Key Additions: Sydney Pickrem (Canada/FL – IM/back/breast), Lexie Lupton (TX – free/back), Jorie Caneta (Arizona State transfer – breast), Alexandra Buscher (TX – free/fly), Claire Rasmus (LA – free/IM), Raena Eldridge (TX – back/fly), Tiffany Futscher (TX – fly/back), Shayne Gregson (TX – free/fly), Elizabeth Jordana (TX – fly/back), Natasha Gvakharia (Mexico/FL – fly/free), Alais Kalonji (France – diving)
Key Losses: Sarah Henry (NCAA champ, 51 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Sammie Bosma (6 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Lili Ibanez (3 NCAA relays), Emily Neubert (1 NCAA relay), Ashley McGregor (redshirt – 12 NCAA points)
Last season was a year of transition for the fast-rising Texas A&M Aggies. After graduating three NCAA champions the previous year (Olympians Breeja Larson and Cammile Adams along with Canadian star Paige Miller), it was up to fresh faces to carry on the program’s ascent.
The lone holdover in NCAA title contention was Sarah Henry, who splashed her way to 51 NCAA points and a national title in the 400 IM in her senior season.
But one swimmer alone can’t carry a team into the NCAA’s top 4. A stellar freshman class came up big for the Aggies, led by French import Beryl Gastaldello, who was top-10 in the 50 and 100 frees and a key relay force.
Breaststroker Ashley McGregor added another A final appearance and the Aggie relays were incredibly consistent, with both medleys taking 11th and the free relays taking 5th, 4th and 4th. That all balanced out to 231 points and a solid 4th-place finish, leading the second-wave of NCAA teams behind title contenders Cal, Georgia and Stanford.
A passing of the torch
The coming year will complete A&M’s transition into the next generation, with Henry joining Larson, Adams and Miller in the post-graduate realm.
She leads an outgoing senior class that also included NCAA contributors Sammie Bosma and Lili Ibanez.
The good news for Texas A&M, though, is that last year’s success was very much a combination of a strong senior class and an excellent group of freshman. 2016 will see the torch fully passed to that younger class, now sophomores.
Gastaldello is a crucial piece of the puzzle. The NCAA format makes a versatile sprinter among the most valuable assets in college swimming, and the French speedster fits that bill to a “T.” An outstanding butterflyer and backstroker, Gastaldello can basically swim it all within the sprint realm. She had her best NCAA success as a sprint freestyler, but swam backstroke on the 400 medley relay and butterfly on the 200 medley. She was also just one place away from scoring individually in the 100 fly.
Also in that conversation is Lisa Bratton, a U.S. National Teamer who won a gold medal for the United States at the World University Games this past summer. Bratton is better in long course, but is no slouch in short course yards, either, making B finals of the 100 back, 200 back and 400 IM at NCAAs last year.
And there’s Bethany Galat, the lineup successor of sorts to the Olympian Larson. Larson was well-known as the rare breaststroker to also contribute on freestyle relays, and Galat stepped right into those shoes as a freshman, taking 10th at NCAAs in the 100 breast while manning a leg of the 5th-place 200 free relay for the Aggies. She also won the B final of the 200 IM swimming alongside her teammate Bratton.
Youth Movement Continues
This year’s sophomore class won’t be leading the youth movement alone. The Aggies brought in a big and talented freshman class with a couple swimmers having the potential to be uber-stars in the fashion of Henry or Larson.
Canadian national Sydney Pickrem is at the top of that list. Her short course times don’t fully do justice to her talent, especially after a breakout summer that saw her win two Pan American Games medals and break the Canadian national record in the 200 IM.
Pickrem has been 2:10.08 in the long course 200 IM, which would likely translate to much faster than her 1:58.15 in the short course version of the event. The same goes for her 4:38.03 in the long course 400 IM compared to a 4:19.13 short course.
Pickrem is also great in the butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke races, which means her lineup can adjust with her development or with A&M’s needs moving forward.
The Aggies also brought in Texas high school state champ Lexie Lupton in the sprints (22.7 and 49.0 in the 50 and 100 frees) to account for the graduation of the sprinter Bosma. Lili Ibanez is also graduated, but her more rangy freestyle talents make Texan freshman Alexandra Buscher (1:47.07 in the 200 free) a worthy replacement.
And finally, Texas A&M got an impact transfer in former Arizona State Sun Devil Jorie Caneta, who joins a loaded breaststroke group. Caneta is listed as a freshman on the Aggie roster, but would appear to be a sophomore after swimming last season with ASU.
Breaststroke Group Blowing Up
Call it the ‘Breeja Effect’: Since Breeja Larson made the U.S. Olympic team in a big upset in 2012, top-tier breaststroke prospects have flocked to College Station in huge numbers. Since the summer of 2012, the Aggies have added Canadian and All-American Ashley McGregor, South African Franko Jonker, Northern Ireland’s Sycerika McMahon, Wisconsin state champ Kristin Malone, Galat and now the transfer Caneta.
All six of those swimmers are still on the roster, though McGregor won’t compete –she’s taking a redshirt season to train for the Olympic Trials in Canada.
Even without McGregor, though, the Aggies are still loaded in breaststroke. Galat was an individual scorer and a key relay leg as a freshman. McMahon just missed scoring in both breaststrokes as a sophomore last year. Jonker was the breaststroker on the 11th-place 400 medley relay.
That group should be a cornerstone of A&M’s new-look squad, with the potential to score upwards of 4 swimmers at the NCAA level. Only Galat and McGregor scored last year, but the Aggies had four more breaststroke swims within six-tenths of a second of scoring – McGregor in the 100 (20th), McMahon in the 100 (23rd), Jonker in the 100 (24th) and Galat in the 200 (23rd).
With that much talent loaded into the breaststroke group, coach Steve Bultman‘s only problem might be deciding who gets the breaststroke legs on the medley relays.
A&M Lassoing Texas Recruits
One key to the Aggies success has been roping in big herds of Texas’s in-state high school talent.
Of 10 freshman swimmers on the A&M roster, 6 hail from the Lone Star State. That includes big-time freestylers Lupton and Buscher along with versatile talents like Raena Eldridge and Tiffany Futscher.
Texas A&M and the University of Texas are both top-10 programs clamoring for the same in-state talent pool. Though Texas has done an outstanding job recruiting over the past few years, they’ve been pulling a much larger portion of their talent from out of state, while A&M has been dominating the in-state market. Compared to A&M’s 6, Texas has just 2 native Texans in its current freshman class.
Loading Up on Fly/Back Talent
Texas A&M brings in a large, 11-person recruiting class, and most of those numbers are concentrated in the butterfly and backstroke events.
Perhaps that’s a reaction to last season, when the team was forced to use Gastaldello as a jack-of-all-trades to fill out their medley relays instead of allowing her to concentrate on a single stroke.
A&M doesn’t really have any immediate-impact-type swimmers in fly and back, but they’re loaded in developmental talent in the 55-second range.
We mentioned Texans Eldridge and Futscher above, and they make a complementary pair. Eldridge is better at the sprints of both strokes (55.5 in backstroke, 54.6 in fly), while Futscher is more of a 200 swimmer (2:00.1 in fly, 2:01.1 in back).
The Aggies also have 2:00-backstroker Elizabeth Jordana, plus 54-second flyer Natasha Gvakharia, a Mexican national who has trained with the Bolles School Sharks program. The above-mentioned Buscher is also 55/2:02 in the butterfly races if she swims them in addition to freestyle.
When you’re hoping for a developmental prospect to break out in a specific event, bringing in lots of bodies certainly increases the odds of a freshman explosion. Even if none of the bunch is an NCAA scorer as a freshman, there’s a possiblity the en-masse recruiting strategy pays off down the road if A&M’s fly/back group starts to look as deep as its breaststrokers.
Other Key Swimmers
- Continuing that trend of Texas talent is Sarah Gibson, who’s now in her junior season out of San Antonio. Gibson just missed out on NCAA points in the 500 free last year with a 17th-place finish, but should have a shot to score this season, and should certainly be a contributor at the SEC level. With Henry graduated, Gibson steps in as the team’s top returning threat in the longer distances.
- At the other end of the spectrum is Laura Norman, an underrated part of that sound freshman class from a year ago. Norman led off the 200 medley relay at NCAAs and went a 52.8 in the 100 back at SECs. She’s yet another Texas product, coming out of Keller, Texas.
- Tyler, Texas’s Meredith Oliver is now in her senior year and coming off a leg of the team’s 800 free relay. Without Henry anchoring, that relay will have to step things up to pick up the slack. Oliver is the fastest returning leg of the relay and will be a senior leader for the team movning forward.
- We talked a little about Kristin Malone earlier, but she’ll be a key piece in 2016 as well. Another of the breaststroke/freestyle hybrids that’s done so well at A&M in recent years, Malone held down a clutch leg of the 4th-place 400 free relay and is one of two returning legs there along with Gastaldello.
- On the diving front, the team returns Madison Hudkins, who just missed scoring on 1-meter last year at NCAAs. She’s joined by French import Alais Kolonji, who is listed as a swimmer on the team’s roster, but was a successful diver in France with no swimming results to be found.
2015 looked like a rebuilding year for the Aggies, but A&M surprised with a huge effort that equaled their 2014 finish in 4th place.
That’s why it’s hard to bet against the Aggies in 2016, even though the roster is still undergoing some major changes with freshmen thrust into several key positions.
Losing Henry hurts immensely, and the team will now be hard-pressed to find a legitimate NCAA championship contender on their roster. On the other hand, though, it’s fair to expect last year’s freshmen to be even more productive in year 2, and that class has some serious potential in a wide range of events.
Probably the biggest quesiton facing A&M is how the relays will perform after 9 of 20 legs graduated last spring. That includes their anchor legs on all four relays – Henry on the 800 free and Bosma on the other four.
Whoever takes over those anchor slots will have a lot to live up to, but Texas A&M doesn’t have any shortage of viable candidates.
Keep an eye on the breaststroke group, which could be absolutely special this coming season. Those could be two powerhouse events coming on the final two days of the NCAA Championships, a huge asset to have in one’s pocket in a tight team race.
Much will again fall to the freshman class. If this year’s rookies can have the same level of impact as last year’s frosh did, then Texas A&M will be very much in line to maintain its top-5 status for the forseeable future.