57.7 in the 100, ranked #1 and #2 in the NCAA, respectively).
Making matters worse is that Tennessee doesn’t have an obvious built-in replacement. The only other breaststroker on their roster last year was Colleen Callahan, who is 1:01.29 and 2:11.03 in the 100 and 200. That’s a nice start, and a good year of development could put Callahan into NCAA scoring range. But UT will have to bank on a big junior year out of Callahan, especially if they plan to lean on their medley relays as much as they did last year. The ultra-fast NCAA has reached a point where a breaststroke split above 1:00 is suddenly a pretty major liability when there are multiple athletes dropping 57s and 58-lows.
For depth, the Vols are going to count on incoming freshman duo Hannah Holman and Leslie Cole. Those two should pair nicely – Scottsdale, Arizona’s Holman is a bit better at the 200 (2:15.46) while Virginia’s NCAP product Cole has a little more 100 speed (1:02.75). Both of those times should be right on the bubble for SEC points.
Fellow freshman Maddie Banic is one of the team’s top pickups as a backstroker/butterflyer (53.0 in the back, 52.4 in the fly), but also throws down a 1:02 in the 100 breast. Banic is pretty much a pure sprinter, and could turn out to be a relay solution on the breaststroke legs, especially given Tennessee’s recent success using all-arounders like Carner and Bruens to great success on medley relays.
Touss-Ain’t She Great?
Much like their men’s team counterpart at #11, the Missouri Tigers, Tennessee’s roster changes boil down to two major moves: one outgoing All-American breaststroker and one of the best incoming transfers in the nation.
Where the Missouri men got Western Kentucky’s Fabian Schwingenschlogl, the Tennessee women pulled Florida Gulf Coast All-American Kira Toussaint.
Toussaint is one of the nation’s best backstrokers, placing 7th in the 100 at the 2014 NCAAs and 8th in 2015. Toussaint is the Dutch record-holder in the short course meter 100 back, and has been as fast as 51.68 in yards. She goes 1:53.72 in the 200 and has been as fast as 23.91 leading off a medley relay – more than a full second faster than Tennessee’s backstroke leg last year.
That means that even if the Vols see a big breaststroke dropoff in 2016, they should stay afloat based on the added speed from Toussaint. The incoming transfer could be a factor on any or all of the free relays, as well. She’s the CCSA record-holder in the 200 free at 1:47.02, which would be a big boost to the 800 free relay, Tennessee’s weakest relay last year.
Toussaint is one of a number of backstrokers entering the program. Last season, the team sorely missed Lauren Solernou, who graduated in 2014, but they clearly recruited to fill that gap.
Banic, out of Virginia’s Quest Swimming, would likely be the team’s top backstroker as an incoming freshman, were it not for the arrival of Toussaint, who will be a junior. In addition, the team brought in Phoenix Swim Club’s Christina Paspalas (a 54.0/1:58.8 backstroker) and local product Carrie Johnson (55.8 as a 16-year-old in 2014) out of Nashville Aquatic Club.
That helps, because the team lost Christina Leander to a transfer this offseason. Leander was an SEC scorer and NCAA qualifier as a freshman, but did not compete in the postseason for Tennessee last year. But even without Leander, the team should be set on backstroking depth in 2016, with Toussaint, Carner, the three freshmen and returning SEC point-scorers Madison Hahn and Anna DeMonte.
Other Key Swimmers
- North Carolina’s Emily Allen is a huge recruiting pickup for Matt Kredich & co. Swimming from North Mecklenburgh Aquatic Club, Allen has been 22.7 in the 50 free, 48.7 in the 100 and 1:46.7 in the 200, all SEC scoring times. She’ll be an instant relay factor, and could eventually take over for Johnson as the team’s go-to sprinter.
- We mentioned Tegner, who scratched out of NCAAs in the distance races. Tegner has been sub-16 minutes in the mile, and was fourth at last year’s SECs. She’s an NCAA scoring threat in both the 500 and 1650, and probably would have accounted for 10-15 points last year. That number might turn out to be a lot higher in 2016, considering Tegner destroyed her lifetime-bests in the 400, 800 and 1500-meter freestyles this past summer.
- Joining Tegner in the burgeoning Tennessee distance group is rising junior Morgan Dickson, who scored in the 500 and 1650 at SECs and just missed All-America honors in the mile at NCAAs last year. That could be a powerful 1-2 punch for the Vols, who are starting to build a distance training group good enough to attract pros like Alex Meyer and Kate Ziegler, both U.S. Olympians.
- One more member of the strong senior class is Lauren Driscoll, who missed scoring in the 400 IM at NCAAs by .04 seconds last year. Driscoll was 10th at SECs in that race, and also swims the 200 IM and 200 back.
- Last year’s freshman class was small, but produced some immediate contributions. Amy Lubawy competed on the 9th-place 200 free relay, swimming right on the edge of a 21-second relay split several times. Meanwhile Alex Cleveland and Micah Bohon traded off roles on the 400 free relay, with Cleveland swimming at SECs and Bohon at NCAAs. All three will be in line for bigger roles as sophomores. Lubawy and Cleveland scored at SECs in the 50 free, and Bohon in the 400 IM.
- On the diving boards, Tennessee will return senior Sarah Chewning, who scored in two diving events last year. They’ll also add freshman Rachel Rubadue, who competed for Team USA at the Pan-American Sports Festival last year.
Though the loss of Molly Hannis will sting, there’s plenty reason to be optimistic about the coming year for Tennessee swimming. Kira Toussaint is a massive addition that should allow Tennessee to continue its run of strong medley relay swimming for another year, and should help mitigate the individual points lost in Hannis.
Getting a big year from Faith Johnson will be a major key. If the senior can get back under the 22-second barrier in the 50 and press down towards 47 in the 100, this team suddenly has some serious weapons across the board.
Johnson leads a deep sprint group, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see her pair with Harper Bruens and incoming freshman Emily Allen to really tear up opponents through the short freestyle races. The Vols have plenty of depth in their freshman and sophomore classes to fill in the rest of the sprint free relays, and that’s a good sign. The NCAA’s scoring format puts a huge emphasis on the relays, which score double the points of individuals, making A final relays a must-have for any team trying to crack the top 10.
The trend hasn’t been positive for Tennessee the past few seasons, with a 3rd-place finish in 2013 turning into 7th in 2014 and 11th in 2015. But last year’s result had less to do with roster strength and more to do with the missed opportunities the team had in the postseason – the 9th- and 17th-place finishes, the time regressions from SECs to NCAAs and the loss of Tegner at nationals.
It would be hard to see a team hitting that many bad breaks in consecutive years, and Tennessee certainly hopes its luck will change in 2016. The accumulation of sprint depth should certainly help. And if new faces like Toussaint and Allen can combine to replace the points vacated by Hannis, this is a Tennessee team that should have a much higher ceiling than its 2015 performance.