Key Additions: Caitlin Casazza (NC – fly/breast), Shauna Lee (Great Britain – free/fly), Samantha Fazio (AZ – free/back), Anna McKenzie (redshirt freshman, AL – breast/free), Delaney Wallace (GA – breast), Ashley Mallon (GA – breast/IM), Annie Williamson (GA – free), Allison Greene (FL – diving), Madison Duvall (GA – diving), Natalie Wallace (redshirt freshman, GA – diving)
Key Losses: Amber McDermott (45 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Chantal Van Landeghem (redshirt – 27 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Maddie Locus (25.5 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Lauren Harrington (22 NCAA points, 3 NCAA relays), Jordan Matter (15 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay)
Coming off of back-to-back national titles, the 2014-2015 Georgia Bulldogs were locked in a very tight three-team tier of the NCAA’s elite. Georgia, Cal and Stanford had hoarded most of the nation’s top recruiting prospects, and all three teams looked to have the firepower to contend for the overall team title.
When the dust settled at the end of the NCAA Championships, Georgia sat right in the middle of the bunch, second behind national champs Cal. And while the team did fail to repeat the championship performances of the previous two seasons, the meet had to be considered a pretty round success for the ‘Dawgs, who led the meet until midway through day 2 and only lost out to a Cal team led by Olympic superstar Missy Franklin.
Maybe most impressive was that Georgia did so without a single NCAA champion. It was a deep, well-rounded roster that got the job done for the Bulldogs, with 10 different swimmers making appearances in A finals, and 14 of the 18 individuals putting up NCAA points.
Junior Hali Flickinger and senior Amber McDermott were the heavy lifters of the group, putting up 46 and 45 individual points, respectively. Both appeared in A finals in all three of their events, highlighted by a runner-up finish for Flickinger in the IM and a 3rd-place finish there for McDermott.
Fanning The Flickinger Flame
As great a junior season as Flickinger had last year, she actually looks set up for an even better senior campaign. She’s coming off a summer in which she went lifetime-bests in an absurdly long and varied list of events (200 free, 400 free, 200 back, 200 fly, 100 fly, 200 IM, 50 free) and also won a gold and two bronze medals at the World University Games.
Last year’s NCAA 400 IM champ Sarah Henry is now graduated, leaving Flickinger as the top returner, and the closest two challengers are also gone in outgoing seniors McDermott and Tanja Kylliainen. Flickinger should also have a shot to be top 2 or 3 in the 200 fly and 500 free as a senior.
In fact, if you take out the swimmers who won’t return this year, Flickinger is slated to score 53 individual points out of a maximum 60 possible in NCAA competition.
And that’s not even factoring in her 800 free relay contribution. Last season, Flickinger split a team-best 1:43.97 on the anchor leg of that relay, moving the team from 5th to 3rd overall. But the real kicker is that Flickinger did so after swimming two all-out 400 IMs earlier in the day, a triple that rivals – or perhaps even surpasses – the much-talked-about triple-200 free combo many swimmers have to tackle at NCAAs.
The NCAA Championships will move to a 4-day format this season, meaning Flickinger will be able to swim this relay fresh on Wednesday night instead of Friday after the 400 IM final. That makes her an even more valuable piece to what should be a key relay for the Bulldogs.
Rebuilding The Free Relays
But when we’re talking about that 800 free relay, we have to discuss the flip-side, which is how Georgia’s free relay lineups have been absolutely decimated by graduations and redshirts.
Between the 200, 400 and 800 free relays – each of which finished 3rd last year – 8 of 12 legs will not return in 2016. That’s a huge loss, and includes every member of the sprint-based relays not named Oliva Smoliga.
Graduation was the biggest killer. Maddie Locus is gone from the 200 and 400 free relays. Jordan Mattern and McDermott leave the 800 free relay. Lauren Harrington is off the 200 free and 400 free, plus the 400 medley if we broaden our gaze to the relay races as a whole.
But making matters more dire is the absence of Chantal van Landeghem, who will sit out the season on an Olympic red-shirt. Van Landeghem was on all four of the 400-yard-and-under relays, and scored 27 points individually, 4th-most on the team.
All-in-all, 11 of 20 relay legs are vacated from last year’s team, leaving some big shoes to fill for the team’s younger Bulldogs.
Smoliga is one name that will have to step up, as the lone returner on both sprint free relays. Sophomore Meaghan Raab is another swimmer thrust into a more central role this year. She was a 48-second 100 freestyler last season, but couldn’t make the Bulldog 400 free relay. She’ll almost certainly be a part of the team this year, and should join the 800 free relay as well.
In the sprints, British freshman Shauna Lee could turn out to be a huge asset. Lee was a late pickup for the Bulldogs, but should be joining the team for this season. Lee brings a wealth of international experience, and is ranked inside Great Britain’s top-20 all-time in the 100 and 200 frees.
Her long course times are outstanding: 55.35 in the 100 and 1:59.37 in the 200. It’s always a gamble in the NCAA when dealing with international swimmers. Sometimes speed doesn’t translate well from long course to short course; sometimes everything clicks immediately. That’s still up in the air with Lee, but her freestyle talent is certainly not in question.
Scottsdale Swim Club’s Samantha Fazio could be another recruiting coup in the sprints. She comes in with solid times (22.6/49.6) and should have a shot to contribute on the depleted free relays right off the bat.
Bounce-Back Years For Smoliga, MacLean?
Two swimmers who were a bit off their games in 2015 were Smoliga and Brittany MacLean.
Smoliga was an NCAA champ in the 50 free as a freshman, blazing a 21.59. She was technically undefeated in NCAA finals, too, winning the consolation heats of the 100 back and 100 free.
But Smoliga missed personal-bests in all three races last year, fading to 8th in the 50 free and struggling just to break 22 seconds.
MacLean, meanwhile, battled shoulder and hamstring injuries all year, ultimately falling from a double-NCAA champ in 2014 to placing 7th and 9th in the same two races as a junior.
The Canadian opted out of this summer’s World Championships to fully recover, and she’ll hope that giving up that big opportunity leads to a resurgent senior NCAA campaign (and a better shot at an Olympic berth for Canada).
For Smoliga, the NCAA Championships serve as a chance to regain some momentum heading into the U.S. Olympic Trials several months later. For MacLean, things are a bit more complicated, with Canadian Trials happening right on the heels of NCAAs.
That means it’s hard to say how much of a full taper MacLean will be swimming on at NCAAs. Still, the field is breaking in her favor, with former Cal standout Cierra Runge taking a red-shirt year and McDermott and Texas A&M’s Sarah Henry graduating.
Also benefitting from those outgoing distance swimmers is junior Rachel Zilinskas, who was one of the NCAA’s best last year. Zilinskas was outstanding as a freshman, but saw her impact limited by a brutal 1650 free/200 back double on day 3 of NCAAs. She added time in both events swimming a combo that had to be torturous on the legs.
Last season, the Georgia staff had Zilinskas scratch out of the 200 back, which allowed her to move up all the way from 19th to 6th in the mile. Even if she’s only a two-even swimmer, Zilinskas has potential to put 30+ points on the board, and could even be called into action in the 800 free relay.
Sophomore Class Growing From Pups To ‘Dawgs
Georgia got a solid return from its freshman class last season, but almost everyone in that group is in position to jump to the next level as sophomores.
Kylie Stewart was the top point-scorer of the class, highlighting her meet with a 5th-place finish in the 200 back. that came without even coming close to her lifetime-best, too, a 1:49.85 that would have challenged anyone except world record holder Missy Franklin, who is out of the NCAA after turning pro.
If Stewart can return to her previous form, she’s a national title contender this year, and probably an A finalist in the 100 back as well.
Megan Kingsley got progressively better as the NCAA meet went on, moving from a 31st-place finish in the 200 IM to barely missing points in the 400 IM to eking out a single point in the 200 fly. Raab, as mentioned above, should be a big relay factor, and was also just outside scoring in the 200 free after taking 12th in the 200 IM. And Courtney Weaver was inside the top 21 in both butterfly races while just missing scoring.
Maybe most motivated for redemption is Stephanie Peters, who earned an elusive NCAA invite last year only to get bumped from Georgia’s team when the Bulldogs were over the NCAA-mandated 18-athlete limit.
Taking her spot was yet another sophomore, diver Olivia Ball, who qualified through the NCAA Zone meet and competed in the 1-meter and 3-meter events at NCAAs.
Every one of those sophomores has a chance to score individually, some in large amounts.
Loading Up On Breaststrokers
If Georgia had a weakness last year, it was breaststroke, where the team scored just 4 NCAA points and struggled to stay afloat during the medley relays.
Coach Jack Bauerle addressed that deficiency in recruiting, adding four new names to a group that already includes two viable NCAA candidates.
The team’s top domestic recruit is Caitlin Casazza out of the dominant SwimMAC Carolina club. She’s maybe more valuable in the NCAA as a butterflyer (she’s 53.3 and 1:57.3 there), but should offer breaststroke potential with times of 1:01.3 and 2:16.5.
The ‘Dawgs also added red-shirt freshman Anna McKenzie out of Alabama, who is a little faster than Casazza in the 200 (2:15.3) and a little slower in the 100 (1:02.8). Behind her will be a pair of more developmental in-state prospects, SwimAtlanta’s Delaney Wallace and Dynamo’s Ashley Mallon.
Annie Zhu was the only scoring breaststroker at NCAAs last year, taking 13th in the 200 breast. And there’s Emily Cameron, who scored in the 200 IM but just missed the cut in the 200 breast, taking 22nd.
Somewhere in that group, Bauerle should be able to find some breaststroke points, and perhaps a viable sprint alternative in the medley relays, which had to field the freestyler Raab on the 200 last year and the more distance-based Zhu on the 400 medley.
Both of the top two teams from last year’s NCAA Championships suffered some major losses on their rosters, which should leave them in similar positions this year.
Georgia’s freshman class isn’t as scary as Cal’s, but the Bulldogs’ greatest strength helps mitigate the big losses: their depth.
Even with their 5 major losses, Georgia should have a shot to once again push the NCAA limit of 18 on their NCAA roster. There appear to be two somewhat-related keys to Georgia’s fate in 2016.
First are the relays, particularly the freestyle relays. There are a lot of open legs on those squads, and with relays counting double in the NCAA, the Bulldogs need to reload to keep pace with college swimming’s best.
On the medleys, getting a steady breaststroke presence is a big need, but there is some shuffling that needs to be done on the other three legs. Van Landeghem is gone as the anchor, and her likely replacement is Smoliga, who swam backstroke last year. Smoliga could be replaced by Stewart, but that opens up the fly leg of the 200, which Stewart took last year. The pieces are there to fill out the lineups, but it’ll take some creativity and some big improvements by the candidates.
Which leads into the second key: how Georgia’s sophomore class develops. Within that 6-person class are the answers to almost all of the team’s lineup needs. But that class will need to not just avoid sophomore slumps, but take major leaps forward in order to power Georgia back into the NCAA’s top 2.