College Swimming Previews: #4 Cal Women Fighting To Stay Near The Top

After a one-year hiatus due to the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-2021 season, our college previews 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. 

#4 CALIFORNIA GOLDEN BEARS

Key Losses: Briana Thai (78 Pac-12 diving points)

Key Additions: #15 Mia Kragh (CA – fly/free), Fanni Fabian (Hungary – free/fly), Alicia Henry (GA – breast), Elizabeth Cook (OR – fly/free), Annika McEnroe (SC – IM/fly), Lea Polonsky (Israel – breast/IM/free), Ella Mazurek (CA – free), McKenna Stone (IL – free)

Returning Fifth Years: Robin Neumann (21 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays),

GRADING CRITERIA

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.

2020-2021 LOOKBACK

The 2020-21 season was a mixed bag for the Cal women, winning their first Pac-12 title in six years before recording the team’s lowest NCAA finish since 2008.

Monster performances from the likes of Izzy IveyIsabelle StaddenAlicia Wilson and Robin Neumann, plus a severely shorthanded Stanford team, led them to the conference championship title. The Bears won 12 events over the course of the meet, including sweeping all five relays and Ivey winning three times individually, leading them into NCAAs where they had finished second in three consecutive championships.

With the Cardinal out of contention, Virginia assumed the role as dominant team champions, while two other schools—NC State and Texas—snuck up on the Bears and took second and third, leaving Cal to finish a distant fourth with 290 points.

A big hindrance in Cal’s final point tally was the disqualification in the 400 medley relay, where what was a 32-point third-place finish turned to dust because of an early exchange on the anchor leg. Even if that didn’t happen, the Bears would still have been 22.5 points back of the Longhorns for third, though nothing can deflate a team’s momentum more than a disqualified relay.

There were still plenty of bright spots at NCAAs, though, led by Ivey, who excelled in her junior year with three top-four finishes individually, plus some big-time relay swims.

Ivey anchored the 200 free relay to victory in 21.22—with Emily Gantriis and Elise Garcia also recording 21.2 splits—and threw down a blistering 46.10 closing leg in the 400 free relay to move the team up into third place.

Another highlight was the performances from the freshman Stadden, who placed third in the 200 back and fifth in the 100 back in her NCAA debut, also claiming the Pac-12 title in the 200.

Relative to their seed times posted earlier in the season, a lot of Cal’s swimmers underperformed at NCAAs, relatively speaking. Several swimmers in scoring position missed out, and some that were in contention for a top-three placing fell to the consolation final.

The good news? The team has no NCAA scorers departing this season, and they’ve got plenty of fresh faces to fill in some of the gaps.

So with that being said, this will be a big year for the Bears. They’ll either re-establish themselves as NCAA title contenders, which they’ve consistently been in recent history, or they’ll slip out of the running and become a perennial third-to-fifth-place team in the coming seasons.

SPRINT FREE: ★★★★

Izzy Ivey has the ability to be an NCAA ‘A’ finalist across all three sprint freestyle events, but due to her abilities on back and fly, she only swims the 100 free individually at the last meet of the season.

Last season she was a clear third in the event, with dynamos Maggie MacNeil and Kate Douglass going 1-2, and that same trio will be back at the top of the heap this season, with Gretchen Walsh and possibly Torri Huske joining the party.

Ivey’s ability as a sub-47 flat-start swimmer (plus her 46.1 relay split PB) slots her in for 15+ points in the 100 free.

Cal actually had five swimmers 48.6 or better in the event last season, with Robin Neumann and Emily Gantriis combining for seven points in the NCAA ‘B’ final.

Gantriis took 10th to get the team on the board in the 50 free, breaking the 22-second barrier in 21.90, and Neumann (sixth) and Ayla Spitz (13th) were 200 free scorers.

However, if Neumann (1:43.19) and Spitz (1:44.10) had gone their Pac-12 times at NCAAs, they both could’ve finished in the top-five and scored 30+ points, rather than the 19 they ended up producing.

Ivey showed just how good she is in the 200 at Pac-12s, leading off the team’s 800 free relay ‘B’ team in a sizzling 1:43.11 that would’ve taken second in the individual NCAA final. She’s already got the 100 back/100 fly double on Day 3 of the meet, but with reigning 200 free national champion Paige Madden graduating, is this an event Ivey would consider individually? It seems unlikely, and given the strength they’ve got in Neumann, Spitz, Rachel Klinker and Alicia Wilson, leaving her off the 800 free relay is a move they can make. But leaving her ability in the event completely unused at NCAAs still seems like a missed opportunity.

In terms of the incoming freshmen, McKenna Stone (22.6/49.1) has a ton of upside and could challenge for a spot on the 400 free relay. Ella Mazurek could do the same with her 49.35 100 free best time, and Hungarian Fanni Fabian has 200 free potential with a LCM best of 1:59.3 (1:44.6 conversion).

The class of 2021’s 15th-ranked domestic recruit, Mia Kragh, is also strong on free with times of 22.8/49.8, but figures to have more of a butterfly focus.

The Bears have surefire scorers across all three events—they scored 49 points in the 50, 100 and 200 last season, and that feels like their floor. If Cal can execute their Pac-12/NCAA taper better for the latter, their ceiling will be significantly higher.

DISTANCE FREE: ★★★

Cal is much stronger in the 500 free than it is in the 1650, led by Spitz and Neumann.

Spitz followed up a 4:38.05 personal best time and third-place finish at Pac-12s with a fifth-place NCAA finish, while Neumann was ninth in the prelims at nationals and ended up placing 13th, though she easily could’ve been in the top-eight.

Both being sub-4:40 swimmers, the two should slot into the NCAA ‘A’ final, and the team has two other potential scorers in the form of junior Sarah DiMeco and the newly-acquired Fabian.

DiMeco swam a lifetime best 4:41.9 at Pac-12s, a time that easily slots into the top-16 at NCAAs, but had a sizeable add and finished 32nd. Fabian is a 4:04.5 SCM 400 freestyler, which converts down under 4:40 (4:39.5). If those two fire on all cylinders, the 500 could be one of Cal’s best individual events at NCAAs.

The only true miler on the roster is DiMeco, who followed up a 16:06.45 best time at Pac-12s (placing second to Stanford’s Morgan Tankersley) last season with a 16:13 at NCAAs that narrowly missed scoring by less than two-tenths.

Last season was a breakthrough of sorts for DiMeco, who swam a best time of 16:09.7 in December 2018 and didn’t lower it until the 2021 Pac-12s. If she can carry that momentum into this season she’s a good bet to be a multi-event scorer.

BACK: ★★★★

Backstroke has long been a strength of the Cal women’s team. The past decade has seen names such as Cindy Tran, Rachel Bootsma, Elizabeth PeltonMissy Franklin and Kathleen Baker win individual NCAA backstroke titles for the Bears, and Isabelle Stadden has a chance to join that elite group.

As mentioned earlier, Stadden won the Pac-12 title in the 200 back in her freshman year, and followed up with a third-place finish in the 200 and a fifth-place finish in the 100 at NCAAs, scoring 30 points between the two events. She hit best times in both races during the season, clocking 50.8 and 1:49.6, respectively, and will vie for national titles in the coming seasons.

The only hurdle standing in Stadden’s way is the unbelievable level of talent assembling in the NCAA across the backstroke events, with reigning NCAA champions Katharine Berkoff and Phoebe Bacon joined by U.S. Olympian Rhyan White and the fastest woman of all-time in both events, Regan Smith. We also cannot forget about the return of Stanford’s Taylor Ruck, who was second in the 200 (1:47.5) and third in the 100 (50.3) in 2019.

And while that might mean that Stadden isn’t favored to win an event this year, she’ll certainly remain a top-five threat in both races, with the ability to move up significantly in the 200.

Also scoring in a backstroke event last season was Ivey, who clipped Stadden at the wall in the 100 back by .02 to take fourth in 50.85. The supremely talented senior has been as fast as 50.42, done at the 2019 NCAAs where she also placed fourth, and remains a top-five challenger. It might make sense to use her elsewhere with this event so stacked, but for now, we’ll assume she keeps her standard lineup. (Also, simply flipping the 100 back for the 200 free wouldn’t really work, with the 100 fly and 200 free back-to-back on Day 3.)

Cal’s next-fastest backstrokers last season were Wilson, Spitz and Tea Laughlin. All three swimmers hit personal best times in the 200 during the Pac-12 finals, and the swims from Wilson (1:52.67) and Spitz (1:53.21) would’ve scored at NCAAs, but all added time at Nationals.

Laughlin, who was a freshman last season, hit PBs of 52.5 and 1:54.1 at the conference championships and can challenge to be a scorer this season at NCAAs with some small improvements.

Wilson and Spitz just need to hit their taper a bit better and they’ll score this season in the 200, though it’s fair to say that the event is the third-highest priority for each.

In terms of the newcomers, Reed Broaders (53.2) and Jessica Davis (54.4/1:58.9) join the training group, though neither are likely to make an immediate NCAA impact.

BREAST: ★★★

Ema Rajic lowered the Cal program record multiple times last season in the 100 breast, clocking 58.93 in November, 58.79 in January and then dropping an ‘A’ cut of 58.45 to finish second to USC’s Kaitlyn Dobler at Pac-12s.

Rajic was also the runner-up to Dobler in the 200 breast, clocking 2:07.19 (just off an in-season best of 2:07.16), but wasn’t able to drop at NCAAs, placing 14th in the 100 (58.96 prelim, 59.17 final) and 28th in the 200 (2:09.87).

A 2020 Croatian Olympian, Rajic has what it takes to be an ‘A’ finalist in the 100 breast (eighth place was 58.59 in prelims) and is very close in the 200 (‘A’ final cut was 2:06.71, ‘B’ was 2:08.62). She has proven to be a reliable relay performer, splitting 57.6 on the 400 medley relay at both Pac-12s and NCAAs (though the 400 was ultimately DQed).

If she can translate that ability to step up into her individual swims at NCAAs as a senior, Rajic will put up a lot more than the three points she scored last year.

The next-fastest breaststroker last season for the Bears was the now-graduated Alicia Harrison, who didn’t qualify for NCAAs but did place sixth in both breast events at Pac-12s last season for 48 points.

McKeever and the Cal brass have brought in several swimmers with breaststroke ability that will bolster their Pac-12 scoring greatly and potentially make an NCAA impact as well.

Israeli native Lea Polonsky is well-rounded and may not opt to focus on breaststroke, but she does own LC times that convert down to 1:00.3/2:10.7. They’ve also brought one of the class’ fastest 100 breaststrokers out of the U.S. in Alicia Henry (1:00.2/2:12.5), plus Melanie Julia (1:00.8/2:13.8) and Shelby Suppiger (1:01.3/2:12.4).

It would take a relatively large drop for any one of those names to score this season, but with Harrison gone and Rajic in either her last or second-to-last season, the Bears needed to fill the cupboards before they got bare. As they develop, Cal will be fine with Rajic as their (likely) sole NCAA breaststroke scorer, likely to bring in somewhere in the vicinity of 15 points total if she’s right on her best times.

FLY: ★★★★

The Bears had two swimmers put points on the board in butterfly last season: Izzy Ivey and Rachel Klinker.

Ivey followed up her Pac-12 title by placing fourth in the 100 fly at NCAAs, hitting a personal best of 50.68 in the final, and should she go the 100 back/fly route again this year, she’ll be near the top of the heap again.

Having now been sub-51 four times, Ivey is a near-lock to make the ‘A’ final, but a talented NCAA field got more crowded this season with the addition of Stanford freshman Torri Huske, meaning there are now three sub-50 women competing (assuming Regan Smith isn’t in the event).

So while Ivey can be counted on for double-digit points in the 100 fly, it would take a drastic improvement for her to finish any better than her fourth from last season.

Klinker won the Pac-12 conference title in the 200 fly as a sophomore, dominating the field by 3.4 seconds in a best time of 1:52.82.

That time would’ve led the NCAA prelims and finished second in the final, but Klinker was only 1:54.20 in the heats to qualify 10th into the consolation final, where she did manage to rally and place ninth overall in a time of 1:53.19 (would’ve been fourth in the ‘A’).

So if Klinker, who also added time in her other events at NCAAs, can nail her taper a bit better and get into that ‘A’ final this season, she’ll be a player for a top finish. Defending champion Olivia Carter of Michigan is returning, but the field as a whole remains relatively thin.

Klinker also has the ability to be a scorer in the 100 fly, having been 51.79 at Pac-12s, which would put her right on the edge of a top-eight NCAA finish. At Nationals she ended up 26th in 52.31.

Cal also adds one of the top freshman flyers in the 2021 high school class, Mia Kragh, who owns bests of 52.0/1:56.1 and has already been 53.5 in the 100 early this season. Kragh’s best time in the 100 is already under what it took to score at NCAAs last season, and her 200 time is within half a second. Given that she’s off to a strong start this season, she can probably be penciled in as a likely candidate ‘B’ final points in the 100 fly and a potential 200 scorer as well.

Hungarian Fanni Fabian has a 1:54.5 200 fly conversion, which puts her into scoring position, and Israeli Lea Polonsky (1:57.1) is also solid.

Elizabeth Cook (53.1/1:56.1) has a ton of upside in both events, and like Kragh, a small improvement in the 200 would make her a scorer this season.

Overall, Cal’s fly corps got a whole lot stronger than last season, where they put 24 points up from just two swims. Assuming Ivey swims the 100 fly again, we can project them to be closer to 30 points from her and Klinker, and if Klinker earns a second swim in the 100, that number would likely go up.

From the freshmen, it seems likely that Kragh will be a top-16 swimmer in the 100 fly, and there’s a lot of potential in the 200, led by Fabian.

IM: ★★★★

The individual medley crew is led by Alicia Wilson, who swam lights out most of last season but then faltered with a 22nd-place finish in the 400 IM at NCAAs.

Wilson swam a personal best time of 4:04.10 in November at the Stanford Invitational, and followed up with swims of 4:06.6 and 4:04.2 in January and February before going 4:11.29 at NCAAs. The swim was especially puzzling because she was coming off of a third-place swim in the 200 IM the night prior, though she was about a second off her best in that race as well.

Wilson had been 1:53.58 against UCLA in January, 1:53.65 at Pac-12s, and then was 1:54.51 in the NCAA final.

Coming off a big summer that included placing eighth in the 200 IM at the Olympic Games representing Great Britain, Wilson should be entering her senior season with a ton of confidence. If she can just match her current PBs at NCAAs this season, she’ll be good for a pair of top-four finishes or better.

The team’s next-fastest 200 IMer last season was Ivey, who went 1:55.08 at the dual meet against UCLA. Given that that’s an ‘A’ final-worthy NCAA time, it could be an event she focuses on to avoid the 100 back/100 fly double on Day 3.

Isabelle Stadden was 1:55.80 at Pac-12s which would’ve slotted her into the ‘A’ final at NCAAs, but she finished 20th in 1:57.25. An extra year of experience should make her a scorer in 2022.

Among the first-years, Polonsky has 1:56.6/4:10.8 conversions, meaning she could push for a top-16 time in the 200 IM if things translate over. Annika McEnroe (1:59.2/4:12.9) adds some depth.

This section lives and dies with how Wilson performs for now. She’s got the talent and experience to deliver some monster points—somewhere in the vicinity of 30—and the team would need just one more scorer in their event to get pushed into the four-star category. Given the potential of Polonsky, plus Stadden’s 200 IM ability, we’ll give it to them.

DIVING: ★

Diving is certainly a weak spot for Cal. Their only NCAA diver last season, Briana Thai, who finished in last place on both the 3-meter and platform, has graduated. They’ve got four divers on their roster this season, but this will continue to be an area of weakness for the Bears.

RELAYS

The Cal relays were excellent last season, scoring 134 NCAA points despite the disqualification in the 400 medley relay. If that DQ hadn’t happened, the Bears would have scored 166 points and placed in the top-three in four relays and fourth in the other.

All of their relay legs are back this season, and while some of the other schools may have gotten faster, the Bears holding firm with their lineups will keep them in the hunt in all five.

The defending champion 200 free relay squad of Riley, Gantriis, Garcia and Ivey gives them a plethora of options on the medley anchors, with Ivey likely assuming her role on fly and Stadden and Rajic a strong back/breast duo.

Keeping Neumann as a fifth-year senior is huge for the 400 and 800 free relays.

2021-22 OUTLOOK

This season will be a big one for Cal. With no major losses to report, the team will either show that it’s an NCAA title contender—and will be for the foreseeable future—or has fallen back in the pack.

Virginia was dominant last season, and Stanford has drastically improved. Staying competitive with those two doesn’t seem likely, given their embarrassment of riches, but the Bears can battle to get back in the top three with top-tier relays and more swimmers stepping up to score ‘B’ final points.

Ivey leads the charge, but they can’t rely on the big-name swimmers like UVA and Stanford, it will need to be more of a by-committee effort with contributions coming from everywhere.

Overcoming NC State and Texas will require swimmers like Spitz, Neumann, Rajic and Wilson to perform at their best when it counts most. Hitting their fastest times of the season at a November dual or at Pac-12s won’t do the team much good this season.

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Klorn8d
1 month ago

This article seemed oddly negative? Cal doesn’t quite recruit like they used to but they seem to be developing talent really well. I was impressed with them all last season.

Samuel Huntington
Reply to  Klorn8d
1 month ago

It is a little pessimistic, with all the talk of falling back to the pack. The last sentence, especially, is negative.

Togger
Reply to  Klorn8d
1 month ago

Also raises the question, is it just not possible to significantly develop many of the top tier recruits on the women’s side? They’re already just too good for big drops?

Meehan now gets slated on here for only maintaining the high school speed of his stud classes. Before him it was McKeever. May well be DeSorbo next.

Is it simply that with many elite female recruits already being on senior national teams and making Olympic/Worlds finals before they set foot on campus, they simply don’t have much room to develop into? For them a significant time drop would mean the kind of event defining swim reserved for uber talents like Ledecky, Milak or Peaty.

I’m not sure,… Read more »

Hannah
Reply to  Togger
1 month ago

The only major Stanford recruit in recent years who hasn’t gone a best time in college is Zoe Bartel. Stanford had one off year in 2021 and everyone started overreacting.

Hint of Lime
Reply to  Klorn8d
1 month ago

The fate of becoming a “Perennial third-to-fifth-place team in the coming seasons” reads like a tough label to slap on any team. I agree with the premise that yes, Cal did have a lower-than-anticipated/hoped for finish at last year’s NCAAs (which did knock off their top-3 finishes streak), but they still have the longest streak in the country of finishing top-5.

As a fan, will always cheer the Bears on to as high a finish as possible, but saying that Cal (or any team) might achieve only a 3rd-5th place finish in the future sounds dismissive of the work put in by athletes & coaches.

oxyswim
Reply to  Hint of Lime
1 month ago

California also had much tougher restrictions to deal with all of last year. The lack of time drops at NCs may have just been a matter of not having as much of a base. Harder to do well on the second taper without that background.

Dr Doofenshmirtz
1 month ago

Cal women are winning the 200 medley relay at NCAA. You heard it here first

Huh
Reply to  Dr Doofenshmirtz
1 month ago

You mean 4th right?

NCAA>ISL
Reply to  Dr Doofenshmirtz
1 month ago

with UVA/Stanford? not a shot.

Greg
Reply to  NCAA>ISL
1 month ago

And also NCST, who won that relay last year and returns just as strong, if not stronger if Webb can deliver a fast anchor leg. UVA set the American record last year and will be faster this year, with the emergence of Gretchen Walsh as a super sprint backstroker (unsuited 23.6). Stanford will be dangerous, but a relatively weak leg on breast puts them a bit below UVA and NCST, who are 1st and 2nd in some order. Cal slots in behind those three – they have four great legs but lacking that superstar power you need this year to win the 200 medley.

It’s late in the NCAA meet, so with fatigue a 131 probably won’t happen, but definitely… Read more »

Mr. Pack
Reply to  NCAA>ISL
1 month ago

NCSU TAKING IT HOME!!!!!

MC (not) Hammer
1 month ago

Does Teri have it in her to climb to the mountain top one more time over the next 3-4-5 years, or is she just riding it out and will settle for 3rd-4th-5th at NC’s ?

tea rex
1 month ago

Regarding Ivey’s schedule: in 2009, Dana Vollmer placed 4th in the 100 fly (poor swim), then WON the 200 free.
To show how the sport has changed in 12 years, the winning times that year were:
100 fly: 51.28
200 free: 1:42.01

Swammer2009
Reply to  tea rex
1 month ago

I feel so old. Swam at those NCAAs & it does not feel like 12 years ago…

swimmerTX
1 month ago

Ella Mazurek already went 22.66 against UVA (PB in HS 23.05). She has broken 23 three times this season already, and is also within 3/10 of her best 100 free (49.6, best 49.35). She will be a contender onto the free relays if she keeps improving.

Can’t wait to watch this team light it up! #HYGB

Brit Bean
1 month ago

Sharing my opinion: photos of spitting swimmers have no place on this site. Spitting water is gross, plus it’s antithetical to all the “stop the spread of covid 19” education. Thank you!

Unknown Swammer
Reply to  Brit Bean
1 month ago

While it may be gross – has there been any indication that Covid is spread through pool water?

Gobears
1 month ago

The article puts a lot of pressure on Wilson performing. What about our other IM bears!

Aquabearcat
1 month ago

I’d never bet against Teri & her ladies. Tough as nails. Nelms your heart out girls!

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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