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.
#2 CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS
Key Losses: Katie McLaughlin (43 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Amy Bilquist (43 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays)
Key Additions: #9 Ayla Spitz (CA – multi), HM Chloe Clark (CA – multi), Rachel Klinker (KY – free/fly/IM), Sarah Dimeco (WA – free/fly/IM), Danielle Carter (CA – back), Ashlyn Fiorilli (TX – fly/IM), Emma Davidson (CA – sprint free)
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 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.
Kathleen Baker might’ve forgone her final year of NCAA eligibility to go pro, but the Cal women’s exceptional senior class led the Golden Bears to a runner-up finish last season. Their meet was highlighted by American and NCAA records in the 200 free relay, 400 free relay, and Abbey Weitzeil in the 50 free.
The Cal sprint group was revelatory, blowing away American records in the sprint relays. Amy Bilquist (20.87) and Weitzeil (20.49) had unearthly legs on the 200 free relay, which became the first team to break 1:25 with a 1:24.55. On the 400 free relay, Katie McLaughin and Bilquist split 46-mids, anchored by a 46.0 from Weitzeil as Cal clocked a 3:06.96 there.
Weitzeil, Bilquist, and McLaughlin pulled their weight, to say the least. Weitzeil, Cal’s best returner, won the 50 free with an American record 21.02 and placed 4th in the 200 and 100 free. Bilquist and McLaughlin each chipped in 43 points, with McLaughlin dropping a sub-50 on the 100 fly before turning around and placing seventh in the 200 free for a commendable double.
Isabel Ivey graduated from high school early to join up with Cal at mid-season, and she more than showed up, dropping lifetime bests and totaling 37 points. She won the 200 IM B final, then pulled a big 100 fly/100 back double, placing top six in both races.
And, a cherry on top, Cal has finally found a sprint breaststroker in Ema Rajic. After years of medley relay woes, Rajic, in her freshman debut, set the 100 breast school record in 58.97 to break Caitlin Leverenz’s record of 59.20 from 2012 and made the A final to finish eighth. She was the first A-finalist in the 100 breast for Cal since Jessica Hardy won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
SPRINT FREE: ★★★★★
50 freestyle American record-holder Abbey Weitzeil is back to defend her NCAA crown in that event. Weitzeil leads all returners at 46.35 in the 100 free (she wasn’t quite that fast at NCAAs), though her 46.29 lifetime best still stands from high school. In the 200 free, where Weitzeil has quietly become lethal (she was fourth in the event last year), only USC’s Louise Hansson returns with a faster time than her (1:41.95), albeit by only two hundredths. But Hansson will almost definitely be swimming the 100 fly for title defense there, and her time came from a relay lead-off.
The sky, or 60 points, is really the limit for Weitzeil here, and she would put Cal into the ★★★★ tier alone. Robin Neumann, though, is back after making the 200 free A final and 100 free B final last year, and Maddie Murphy won the 50 free B final last year. That’s huge for Cal, as the battle with Stanford has a chance to be in Cal’s favor for the first time in several years. With Taylor Ruck redshirting and Cal having stronger freshmen, the tide is definitely turning, and Ruck was relied on heavily to buoy relays last year.
In any case, besides these three primary freestylers, sophomore Isabel Ivey has been 22.27/47.75/1:43.64 in free. She swam the 200 IM, 100 back, and 100 fly last year at NCAAs, but should figure in on the four relays and is at upper B final-level speed in the 100 and 200 free if she changes events. Keaton Blovad was 48.7 in the 100 free mid-season and was 1:46.0 in the 200 free in 2016, so she’s another relay option.
Finally, the freshman class makes this sprint free group incredibly deep. Ayla Spitz is the best 200 freestyler incoming nationally in yards at 1:45.02, and she’s also 22.6/48.6 in the 50/100. Chloe Clark has been 22.6/49.2, Emma Davidson 22.9/50.3, Rachel Klinker 23.4/49.9, and Australian Eloise Riley 25.9/57.8 in long course. Past Spitz in the 200, there’s Klinker at 1:46.0 and Sarah Dimeco with a 1:46.9.
DISTANCE FREE: ★
Despite the one star, the freshman class is bringing the most distance talent for the Bears in quite some time. Cal has had no shortage of exceptional 500 freestylers this decade (Missy Franklin was 4:32.66 to set the Cal record in 2014 before Cierra Runge broke that record, along with the NCAA record, at 4:31.90 in 2015), but only the aforementioned two have broken 4:36.0 in Cal history. In the mile, only Runge and Kiwi standout Lauren Boyle have broken 16:00.
With the third-best miler in Cal history, Chenoa Devine, dropping off the roster before her NCAA eligibility expired, getting four strong distance additions is very timely for Cal. Sarah Dimeco is the best incoming miler at 16:09, while she and Rachel Klinker are both at 4:44-lows in the 500. Klinker doesn’t quite have the mile range yet at 16:33, but she’s one to watch. Just ahead of her is Ashlyn Fiorilli at 16:23 as well as 4:49 in the 500, while Anna Kalandadze (4:46/16:23) is with Fiorilli in the mile and a bit better in the 500.
Dimeco is closest to an NCAA invite with her time in the mile, but right now there aren’t scoring opportunities for Cal.
Traditionally a huge strength of this program, this year is no different. While they don’t necessarily have someone pushing at the title level in either backstroke event (mostly because of people like Beata Nelson), Cal returns one of their two 50-point 100 backstrokers in Isabel Ivey, who burst into the A-final at NCAAs to finish fourth in 50.42. Making huge drops after just one semester at Cal (she graduated early from high school and shipped out to Berkeley between semesters), Ivey gives the Bears a lot to be excited about, and with Taylor Ruck redshirting and Amy Bilquist (Cal’s other 50-point) graduated, Ivey looks like a good bet for a top 3 finish in the 100.
Cal could have two women in the A final next spring as Keaton Blovad returns following her B final win last year. She was 51.7 in prelims to place 13th then moved up with at 51.3, but it took a 51.0 to make the A last year, so Blovad will need to be in top form in prelims to scoot into the A. Still, she’s a valuable backstroker, and was Cal’s only 200 back scorer last year with a 14th place finish there.
Alicia Wilson and Sophie Krivokapic-Zhou return after swimming both backstrokes last year at NCAAs. Neither scored, but Krivokapic-Zhou went a lifetime best 52.37 in the 100 at NCAAs, and that’s her best shot at scoring (she’ll likely need to be under 52). Wilson went lifetime bests of 53.22/1:54.51 at NCAAs in her first yards season (she’s from GBR), and is closer to scoring in the 200 but will, again, need to be quicker (probably under 1:53).
Freshman Danielle Carter is a key add here. With some development, her 53.5/1:55.0 could go somewhere, and she’s the best 200 backstroker coming in for Cal. Meanwhile, Ayla Spitz (24.8/53.2/1:56.3) and Chloe Clark (25.2/53.2/1:56.7) have more sprint speed and add more depth.
We’ve already mentioned Ema Rajic‘s historic performance for Cal at the 2019 NCAA Championships. She returns as a likely A-final swimmer in that event; even though two 58-second freshmen are entering the fold (Indiana’s Emily Weiss and Georgia’s Zoie Hartman) there are three 2019 A-finalists gone (#1 Lilly King, #2 Delaney Duncan, and #5 Ida Hulkko, taking an Olympic redshirt).
Rajic had exceptional improvements as a freshman, and she’s the first truly great sprint breaststroker for the Bears in quite some time. And, while she was quick at Pac-12’s (59.68, her first sub-1:00 swim ever), she was even faster at NCAAs with a 58.97 in prelims to make it into the top 8. She was a couple of tenths off of her best at NCAAs in the 200 breast (2:10.68 compared to her 2:10.47 at Pac-12s), but she could improve to score there, too. The 100 is her strength.
Ali Harrison went a 59.52 at 2018 Pac-12s in her freshman champs debut but added and missed scoring at NCAAs, then regressed this past season, going 1:01.0 at NCAAs in the 100 and 2:14 in the 200. A return to 59-mid territory may not be enough to score this season (it took a 59.55, but a total of 32 swimmers were under a minute), but Harrison is a capable breaststroker.
Of course, Abbey Weitzeil has split 26’s before on the medley relay swimming breast, but her 200 free is very lethal in yards for a third event and Rajic is very good on the medley relays as it is.
McLaughlin’s out, which is a huge hit in the 100 and 200 fly. Isabel Ivey, though, has proved her worth as a 100 flyer, and she made both the 100 fly and 100 back A-finals last season in an impressive double. Maggie Macneil and Louise Hansson look hard to beat, with Erika Brown also capable of a sub-50 performance, but Ivey is definitely an A-final candidate in the 100 fly. With her improvement in just one semester at Cal, she could be on deck for another big year.
Maddie Murphy was 51.6 last year and made the B-final, so she’s looking like a contributor here as well.
The 200 is hurting more with McLaughlin gone, but Cassidy Bayer got into the B-final last year and returns as a sophomore. While she scratched out of 2019 NCAAs for unknown reasons, Sarah Darcel raced the 200 fly as a freshman and then clocked a lifetime best (and competitive) 1:55.55 at 2019 Pac-12s, her last meet of the year. Darcel looks like a B-final scorer, at the least.
The aforementioned Darcel was a 400 IM A-finalist as a freshman, with the speed to get within a few seconds of the four-minute barrier. Her being back at NCAA’s is crucial if Cal is going to defeat three-time defending champions Stanford, with the potential to A-final in both IM’s here. She was 1:54.91 in the 200 IM at Pac-12s, just off the 1:54.7 it took to make the A-final at NCAAs.
Further, Ivey proved her A-final worth in the 200 IM at NCAAs, winning the B-final with a time of 1:53.87 that would’ve easily been top 8 in prelims.
The 200 IM is really the big pull here, with Blovad returning after making the B-final and current sophomore Wilson back after just missing out on the B-final. Over the summer, though, Wilson had a nice win over Ella Eastin in long course (2:11.35 to 2:12.24) at the World University Games.
Meanwhile, Dimeco (4:12), Fiorilli (4:15), Spitz (4:15) and Klinker (4:16) fill in some depth behind Darcel in the 400 IM.
Not very well-known for their diving, Cal just graduated Phoebe Lamay, who snagged two points on the 1-meter board and almost scored on 3-meter last year.
Junior Briana Thai is the Cal record-holder on 1-meter but hasn’t yet made NCAAs, and Cal will also look to the only other diver on the roster, freshman Cassie Graham from Maryland.
The Bears were way ahead of anyone else in the 200 free relay, 400 free relay, and 400 medley relay in 2019. It will be much tougher for them to repeat those wins without the immense presences of McLaughlin and Bilquist.
The sprint relays will still potentially have the fields’ fastest splits courtesy of Weitzeil, and Ivey and Neumann will be on the 400/800 relays (and maybe the 200 relays). Murphy will be a dagger on the 200 free relay but didn’t show the 100 range last year, and Blovad may factor into the 400 relay with Weitzeil, Ivey and Neumann.
The 800 free relay may be the best title bet if Cal chooses to put Weitzeil on it, with Ivey, Neumann, and possibly Spitz. Spitz, a great sprinter, could also figure onto the shorter free relays. These relays will be exceptional thanks to Weitzeil, and the other swimmers here are very good, but just not quite at Bilquist’s or McLaughlin’s level (yet). Serious progression from Spitz (or perhaps Davidson/Riley/Clark/Klinker) could put any of these relays back into the position of title favorites.
With the medleys, Rajic’s role on breast is pretty locked up. If Weitzeil is going to come off of any relay, it may end up being the 200 medley, where someone like Murphy (already a 21-point flat start) can anchor and Ivey could sprint fly with Blovad leading off. In the 400 medley, Blovad and Ivey could do the same with Weitzeil anchoring, or Ivey could take over backstroke and Murphy the fly. The freshmen don’t look to quite figure into the medleys with where they’re at now.
Cal has taken some serious hits, but the losses are more about their strengths being dimmed than actually exposing serious lineup gaps. There is an All-American on the roster in every stroke at the 100 distance, and these relays should all be top 5 or so, with the 800 already looking like a title contender pre-season and the others potentially doing the same depending on freshman progression (and all of the relays really depend on where Weitzeil goes).
This is the most depth we’ve seen from Cal in the distance events, and they have a nice smattering of names who picked up a couple of points or simply made top 30 in an individual event who return with the chance at being more impactful contributors.
Furthermore, this is the most reachable Stanford has felt in years. We must remember that last year, almost everyone looked at Stanford’s dual meet performances, and their mid-season performances, and really doubted the Cardinal. But, in addition to being cautious about not doubting Stanford, we can also acknowledge that their senior losses as well as their true sprint hammer being out (Taylor Ruck), combined with a much smaller freshman class, does make a huge difference. And Cal has a chance to figure them out and get the job done this year.