College Swimming Previews: #5 Virginia Women Look to Hold Course

We’ll be previewing the top 10 men’s and women’s programs from the 2016 NCAA Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 20. Can’t get enough college swimming? Check out the College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine for more team previews and power rankings of every major Division I conference.

Key Losses: Courtney Bartholomew (41 NCAA points, 4 relays)

Key Additions: Morgan Hill (MD — sprint free), Madeline Vonderhaar (KY — breast)

2015-16 LOOKBACK:

The Cavalier women were already the cream of the ACC crop before Coach Augie Busch took the reins, and they continue to hold steady under his guidance.  They won their 9th-straight ACC championship, then placed 5th at NCAA champs for the second year in a row.  There, then-junior Leah Smith won the 500 and 1650 freestyles, and then-senior Courtney Bartholomew took two 2nd place finishes.  Smith went on to win a gold medal as part of the USA 4×200 free relay team in Rio, and also earned a bronze medal in the 400 free individually.

The Cavaliers will miss Bartholomew, both individually and on relays, and they don’t have anyone coming in who projects to make a huge immediate impact, but they’re bringing back enough of their core to have a solid shot at defending their placing from last year.

SPRINT FREE: B

Here, Virginia provides a great example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  Last season the Cavaliers failed to score any points at NCAA’s in the sprint freestyle events, but they were the only team in the A-final of the 200 free relay at NCAA’s who didn’t have anyone make the top 16 in the individual 50 free.  They also managed to get into the B-final of the 400 free relay at NCAA’s, and they had four women score in the 100 free at ACC’s, all of whom will be returning.

Then-junior Ellen Thomas was barely a tenth out of the B-final in the 100 free at NCAA’s, and had the fastest split on team at NCAA’s. The Cavaliers return all four legs of their 10th place 400 free relay, and only lost Bartholomew from their 200 free relay.  Incoming freshman Morgan Hill (22.7/49.07) should pick up some points at ACC’s and be able to fill in for Bartholomew on the shorter free relays.

DISTANCE FREE: A+

Leah Smith throwing up the number one after winning the 1650 free. Photo Credits: Tim Binning/TheSwimPictures.com

Leah Smith throwing up the number one after winning the 1650 free at NCAAs. Photo Credits: Tim Binning/TheSwimPictures.com

Smith cemented her place as the best distance swimmer in the NCAA last year by winning the 500 and 1650 freestyles for the second year in a row.  Unfortunately, she will be hard-pressed to defend her titles against an incoming freshman who happened to be the most decorated female swimmer at the 2016 Olympics, Stanford’s Katie Ledecky.

Behind Smith, three Cavaliers return who scored in the 500 at ACC’s, and at least one of them, perhaps sophomore Megan Moroney, should be capable of pulling in some points at NCAA’s as well.

To top it off, the Cavaliers still have all four legs of the 4×200 relay that won ACCs in a school and conference record, then dropped over four seconds at NCAAs to place 4th.

IM: B

Senior Kaitlyn Jones leads a relatively strong IM squad that has the potential to score major points at both the conference and national level. Last year, Jones took first at ACC’s in the 400 IM, then added over six seconds a month later to fade to 33rd at the national championships.  She did essentially the same thing in 2015.  If the Cavs can figure out how to get Jones to swim the same speed at NCAA’s as at ACC’s, she’d be a lock for the A-final.  As a sophomore last year, Jen Marrkand placed 9th at ACC’s, and essentially repeated her time to finish just a few spots out of the B-final at NCAA’s.  Both swimmers made the A-final at ACC’s in the 200 IM, while Vivian Tafuto and Laua Simon picked up a few points in the C-final.

BUTTERFLY: B+

_Jones_ Kaitlyn Jones SO Virginia-TBX_4669-

Kaitlyn Jones (Photo credit: Tim Binning)

While Virginia puts together some very quality relays, the 200 yard events are their bread and butter, and butterfly is no exception.   Last year, Jones took advantage of Kelsi Worrell swimming the 100 free at ACC’s to take the conference title in the 200 fly, while Marrkand placed 3rd.  Jones went on to place 10th at NCAA’s, while Markkand moved over to the 200 back.

Both Jones and Marrkand swam the 400 IM at ACC’s and NCAA’s instead of the 100 fly.  Then-junior Ellen Thomas placed 7th at ACC’s and 23rd at NCAA’s.  Her mid-52 flat start time is close to what Jones swam on the final of the medley relay at NCAA’s, meaning that there could be a battle brewing for that relay spot in 2017.  Additionally, there is a little depth here, as senior Shannon Rauth and sophomore Kasey Schmidt made the B- and C- finals, respectively, at ACC’s.

BACKSTROKE: B-

The Cavaliers are not entirely without hope here after losing Bartholomew, but they are definitely going to miss her, especially on the medley relays.  The heir apparent will be Moroney.  She took 4th at ACC’s and 11th at NCAA’s in the 200 back.  According to UVA’s website, she had the 2nd best time on the team in the 100 back, a 53.0 (although that was a conversion from LCM).  She’s also been 25.0 in the 50 back.  If she can improve on those marks at all, that’ll help Virginia’s relays out tremendously. She elected to swim the 200 free instead of the 100 back at ACC’s and NCAA’s last season.

Jack of all trades Marrkand swam the 200 back at NCAA’s, placing 14th.  UVA lacks depth in backstroke, as no swimmer besides Bartholomew scored in the 100 back at ACC’s, and no other swimmer even competed in the event at NCAA’s.

BREASTSTROKE: B+

_Simon_Laura FR Laura Simon Simon UVA-DO8T3681-

Laura Simon (Photo credit: Tim Binning)

While Bartholomew’s loss will hit the Cavs hard, they still have the other leg of the one of the fastest medley relay front halves in NCAA history in the form of senior Laura Simon. In the 100 breast, she placed 2nd at ACC’s, 7th at NCAA’s.  She won ACC’s in the 200 breast with a 2:06.86.  Had she repeated that time at NCAA’s, she would have made the A-final.  Instead, she added a bit of time and ended up 16th. Regardless, she will be a key leg on both medley relays.

The Cavaliers don’t have much behind Simon. At ACC’s, Tafuto made the A-final in the 100 breast, and the C-final in the 200, but was unable to score points at NCAA’s.  Incoming freshman Vonderhaar’s best times should easily score at ACC’s, but she has some improvement before she’ll be a threat at the national championships.

2016-17 OUTLOOK:

The Cavaliers retain enough firepower to give them the ability to hold off the Wolfpack and secure their 10th-straight ACC championship.

It’s a well-rounded roster, as evidenced by the consistent B-level grades across the board, and a handful of those events could easily become A’s if any one swimmer can develop into double NCAA A-finalists – Jones in the IMs and Simon in the breaststrokes both seem like great candidates for that kind of explosion.

Virginia certainly has the potential to repeat its 5th-place showing at NCAA’s, but will need some steady improvement from swimmers who just missed scoring last year to help make up for Bartholomew’s loss.

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tea rex

Marrkand and Moroney are interesting swimmers – they seem to bounce from freestyle to IM to fly to back throughout the season. It’s great to have those kind of utility swimmers on a college team.

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