After a one-year hiatus due to the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-2021 season, our college previews are back! We’ll be previewing the 2021-2022 seasons for the top 12 men’s and women’s programs from the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24.
#12 North Carolina Tar Heels
Key Losses: Allie Reiter (ACC B finalist in 100 breast, breaststroker on ACC Champs relays)
5th Years: UNC doesn’t have any 5th years on the women’s team this season.
Two years ago, we unveiled a new, more data-based grading criteria based on ‘projected returning points’, a stat of our own making that involved a lot of manual calculations involving departing seniors, redshirts, freshmen, etc. We liked the objectiveness of that stat, but given that there’s still a lot of uncertainty for this year, we’re adopting a hybrid approach this year. The “stars” will rely heavily on what swimmers actually did last year, but we’ll also give credit to returning swimmers or freshmen who have times that would have scored last year.
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 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. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.
In what was a difficult season for all teams, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing many swimmers to sit out, numerous training interruptions, and new restrictions and protocols to follow, the UNC Tar Heels shined in head coach Mark Gangloff‘s second year with the program. UNC burst onto the scene at the 2021 Women’s NCAA Championships, finishing 12th after a 42nd-place finish in 2019, right before Gangloff took over.
The Tar Heels accumulated points through a balanced attack, earning 50 of their 144 points from relays. They were able to secure A-final appearances in the 200 medley relay and 200 free relay, as well as B-final appearances in the 400 free and 400 medley relays. Their highest individual scorer was freshman diver Aranza Vazquez-Montano, who scored 47 points thanks to A finals appearances in all 3 of the diving events. Grace Countie earned 35 points herself, finishing 5th in the 50 free, 7th in the 100 back, and 9th in the 100 free. They also picked up B finals swims from Sophie Lindner in the backstroke events.
It was truly a historic season for UNC — in just two years, Gangloff has taken the team to a top 10 contender at NCAAs. In 2020, Gangloff’s first year with the team, UNC came in fourth place at women’s ACCs. The team was in even greater shape as last year’s ACCs approached, but unfortunately for UNC, due to local COVID-19 protocols, they were only able to send a roster of 14 athletes to compete in the conference championships. Despite the setback, the small squad was still able to wrangle an eighth-place finish, scoring 300 points less than they did in 2020.
A big part of last year’s success was the resurgence of Grace Countie. Under Gangloff for a second year, Countie’s swimming flourished as she swam lifetime bests in all three of her primary events (50 free, 100 free, 100 back). She’d been stuck in the high-48 range in the 100 free since 2018, before bursting through with a 47.84 last season. She had a similar improvement in the 50, where she’d been in the low 22s since high school. In 2021 she broke out and got all the way down to 21.60, taking fifth at NCAAs. Countie’s improvement not only led to 35 individual points at NCAAs, but it also provided a critical boost to the Tar Heels relays.
Sprint Free: ★★★
UNC has a fairly deep sprint free group, however, their only real projected NCAA scorer as things stand right now is Countie. That’s still a great outlook for the Tar Heels, as Countie finished fifth in the 50 last year, and won the B-final of the 100 free, earning 23 points between the two events.
Incoming freshmen Greer Pattison and Elizabeth Sowards should add significant depth to this group from last year, as both swimmers enter the team as 22-second 50 freestylers. Both women are also low-50-point 100 freestylers. Although it seems ambitious to expect NCAA scoring from Pattison and Sowards this season, the pair could certainly improve to the point of scoring individually at ACCs, and appear to be very likely candidates to join Countie on the 200 and 400 free relays.
The 200 free was one of the weaker events on last year’s UNC roster, with their top 2020-2021 200 freestyler coming in at 1:46.59 (Sophie Lindner). UNC only had five sub-1:50 200 freestylers last season. Freshmen Sowards and Katie Rauch will look to boost the event, as Sowards is a 1:49.49, and Rauch is a 1:48.59.
Distance Free: ★
UNC currently has a small group of 500 freestylers and an even smaller group of milers. In fact, rising junior Addison Smith was the only Tar Heel to swim the 1650 last season, with a season best of 16:55.05. Smith was also the leading 500 freestyler on last year’s team (4:48.28), although incoming freshman Katie Rauch may take the crown, as she comes in with a best of 4:46.21.
Rauch hasn’t raced the 1650 since she was 13, however, she has a personal best of 9:53 in the 1000, which would have been the fastest on UNC’s team last year.
Rising seniors Grace Countie and Sophie Lindner are the focal point of this backstroke group, and both are returning NCAA scorers. Countie made the A-final in the 100 back at last year’s NCAAs, while Lindner made the B-final in both the 100 and 200. Both women are mid-51 100 backstrokers, and Lindner got down to 1:52.69 in the 200 last year.
The NCAA scoring potential looks to rest on Countie and Lindner again this year, but the team is adding significant depth with this freshmen class. Greer Pattison is the top freshman 100 backstroker on the team, coming in with a best of 53.55, which would have been third on UNC’s team last year. Leading the freshmen in the 200 back is Katie Rauch, who has been as fast as 1:55.12.
Additionally, Pattison comes in as a 1:57.09 200 backstroker, and Elizabeth Sowards a 1:58.56.
UNC graduated a fairly small class of seniors, and the most significant loss seems to have come for the breaststroke squad. Allie Reiter, who was the Tar Heels’ second-fastest breaststroker last year, has graduated. Reiter swam breast for UNC on their medley relays at ACCs last year. Last season, she was a 1:00.34 in the 100, and 2:12.84 in the 200.
Fortunately, UNC brings in freshman breaststroker Skyler Smith from California, who appears primed to replace Reiter. Smith has a personal best of 1:00.55 in the 100 breast and 2:14.29 in the 200. Additionally, rising sophomore Lexi Rudolph improved in both breast events last year, getting down to 1:01.34 in the 100, and 2:12.41 in the 200.
Leading the breast group as we enter this season is rising senior Lilly Higgs. Higgs led the team with a 59.77 100 breast last year, and a 2:10.32 200 breast, qualifying individually for NCAAs. She swam personal bests in both events last year as well. It’s possible that Smith could improve enough in her freshman season to take over as the top breaststroker on the team, but regardless, it will likely take a minimum of a low 59 in the 100, and a 2:07 in the 200 to score at NCAAs this season.
This is another group where UNC is developing quality depth, but as things stand now, they’re still just outside NCAA scoring potential. At the top of this group is rising junior Ellie Vannote, senior Sophie Lindner, and junior Caroline Cooper. Vannote and Lindner were both mid-52 100 flyers last year, while Cooper was a 53.64. In the 200 fly, Vannote led with a 1:57.08, and Cooper swam a 1:57.86.
Elizabeth Sowards enters her freshmen year with a 53.96 in the 100 fly, which would have been fourth on the roster last year.
While Vannote and Lindner both appear set to qualify for NCAAs in the 100 fly, it will probably take a sub-52 in the 100 fly to qualify for finals at NCAAs this season, so they’ll need to improve to score.
UNC’s IM group is one of the thinner disciplines on the team. Grace Countie was the leading 200 IMer last year (1:58.43), however, Countie would never race the 200 IM over the 50 free at a championship meet. That means we can discount(ie?) her in the IM, effectively making Lilly Higgs the top 200 IMer on the roster at 1:59.76. Aside from Countie, Higgs was the only swimmer on the roster last year to break 2:00 in the event, and none of the incoming freshmen have broken 2:00 before either.
Addison Smith led the 400 IM group last year with a 4:20.12 last year.
Interestingly, diving may be UNC’s top group this year, and we know how much of an effect a great diving squad can have on a team’s NCAA scoring. As previously stated, rising sophomore Aranza Vazquez-Montano led the Tar Heels in scoring at last year’s NCAAs, racking up 47 points as just a freshman. While that leaves little room to move up, UNC can relax a bit at the prospect of potentially having a 3x All-American diver again this year.
Rising senior Emily Grund will be out this season following her announcement that she’s been diagnosed with leukemia. Grund qualified for NCAAs all three of her previous seasons with the Tar Heels, including an 18th- and a 20th-place finish at NCAAs last year. Over the summer, Grund finished fourth in synchronized 3-meter diving at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
UNC’s relays came together well last season, and they actually look better this year. Last year, both 200 relays made NCAA A finals, and both 400s were B finals qualifiers. The 22-second 50 freestyler freshmen Elizabeth Sowards and Greer Pattison could slide in and help the 200 free relay this season. Last year, the slowest leg at NCAAs was Amy Dragelin splitting 22.30 on the anchor leg.
Also, Pattison and Sowards coming in as 50.13 and 50.30 100 freestylers could be huge for the Tar Heels, who had two 49-second splits on their NCAAs relay last year.
Pattison has the potential to be huge in the medley relays as well, as she could free Grace Countie up to swim free instead of backstroke. She’s been as fast as 24.69 in the 50 back before, and that was back in 2018. If Pattison can get down around 24.0 in the 50 back, that should allow Countie, who is a 21.60 flat-start 50 freestyler, to make the switch to free on the 200 medley. Similarly, if Pattison is able to improve enough from her 53.5 100 back, Countie could make the switch to free on the 400 medley as well.
With no devastating losses and all of their 2021 NCAAs qualifiers returning, UNC looks poised to improve yet again this year. They have reliable freestyle and backstroke sprinting from Grace Countie, and Sophie Lindner is coming off B-final appearances in both backstroke events. Aranza Vazquez-Montano is a huge returner on the boards, entering this season with every possibility of making the A-final in all three events again.
The relays looks to be improved over last year, given they return all of their NCAA members, and gain some freshmen who could end up taking spots in the sprint relays. The dynamic of whether Greer Pattison will be able to take the medley backstroke spot from Countie will be one to watch for, as Countie could be one of the fastest medley anchors in the NCAA this season.