Key Additions: Caitlin Cooper (GA – free/back), Jessie Gvosdas (VA – free/IM), Jennifer Marrkand (MA – fly/back), Laine Reed (TX – free), Dina Rommel (NY – sprint free/fly), CeCe Williams (FL – free), Salem Peacock (FL – free/back), Emily Langworthy (MD – diving), Corey Johnson (PA – diving)
Key Losses: Rachel Naurath (2 NCAA relays), Emily Lloyd (2 NCAA relays), Caroline Kenney (1 NCAA relay), Meredith Cavalier (1 NCAA relay)
For the Virginia Cavaliers, last season was an odd combination newness and the same-old, same-old. After 35 years at the helm, head coach Mark Bernardino moved on, officially retiring from Virginia and taking a year off before resurfacing as an assistant coach at South Carolina this spring.
With new head coach Augie Busch bringing a storied swimming lineage to Virginia from Houston, though, the Cavs didn’t miss a beat on the women’s side, winning a 7th-straight conference title in the expanded Atlantic Coast Conference, plus moving up from 18th to 11th at the NCAA Championships.
That success, ironically, is a combination of both head coaches. Most of Virginia’s key contributors were freshmen (like Leah Smith and Kaitlyn Jones), swimmers who were recruited to Virginia by Bernardino but trained and developed by Busch. It’s an odd mix, and it’s hard to fully place the credit on one coach or the other.
Smith wound up scoring big points in both the 500 and 1650 freestyles as one of the premier young distance swimmers in the country. Courtney Bartholomew blasted one of the NCAAs first A cuts of the season during the fall semester and rode that momentum to a pair of top-5 finishers in the backstrokes. The Cavs supplemented that by scoring in three relays, and rolled to an 11th-place finish with 123 points.
What’s next for Smith & Jones?
A major part of Virginia’s nucleus moving forward is the duo of Smith and Jones, and not the ones roaming the Old West on TV in the ’70s. Leah Smith and Kaitlyn Jones were both top-10 prospects when Bernardino brought them to Virginia, and both were key contributors as freshmen.
Smith disappointingly missed the A final of the 500 free, but stormed back at finals to put up the third-fastest time of the entire event behind only Brittany MacLean and Missy Franklin. She was third in the 1650 as well and missed scoring by a single place in the 200 free. For a very successful freshman season, that still leaves a lot of points on the table to be earned next season.
Jones was a similar story. The ACC champ and an NCAA point-scorer in the 200 IM as a freshman, Jones actually missed her lifetime-bests in all three events this postseason. She got close in the 200 IM and 100 backstroke, though, and it’s hard to call a season “disappointing” when one wins an ACC title and scores at the hypercompetitive national meet. Maybe “improvable” is the better word for Jones’ season, because if she can crack those lifetime-bests this year, she could be a two or event three event scorer at nationals for the Cavs.
Obviously, Courtney Bartholomew is the backbone of this team scoring-wise right now, and we’ll get to her. But Smith and Jones represent two areas for major points upgrades for a team that graduated no individual NCAA scorers. Luckily for Virginia, those two are also among their most talented swimmers with incredibly high ceilings.
Bartholomew in the crowded backstrokes
The aforementioned Courtney Bartholomew has been the key contributor for Virginia in both of her collegiate seasons, and that won’t change in 2014-2015. After taking 3rd in the 200 back and 5th in the 100 last year, Bartholomew is among the best in perhaps the NCAAs most loaded set of events at the moment.
But that crowded field is why it’ll take an extra-great effort for Bartholomew to outdo or even match her 30 individual points from 2014. The 200 was her best finish last year, but things get brutal trying to pass the top two. Ahead of Bartholomew in the 200 is Commonwealth Games medalist Brooklynn Snodgrass and American record-holder Elizabeth Pelton. On top of that, there’s a chance Olympic champ Missy Franklin jumps back into the backstrokes next season after bolstering Cal’s weaker freestyle events in 2014. Throw in a healthy Bonnie Brandon, plus incoming freshmen Kylie Stewart (Georgia) and Clara Smiddy (Michigan) and this event becomes a murderer’s row. Bartholomew is an elite talent and fully belongs in a paragraph with these other swimmers. But even the staunchest Virginia supporter would have to agree that a Bartholomew could have an outstanding post-season and still end up slipping to fourth in this race.
The 100 looks a little rosier, by comparison anyway. The top three all graduate from NCAAs last year, leaving Snodgrass and Bartholomew as the two to beat. There’s the specter of Franklin, of course (less likely after how well her 200 free went in March), but the bigger threat is her college and Olympic teammate Rachel Bootsma returning to her 2013 NCAA Championship form.
All this is to say the team shouldn’t lean too heavily on a major points improvement from Bartholomew. Then again, there would be no bigger momentum boost for the Cavs than a national championship run from Bartholomew, and if anyone on the team has the ability to pull of something on that scale, it’s her.
Year Two for Augie
Head coach Augie Busch should be a little more settled in year two than he was in a whirlwind first season. When Virginia parted ways with Bernardino on July 1st, the frenzy of recruiting was just getting going, and when the University hired Busch just nine days later, the former Houston coach was forced to take the reigns mid-stride and re-form the program as he went.
With a full season under his belt, and more importantly, a full off-season to plan and recharge, Busch should be much more comfortable in year two. The incoming freshman class will be the first crop of swimmers Busch recruited, and though the rest of the NCAA had a solid head-start by the time he could actually begin recruiting, the class turned out very solid.
A coaching change that close to the start of the season certainly had the potential to take the wind out of the team’s sails momentum-wise. But now that Busch and his women’s roster have a 7th-straight ACC title under their belts, things seem to be chugging right along, and there’s little reason to suspect things should be anything but even better in 2014-2015.
Let’s talk about those freshmen! The incoming crew is a solid, if understated group. They made heavy consideration for our recruiting top 12 rankings (which you can find here), but didn’t quite have a big key piece enough to displace anyone on the list. Still, that’s not a bad thing for a team that doesn’t have any major studs to replace after graduation.
Though 4 swimmers from the NCAA team are gone, they were all relay swimmers who together accounted for 6 of the team’s 12 total relay legs. This class should help fill in that depth somewhat. Caitlin Cooper out of Georgia’s Dynamo Swim Club is particularly important, as she’ll likely be called on at some point to fill in the sprint free gap left by senior Emily Lloyd. Sprints were Virginia’s trouble event last year, and they’ll need some young guns to step up if they want to score in the shorter free relays, especially a 200 free relay that graduated 3 of its 4 legs and only took 16th. Dina Rommel out of New York should help with that too, but she’s a bit more raw and may require some time to get to an NCAA level.
CeCe Williams from Florida fits the Virginia mold well as a solid freestyler through the mid-distances and could wind up as a key player on an 800 free relay. The incoming backstrokers are particularly exciting, given they’ll have the opportunity to train with Bartholomew for two seasons as they develop. That group includes Jennifer Marrkand, Cooper and Salem Peacock.
Losing Hannah House (who changed her commitment away from Virginia late) hurts this class in the way of star power, but with 9 athletes still coming in, Busch should still have plenty to work with.
All in all, Virginia was a young team a year ago that somehow gets even younger in 2014-2015. Courtney Bartholomew is a genuine stud, and the rest of the NCAA is now fully aware of that. And those potential improvements from Leah Smith and Kaitlyn Jones could give the Cavs a true trio of power hitters to build their lineup around.
That’s without even mentioning now-sophomore Laura Simon, a point-scorer in the 200 breast who should lock down the breaststroke legs on both medleys. Simon was second in both breaststrokes at ACCs to Notre Dame’s breakout star Emma Reaney, and if Simon had repeated her 58.96 from the conference rounds at NCAAs, she would have been an easy A finalist. If she can put that together in year two, watch out for this crew.
The Cavs’ strangle-hold on the conference should get even more interesting this year, with a rising Louisville program now joining a slate that gained Notre Dame and Pitt a year ago. A young and deep Virginia squad should take full advantage of the conference’s policy of scoring down to 24th place, but swimmers will have to really hit it in prelims to earn a second swim. That kind of experience is good leading up to NCAAs, but can also rob athletes of second swims they might need to earn an NCAA invite if the morning goes awry.
Replicating an 11th-place finish or even moving up requires a couple things from this crew: namely, their young stars fully developing, the depth coming through enough to fill out scoring relays, and bubble swimmers managing to make NCAAs and then squeaking out points in the national championships. If those three things happen, Virginia looks like a legitimate top-10 program.