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.
#3 TEXAS LONGHORNS
Key Losses: None
Returning 5th Years: Evie Pfeifer (48 NCAA points, member of 4th-place 800 free relay)
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.
For years, we had looked at Texas as one of the top teams in the NCAA, but they just weren’t getting it done at the NCAA Championships. They took a massive step in the right direction last season, putting together a greatly improved NCAA team performance, resulting in a 3rd-place finish. On top of that, many of the top swimmers on Texas’ team are underclassmen, setting the Longhorns up for a long run of success if they continue to perform up to par at championship meets.
One of the saving graces for this Texas program is that head coach Carol Capitani and her staff have managed to keep raking in phenomenal recruiting classes, despite the lackluster NCAA performances. That puts Texas in an excellent position, as now that it appears things may be turning around, they have the roster in place to be a top team in the country. Freshmen accounted for 62 individual points at NCAAs last season, while sophomores were responsible for 54.5 points. For context, that means underclassmen scored 116.5 individual points, while upperclassmen racked up 120 points for a very well-balanced team effort.
Sprint Free: ★★★
This sprint squad is largely in the same position it was last year, maybe just a tick better. They’re very deep, but lack NCAA-scoring speed in all but the 200 free. The Longhorns will see Kelly Pash return for her junior season. Pash was Texas’ leading 100 and 200 freestyler last season, finishing 3rd in the 200 free at NCAAs. Pash didn’t race the 100 individually at NCAAs, instead opting for the 200 fly.
The addition of Erica Sullivan is notable to the sprint group as well. While the impact of Sullivan will surely be felt most in the distance events, she’ll likely be racing the 200 free as her 3rd individual event. Sullivan is currently a 1:45.72 200 freestyler, a time which she swam in December of 2018. It seems likely, however, that the 4:34 500 freestyler could bring her 200 time down a bit this season. Between Pash (1:42.70 personal best) and Sullivan, it’s possible Texas could have two All-American 200 freestylers in 2021-22.
Julia Cook is entering her senior season with the Longhorns. Cook was the 2nd-fastest 100 freestyler on the team last year at 48.89, and has a personal best of 47.82. However, Cook’s backstroke was reinvigorated over the last two seasons, and she’s been placing her focus there for championship meets. Cook was a member of all 5 of Texas’ NCAAs relays last year, but if she were to enter a 3rd individual event this season, it would probably be the 50 free. Despite Cook’s most recent success having come in backstroke events, her free is still up to par, as evidenced by her 47.61 split on the 400 free relay at the 2021.
Notably, Grace Ariola, the Texas school record holder in the 50 free (21.73), recently announced her medical retirement from swimming. Ariola has been battling chronic fatigue syndrome and POTS for the last several years, and was on the team but didn’t compete last season. Since Ariola didn’t compete at all in 2020-21, her retirement doesn’t change much in terms of the way we look at Texas’ team as compared to last year, but it does clear up any speculation about whether the 21.7/48.0 freestyler will be returning for the Longhorns.
Distance Free: ★★★★★
It’s an easy call to give this distance squad a 5-star rating. Let’s start with what Texas returns. Evie Pfeifer, who is taking her 5th year of eligibility granted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, took 2nd in both the 500 free (4:35.02) and 1650 (15:46.41) at last year’s NCAAs. Moreover, Pfeifer came in 2nd to UVA’s Paige Madden in both events, and Madden declined to return to Virginia for a 5th year season. That means Pfeifer is the fastest returner in the NCAA in both the 500 and 1650 free.
The twist is that even though Pfeifer is the fastest returner in both events in the NCAA this season, she’s not the favorite in either event. That’s because Texas has finally gained Erica Sullivan, who most recently won a silver medal in the inaugural women’s 1500 free at the Tokyo Olympics. Sullivan is already the 2nd-fastest 1650 performer all-time (behind only Katie Ledecky) with her personal best of 15:23.81. For reference, that time would have won NCAAs by over 18 seconds last year. Sullivan also brings a 4:34.07 500 free to the table. Stanford’s Brooke Forde is the only NCAA swimmer this year who has been faster than Sullivan’s best in the 500.
All that being said, Texas could very well have a pair of top-3 finishers at NCAAs in both the 500 and 1650 this year, which would account for a minimum of 74 points.
The Longhorns also bring in freshman Olivia McMurray, who brings a 16:12 1650 free into the fold. That puts her right around what it will probably take to score points at NCAAs, and with just a little improvement in the event this season she’d likely be safely in scoring position.
The backstroke group returns Julia Cook and Olivia Bray, both of whom finished last season as top-10 100 backstrokers in the NCAA. Bray’s season-best of 51.04 made her the 8th-fastest swimmer in the country, while Cook’s 51.14 put her 9th. Cook finished higher at NCAAs, however, taking 6th, while Bray came in 16th. Either way, Texas returns a pair of NCAA scorers in the event, each of whom could see their way into the ‘A’ final.
Bray doesn’t compete in the 200 back at championship meets, but in the last two seasons, Cook has. Last season, Cook clocked a 1:51 for the 2nd season in a row in the 200, ultimately coming in 10th at NCAAs. Between her 6th place in the 100 and 10th in the 200, Cook scored 21 backstroke points for the Longhorns last year.
Outside of Cook and Bray, Texas doesn’t have anything else in the way of NCAA scoring speed. Last year, Sydney Silver swam a 1:57.38 200 back as a freshman, which was a bit off her personal best of 1:55.85. The Longhorns also bring in freshman Sadie Runeman, who has a best of 1:58.3 in the 200, and Arkansas transfer Abby Pfeifer, who is a 1:59.0 200 backstroker. It would take quite a bit of improvement for any of those three to get to NCAA scoring speed, however, it’s not out of the question that any of them could drop some time in the 200 and end up qualifying for NCAAs.
Germany’s Anna Elendt was one of the highest-impact freshmen on Texas’ team last year. Early in the season, Elendt made it clear she was an All-American caliber breaststroker. She got down to 58.06 in the 100 and 2:06.04 in the 200. Elendt also broke the Texas school record in the 100 breast, taking down a record that was held by Laura Sogar, who won a silver medal in the 200 breast at the 2012 SCM World Champs.
Elendt was slightly off her 100 breast personal best at NCAAs last year, clocking 58.88 in prelims before going 58.93 in the consolation final for 12th overall. She was slightly off in prelims of the 200 breast as well, swimming a 2:07.40 which also relegated her to the ‘B’ final. She went on to clock 2:06.10 to win the consolation final—the second-fastest swim of her career. Her 2:06.10 would have earned her a 6th-place finish in the A final. While Elendt was a 2x B finalist last year, she has ‘A’ finals speed in both events.
Elendt is the only scoring threat as things stand right now, but Texas added significant depth in the stroke with this freshmen class. Here are the freshmen breaststroke personal bests:
- Ellie Andrews – 1:00.84/2:13.24
- Jordan Morgan – 1:01.21/2:14.68
- Channing Hanley – 1:01.89/2:16.65
- Ava Collinge – 1:03.92/2:20.46
- Riley Courtney – 1:03.83/2:15.69
That’s not to mention sophomore Ellie McLeod, who has a personal best of 1:01.59 in the 100 breast, although she struggled a little in the event last season. After bringing these 5 freshmen together with Elendt and McLeod, who are both sophomores, Texas could be looking at a future where they have one of the best (and deepest) breaststroke squads in the NCAA. As things stand at this early point of the season, they’re just deep, with elite top-end speed from Elendt.
Texas returns all members of an elite butterfly group, which scored 61.5 points at NCAAs last year. The Longhorns had 3 A finalists in the 200 fly at NCAAs last season, coming in 2nd, T-4th, and 7th, for 43.5 points in the event.
Olivia Bray led the charge in her freshman season, taking 2nd in the 200 fly with a 1:52.87. She was just slightly off her season (and lifetime) best of 1:52.03, although Michigan’s Olivia Carter, who returns this year, won the event handily with a 1:51.33. Bray also took 7th in the 100 fly despite being off in the event. She swam a 51.44 in both prelims and finals, which was well off her season-best of 50.37 and her lifetime best of 50.19. Her season-best would have put her 4th at NCAAs, while her lifetime best would have been good for 3rd.
Emma Sticklen, who was also a freshman last season, took 7th in the 200 fly with a 1:54.09. Sticklen had her biggest swim of the season at exactly the right time, clocking a lifetime best of 1:53.56 in prelims at NCAAs to qualify for the A final. She also swam a personal best in the 100 fly last season, posting a 51.49 at the Texas Hall of Fame Invite. She went on to take 10th in the 100 fly at NCAAs.
Kelly Pash also had a great impact for this fly group, swimming a 1:53.42 to tie for 4th in the 200. Pash had raced a busy schedule and performed extremely well up to that point in the meet, but she was off her 1:52.69 showing from Big 12s.
Texas has also added depth to this fly group with this freshman class. Ava Collinge enters the season with a 53.74 best in the 100 fly and a sub-2:00 (1:59.81) 200 fly time. Morgan Brophy is a 53.84 100 flyer and a 2:01.64 200 flyer. We should also mention that Grace Cooper, who is primarily a sprint freestyler, swam a lifetime best of 53.90 with the Longhorns last season.
Texas’ IM group is thin, but they return an All-American in each IM event. Kelly Pash took 7th in the 200 IM last year in 1:55.72 after setting a lifetime best of 1:55.13 at Big 12s. Pash is also a 4:04.93 400 IMer, but given that she’s also a 1:42.70 200 freestyler, it’s overwhelmingly likely (as things stand now) that Pash will be racing the 200 free again at NCAAs.
Evie Pfeifer returns for her 5th year, bringing All-American speed in the 400 IM. Pfeifer came in 5th last season at NCAAs, swimming a 4:05.41. She was also the 6th-fastest swimmer in the NCAA last season with her season (and lifetime) best of 4:04.61.
This group is thin, but they bring in a sub-2:00 IMer in freshman Ellie Andrews.
This could be the best diving squad in the NCAA this season. Texas returns 54 diving points between Paola Pineda, Jordan Skilken, and Janie Boyle, while Bridget O’Neill posted a 17th-place finish in the 3-meter as a freshman. Pineda is the leader of this squad, having scored 42 points last year after finishing fifth in all three diving events.
Texas brings in Hailey Hernandez as a freshman. Hernandez made the U.S. Olympic roster for diving this past summer, thanks to a 2nd-place finish at US Trials in the 3-meter. She went on to place 9th in Tokyo, just one spot outside advancing to finals. Hernandez is also a 6-time Texas high school state champion, 2-time World Junior medalist, and a US Winter Nationals champion. She enters the NCAA with All-American talent, and is certainly a title contender in the 3-meter this season.
The Longhorns also bring in freshman Chloe Bishop, who took 3rd in platform diving this past summer at US Junior Nationals.
Relays are going to be critical for Texas if they hope to move up from their 3rd-place finish from last year. While the Longhorns moved in the right direction in 2020-21, having a solid NCAAs performance, their relays still somewhat underperformed. Texas was slower than their seed time at NCAAs in all but the 800 free relay. It may seem like a small thing to harp on, since the Longhorns were less than a second off their seeds in each of the other relays, but if the team had just matched their seed times in those relays, Texas would have finished 2nd at NCAAs last year, rather than 3rd.
As things stand early in this season, it appears Texas’ relays will be the same as last year. The only likely change seems to be the addition of Erica Sullivan to the 800 free relay. Kelly Pash and Evie Pfeifer will without a doubt remain on that relay, so Sullivan would replace either Kyla Leibel or Julia Cook. Assuming Sullivan is in fact faster than her 1:45.7 personal best, that would be a step up for this Texas relay that took 4th at NCAAs last season.
The Longhorns’ top relay last year was the 400 medley, and for good reason. They combined Julia Cook (9th-fastest 100 backstroker in the NCAA), Anna Elendt (7th-fastest 100 breaststroker in the NCAA), Olivia Bray (4th-fastest 100 flyer in the NCAA), and Kelly Pash (21st-fastest 100 freestyler in the NCAA) to swim a 3:27.83. Texas finished 3rd in the event, and they have everything they need to be just as lethal this year. Unfortunately for the Longhorns, NC State and Virginia beat them somewhat handily last year, and they return all members of those relays, so it’s going to be a tall order for Texas to win the title in this event.
Following their most successful season in recent history, things are looking up for the Longhorns. They kept all of their NCAA qualifiers from last year, including keeping Evie Pfeifer for a 5th season. On top of that, they brought in a pair of elite freshmen. Erica Sullivan is coming off a silver medal performance in the 1500 at the Tokyo Olympics, and is an easy favorite to win the 1650 at NCAAs this year. Hailey Hernandez is a US Olympian diver who took 9th in 3m diving at the Tokyo Olympics. It’s not even remotely a stretch to say Sullivan and Hernandez could end up adding a minimum of 40 NCAA points each to Texas’ total.
Looking at NCAA scoring impact, Sullivan and Hernandez make up the vast majority of what Texas has added this season. They also add Olivia McMurray, who could very realistically score in the 1650 this season. Ellie Andrews is one of the top breaststrokers in the class, and while it would take a pretty big improvement to get to NCAA scoring speed, it’s not out of the question.
The Longhorns also had very near misses with Bridget O’Neill, who in her freshman season took 17th in 3m and 20th in 1m diving at NCAAs.
Texas is looking at a scoring improvement from last season if they can put together another quality team performance at NCAAs. Will it be enough for them to move up from 3rd? Hard to say, as UVA and NC State are still going to be juggernauts, and Stanford has brought in (and back) a truly absurd amount of talent. When it all comes together, Texas is looking even better than last season, and that’s a favorable position to be in coming off a 3rd place finish and their best showing in recent history.