Key Additions: Bethany Galat (IN – breaststroke/freestyle/IM), Beryl Gastaldello (France – free/fly/back), Kristin Malone (WI – free/breast), Lisa Bratton (WA – backstroke/IM), Esther Gonzalez (Canada – breaststroke), Nancy Schuchhardt (Germany – free/fly), Caitlynn Moon (IL – free)
Key Losses: Cammile Adams (41 NCAA points), Breeja Larson (37.5 NCAA points, 3 NCAA relays), Paige Miller (27 NCAA points, 2 relays), Caroline McElhany (12 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Erica Dittmer (3 NCAA relays)
Last year was by all accounts a highly-successful season for the Texas A&M Aggies. The regular season was an undefeated showing, complete with a 4-point victory over in-state rivals Texas and a tie with eventual national champions Georgia. But probably the most significant in-season meet was the Art Adamson Invite, A&M’s home midseason focus meet.
The Aggies were outstanding at that meet, crushing huge times, hitting multiple NCAA “A” cuts and outlasting the talented Stanford Cardinal for the overall team title. It was the kind of showing that proved A&M could run with just about anyone in a multi-session, high-stakes championship meet.
Texas A&M was second at the SEC Championships to those future national champion Georgia Bulldogs, getting dual titles and conference records from star breaststroker Breeja Larson.
At the NCAA Championships, the Aggies top-level talent was even better. Three different women won national titles for Texas A&M, including back-to-back wins for Larson and backstroker Paige Miller on Friday night. Cammile Adams, who was on the 2012 Olympic team alongside Larson, won a title of her own in the 200 fly Saturday night, while Larson picked up a share of runner-up honors by tying for second place in the 200 breast.
It was an extremely well-rounded effort from A&M. They had three different relays finish inside the top 4, racking up massive points on the medleys. They key stat might be 9: the team finished no lower than 9th in any of the relay races, the Aggies had 9 championship final appearances individually, and 9 different women scored individual points.
All of that combined to make Texas A&M the last team into the true “top tier” of finishing teams at the NCAA Championships. The Aggies were 4th overall with 336 points, more than 80 ahead of the tightly-packed next tier of schools.
An offseason of turnover
The bad news for the Aggies? All three of those NCAA champs mentioned above are gone, eligibility exhausted. The good news? Texas A&M brought in a powerhouse recruiting class loaded with potential immediate contributors.
What that means is that the Aggies will still have a high level of talent to work with, but will also have to hope that all the new faces both live up to their billing and coalesce into a team strong enough to repeat the performances of last season.
A quick look at the outgoing names, then the incoming ones:
- Olympic breaststroker Breeja Larson: a tall, athletic swimmer who blossomed almost from out of nowhere at A&M, and a relay machine who also added a strong 50 free to her two breaststroking events.
- Olympic butterflier Cammile Adams: one of the best there is at some of the most punishing events, especially the 200 fly and 400 IM, Adams was a point-scorer in three individual races at NCAAs.
- NCAA champion backstroker Paige Miller: in perhaps the nation’s most crowded event, Miller rose to the top of the 100 back last season, capping off a run of four straight seasons in the NCAA’s top 8.
- All-American Caroline McElhany: an NCAA finalist in the 200 fly, McElhany was a big part of what was A&M’s highest-scoring individual event of NCAAs. She was also a key leg of the Aggies national runner-up 400 medley relay team.
- All-American and key relay piece Erica Dittmer: A member of three different NCAA finaling relays, including the anchor leg of the 4th place 200 free and 200 medley relay teams
The flip side of that coin, though, is that A&M has an outstanding class coming in. We originally ranked their freshman class 7th in our mid-summer recruiting rankings, and then the Aggies went out and added French national teamer Beryl Gastaldello, perhaps their best swimmer of this entire class, in August. That would have pushed this recruiting haul closer to #5, which is impressive considering the top 4 classes (Stanford, Michigan, Georgia and Cal) were in a whole separate stratosphere.
We’ll start with Gastaldello. The rising French swimmer is the type of versatile sprinter that NCAA programs have thrived on, with the ability to swim fly, free or backstroke at a very high level. Her best championship lineup might be 50 free, 100 fly, 100 free, but those are far from her only events, and she should be able to help fill in wherever A&M is weak. Her fast-twitch sprinting ability makes her an absolute relay-saver for the medleys, as she could man any of the non-breast strokes – that’s big considering the team graduated 6 of its 8 medley relay legs from a year ago, including flyer/backstroker Paige Miller.
The top early pickup for the Aggies was Bethany Galat, the nation’s top breaststroking prospect who comes from Indiana. Despite the graduation of Breeja Larson, A&M wasn’t in dire straits in the breaststrokes – junior Ashley MacGregor is a returning All-American. But picking up Galat ensures that the breaststrokes will remain a potent weapon for the Aggies, plus gives MacGregor an excellent training partner to keep her sharp. One of the underrated attributes Larson brought to the table was her ability to help out in sprint freestyles – often elite breaststrokers have trouble contributing in a third event. Galat will certainly draw some Breeja Larson comparisions as she, too, is a great sprint freestyler (22.51 in the 50 and 50.89 in the 100).
There’s a lot of talent deep into this recruiting class as well. Kristin Malone is one of the top swimmers out of the state of Wisconsin, and brings some great freestyle times to College Station, especially in the 200 and 100, which makes her a likely relay contributor. Malone also has some sneaky-good breaststroke ability, which becomes even more intriguing given how well breaststrokers like Larson have developed at A&M in the past.
Washington state’s Lisa Bratton looks to take over the backstroke reins from the graduated Paige Miller as a freshman. Bratton has some very solid backstroke times (53.64/1:53.64), and though she may not score individually at NCAAs right away (the backstroke races are absolutely brutal in the NCAA right now), she at least looks like a highly-competent leadoff leg on A&M’s medley relays if she winds up in that role. She’ll probably have to fight senior Kelli Benjamin for that spot, but Benjamin could also be of service as the medley relay freestyler if the two are very comparable in back.
The Aggies got a couple foreign imports – Mexico’s Esther Gonzalez and Germany’s Nancy Schuchhardt – to go with the French Gastaldello, and Illinois’ Caitlynn Moon should add more of a distance presence to what’s a very well-rounded class.
So the big question for Texas A&M this season isn’t one of talent, but of how well the newcomers will show up at the NCAA level. Freshman year is a major transition, both in terms of swimming and life, and it can be very hit or miss for high-level athletes. Some stay right on their previous trajectory, while others need a year or two to adjust to the major changes. Others see major gains and step their swimming up to a whole new level. It’s very difficult to predict which swimmers will fall into what category, and that’s probably the biggest uncertainty for an Aggie team that will rely quite a bit on its top few freshmen to remain in the NCAA’s top tier.
The other major wrinkle that foreign freshmen face is the transition from long course meters to short course yards. It’s not uncommon for non-American prospects to face an extended adjustment period as they get used to a shorter pool and a very different race mentality at each distance. Once again, it’s very much a case-by-case basis, though, as some foreign swimmers immediately transfer their long course speed to the NCAA’s 25-yard pool. A&M will hope their foreign delegation, most notably Gastaldello, fall into the latter category rather than the former, but it adds an extra wild card to predicting the team’s fate.
We alluded to it some in the previous section, but A&M has its work cut out for it in filling in its relays, which accounted for 136 of the team’s 336 points last season (that’s just over 40% for you math folks).
9 of the 20 legs on those five relays are graduated, meaning we’ll see fresh faces in up to half of the team’s relay slots. The most notable departures are Breeja Larson, who swam the 200 free and 200 and 400 medleys last year, plus Erica Dittmer (200 free, 200 medley, 400 free) and Paige Miller (backstroke on the national runner-up 400 medley and butterfly on the 200 medley).
You’d expect a few freshmen to get involved, but the team also has quite a few in-house replacements who are already groomed to take over the job.
Lili Ibanez and Kelli Benjamin are two key returners in line for bigger roles in 2014 and beyond. Benjamin was already on the team’s 200 medley and 400 and 800 free relays at NCAAs, while Ibanez manned the 200, 400 and 800 frees plus the 400 medley.
An All-American in the 200 free and NCAA point-scorer in the 50, 100 and 200, Ibanez is the team’s second-biggest returning point-scorer from nationals, and she’s really now the backbone of every relay she’ll be on.
Benjamin, meanwhile, swam three relays last season and will probably add another this coming year. She’s the front-runner to take over Paige Miller’s backstroke spot on the 400 medley, and did a good enough job on the 200 medley last year that the coaching staff felt comfortable taking the national champion Miller off that leg and sliding her to butterfly. Benjamin will also look to get on the board individually. She swam a tough 200 free/100 back double at last year’s NCAAs, but couldn’t quite score in either. It’s possible she could move back to the 50 free, which she swam as a freshman, if the staff believes that breaking up the 200 free/100 back double would allow her to score in whichever event she doesn’t drop.
Sammie Bosma, a senior like Ibanez and Benjamin, is a swimmer probably up for an expanded role this year. After swimming just the 200 and 400 free relays last year, Bosma could up that this season by jumping onto one or both medleys. She’s in the hunt for the anchor leg, but might even be more valuable on butterfly, where she’s the team’s top returning swimmer with both butterfly legs graduated.
The breaststroke legs on the medleys will certainly miss the presence of the American record-holder Breeja Larson, but the dropoff shouldn’t be too painful. The team has Ashley MacGregor waiting in the wings, sub-minute freshman Bethany Galat joining the program and sophomore Sycerika McMahon coming back after making the 200 breast B final at nationals last year. That should be a three-headed monster that can really rule the 100 and 200 breast all year for the Aggies.
It’s also worth mentioning junior Meredith Oliver, who swam the 800 free relay last year and should be a candidate for the 400 this year. She’s probably not quick enough to go all the way down to the 200 free relay, but has a great stroke for the 100/200 distances that should come in very handy for A&M both individually and on relays.
Sarah Henry steps into the spotlight
We’ve gone this far without mentioning Sarah Henry, who is probably the team’s best overall swimmer this season. Henry’s a big-time talent, but has been able to fly under the radar a bit as her Olympian teammates Breeja Larson and Cammile Adams took the spotlight.
But this is Sarah Henry’s team now, and she’ll be a key leader for them in the coming months. Henry is a returning All-American in all three of her events, placing 4th in both the 400 IM and 1650 free. She was also 8th in the 500.
But this could potentially be the season where Henry goes from being among the nation’s best to being the nation’s best. Her 400 IM is an exciting prospect, given that all three of the women ahead of her graduated last spring. Even better is that in the 400 IM, there aren’t any surefire national title contenders (think swimmers like Simone Manuel in the 50 and 100) in this year’s freshman class. That means Henry has an opportunity to continue A&M’s trend of bringing home at least one individual NCAA title, a streak that stretches back three seasons now.
At first glance, you somewhat expect Texas A&M to come back down to earth a bit following the graduations of its three national champions. And while it’s probably not realistic to expect that many NCAA wins from the present crop of Aggies, it’s also hard to argue that this year’s team is significantly less talented than their predecessors. The point-scoring ability is certainly there for this team, based both on returning talent and the big freshman class.
Their exact finish is going to depend pretty heavily on the transition for the freshmen. It would appear the returning strength of the Henrys, Ibanezs, MacGregors and Benjamins of this team should be enough to keep the Aggies well within the top 10. But the new additions are the ones needed to fill in that top-end depth that separates the top few programs from the rest of the class.
With the caveat that any prediction hinges heavily on the uncertain production of the newcomers, it’s probably likely that A&M drops a little further behind the top trio of national title contenders this season than it was in 2014. But based on the overall talent level and coach Steve Bultman‘s proven ability to develop contributors, it would appear another top 5 finish is in the cards for the Aggies.