Key Additions: Alex Cleveland (IN- free/back), Amy Lubawy (NV – free/fly), Micah Bohon (SC – back/IM), Logan Haddock (VA – back/free), Taylor Lehr (CA – back/free),
Key Losses: Lindsay Gendron (43 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Tori Lamp (28 NCAA diving points), Lauren Solernou (2 NCAA relays, top backstroker), Kate McNeilis (2 NCAA relays)
Last season saw the Tennessee Volunteers taking on a newfound spotlight after a breakout 2013 campaign that earned them third-place honors at the NCAA Championships. Sneaking up on the nation was no longer an option for the Vols after that rise to the elite tier of NCAA swimming.
The bigger issue, though, was how the team would navigate the loss of three major contributors, Caroline Simmons, Kelsey Floyd and Jodie McGroarty.
The Vols responded well, though, rolling through the regular season with just one loss, and that to eventual national champions Georgia on the road. The regular season highlight had to be a narrow, four-point victory over SEC rivals Florida on senior night – that made it two seasons in a row where Tennessee swam outstanding in a conference upset on senior night after doing the same thing to Georgia back in 2013. (For those keeping track at home, Tennessee’s senior night this season is against those Georgia Bulldogs on January 24).
At the NCAA Championships, Tennessee continued its trend of rolling on the strength of its relays, getting 124 points off relays alone and averaging a 6th-place finish between the 5 relay events.
Meanwhile senior Lindsay Gendron rose to become a workhorse, earning a pair of third-place finishes at the national championships. Most impressive was Gendron’s last day, where she turned a 100 free/200 fly double, taking 8th and 3rd, respectively, and added the anchor leg on Tennessee’s 7th place 400 free relay to close her collegiate career.
Senior diver Tori Lamp scored on all three boards, Molly Hannis finaled in both breaststrokes and Faith Johnson volunteered her own individual points in the 50 free to give Tennessee a 7th-place national finish. After that big in-season upset, Tennessee wound up just 16 points behind the Florida Gators and were 29 short of USC as those three teams made up the true “second tier” of the NCAA’s top programs.
Volunteer duty over for Gendron, Lamp
It only seems natural to first look at who won’t be returning from that 7th-place run. There’s good news and bad news for Vols fans here. In terms of quantity, the graduations are relatively light; in terms of quality, though, they’re stingers.
Tennessee graduated just 4 NCAA scorers from 2014, and two of them were relay-only scorers. On the other hand, the two individuals combined for 71 NCAA points and 4 A final appearances.
Gendron is the biggest loss. Between that tough mile/200 fly double, a 3rd-place 200 free finish, plus the fastest legs of all three free relays, Gendron was a force to be reckoned with as a senior. Her graduation hurts worst in the 800 free relay, where her leadoff 1:44.59 was two and a half seconds faster than Tennessee’s next best split.
Meanwhile Lamp was an illuminating presence on the boards. She finished as high as 6th at last year’s NCAAs on platform and also added 9th and 11th place finishes on the springboards as Tennessee’s only NCAA-qualifying diver.
We’ll touch more on the future of Tennessee’s relays below, but it’s important to note that Lauren Solernou‘s graduation is a big threat to the Volunteer medleys, which carried the team last year. The 200 was the NCAA runner-up, the 400 a 6th-place squad, and Solernou led off both relays. The dropoff from her to the next backstroker was pretty significant (again, more on that later), so it’s an area to watch. Then there was Kate McNeilis, who swam third on both the 400 free and 800 free relays, and graduates alongside Gendron, leaving two holes in both relays.
The good news, of course, is that this is it. In fact, outside of these 4 NCAA scorers, Tennessee didn’t graduate a single SEC point-scorer from last season. That might suggest that Tennessee’s depth should remain more or less intact, provided it can train up a couple of stars to replace Gendon and Lamp’s production.
Keeping the Faith
The obvious choice for a step-up season has to be junior Faith Johnson. It’s hard to categorize Johnson’s 2014 campaign with strict adjectives. It was far from disappointing – Johnson put up lifetime-bests in all three of her races and made the championship final of the 50 at NCAAs. But it’s also hard to call it a fully satisfying finish. Johnson was just .05 faster in the 50 than she was as a freshman. In the 100, she dropped just over a tenth. And in both races, she added time at NCAAs after lifetime bests in the conference championships.
Johnson steps into a much bigger role in her third collegiate season. With Gendron gone, she’s now the center of this team’s relay efforts, and there’s hope that this enhanced role will draw out a big season from the talented sprinter.
She’ll need one to move up at NCAAs. The problem with the sprints at women’s NCAAs right now is how they’re continually getting younger. Case in point: Johnson took third in the nation as a freshman phenom in 2013, but then found herself passed up by the new freshman phenoms the following year. Johnson went about a tenth slower at NCAAs, but even repeating her time from a year ago would have constituted a move down in the standings. That’s because of the influx of talent that included freshman national champ Olivia Smoliga plus San Diego State’s stud freshman Anika Apostalon.
Things don’t get any easier this season in the 50, as Simone Manuel leads another class that should thicken up the sprinting hunt. In addition, only two of the eight finalists from last season graduated.
But the 50 is a fickle beast, and that can be a good thing. All it takes is the right race on the right day to make a rocketing run up the final standings. There probably wouldn’t be a bigger boost to Tennessee’s NCAA hopes than to have that kind of breakout swim from Faith Johnson.
Reloading in the Sprints
Thankfully for Tennessee’s free relays, reinforcements are showing up in droves for Johnson in the sprint free events. Tennessee’s top two freshmen are 22-second splash-and-dashers who should match up very well with Johnson for the Vols.
Alex Cleveland got under a pair of Indiana high school state records last winter, only missing out on getting her name into the history books because she finished second in both to Carmel super-sprinter Amy Bilquist. Cleveland comes in with bests of 22.45 and 49.69, which should make her an outside threat to score individually as a freshman at NCAAs, but also position her as a front-runner for one of Tennessee’s vacated relay spots.
Coming in the door alongside Cleveland is Nevada state record-holder Amy Lubawy. Lubawy is 22.98 and 49.82 out of high school, the fastest ever to come out of Nevada. Both she and Cleveland had solid summers, competing at Juniors and dropping time, and they look like a true dynamic duo behind Johnson in what should be a fast and deep set of events for the Vols.
Some question marks on the medleys
Though the free relays should be solid, if youthful, the medleys have a couple big question marks moving forward. We mentioned Lauren Solernou earlier, the team’s top backstroker who graduated last spring. Though Solernou probably wasn’t the team’s best leg on either relay, the dropoff from her to the next-fastest Volunteer was significant.
Solernou’s top 100 back time of the year was the 52.37 she put up leading off the 400 medley in prelims. Tennessee’s next-fastest 100 backstroker? Freshman Madison Hahn at 53.95 from SECs.
It’s going to be on Hahn or Christina Leander (also 53.9 as a freshman last season) to take a big step forward if this medley is to stay in national contention. The backstroke might be the most important leg of the medley relay because a great split can give the rest of your team clean water. (Ask any breaststroker or butterflyer how difficult it is to swim through choppy waves and you’ll get a sense of how damaging it can be to fall behind early). Filling Solernou’s shoes has to be priority number one for these medleys.
Butterfly is another need, but a bit less pressing. Harper Bruens held down the 200 medley leg last year and swam well, splitting 23.3 for Tennessee’s runner-up squad. The 400 medley spot was Lindsay Gendron’s, and she was her usual dominating self with a 51.9, among the top splits in the entire NCAA.
Bruens looks like a solid bet for the 200 medley spot again, but she’s more of a sprint freestyler who stretches over to the short butterfly race, and probably won’t take the 400 medley spot. Tennessee’s top 100 flyer last year was sophomore Anna DeMonte, who went 53.42 at SECs. A year of improvement could turn that into a respectable relay leg, but DeMonte will have to peform when it counts – she put that time up at SEC prelims and slid all the way back to 54.41 in the final, which would be a crippling relay leg for the team.
Most of Tennessee’s flyers specialize in the 200, so there might not be many other options behind DeMonte, unless the Vols can find a versatile sprint type like Bruens who can hold down the relay spot. Sophomore Michelle Cefal might be an option, or perhaps 200 flyer Madeline Tegner, if she can find enough sheer speed to hold down the spot.
Other swimmers to watch:
- We’ve mentioned Molly Hannis, but she’s the other expected big contributor alongside Faith Johnson. Hannis scored in both breaststrokes at NCAAs last year, including a 6th place finish in the 100, where three of the top five were seniors. Hannis is one of a handful of swimmers in the nation capable of pushing well past the minute barrier in the 100, and that’s her focus. But her 200 was remarkably strong this summer, as she took more than a second off her lifetime-best to finish 4th overall. If that 200 prowess translates to short course, Hannis could be an A finalist in both breaststroking races as a senior.
- Lauren Driscoll holds down the IM events for Tennessee, and she looks like a potential point-scorer on the national level this season. She had a rough NCAAs in 2014, but was a championship finalist in the 400 IM at SECs. If she can put together fast races at both post-season meets, she could find some room in a 400 IM that graduated 10 of the top 16 nationwide.
- The Vols have some definite depth in the lengthier races, with several swimmers on the edge of NCAA scoring levels. Amanda Carner made the B finals of the 200 and 400 IMs at SECs last year, though she just missed scoring at NCAAs. Meanwhile Anna DeMonte made consol finalis of the 200 IM and 100 fly at the conference level, and also brings a solid 200 backstroke to the table.
- In terms of distance freestyle, junior Mary Griffith is the go-to Vol. She scored in the 200 and 500 at SECs, and put NCAA points on the board as the anchor of Tennessee’s 11th-place 800 free relay. With two swimmers graduated from the relay, Griffith is now a cornerstone of that group moving forward.
- We haven’t talked much diving yet, but the Vols are in OK shape following the graduation of All-American Tori Lamp. Though junior Samantha Lera probably won’t fully replace Lamp’s points, she is a solid diver on all three boards and will be looking for her first NCAA appearance this winter.
That final list really hammers home what will drive Tennessee’s season. They’ve got a lot of swimmers right on the edge. Athletes like Molly Hannis and Faith Johnson are established contributors who seem just on the border of being gamechangers in their respective events. Much of the rest of the crew, meanwhile, are solid SEC contributors right on the edge of making the jump to NCAA contention. How many athletes can take the step to the next level is going to be the determining factor in how Tennessee fares.
The other big factor is how well this team can show up at NCAAs when it needs to. Two seasons ago, a great regular season had naysayers out in full force, predicting a big NCAA dropoff for a team accused of resting for in-season competitions. That team proved the doubters wrong with a 3rd place finish and some outstanding swims. But last season, there was a bit more of a dropoff from SECs to NCAAs, as it seemed several swimmers had trouble repeating or bettering their best in the national spotlight.
That’s a situation where Hannis and Johnson will have to lead by example. They’ve both been through the NCAA grind before, and if they can be at their best at nationals, it’s likely the rest of the team will follow right along. The chances of moving up at NCAAs are certainly there – Florida finished just ahead of Tennessee last year and lost big points and leadership from Elizabeth Beisel. Still, what matters is what team shows up to swim at NCAAs, and this season, Tennessee will have to prove that they’re ready when they need to be.