College Swimming Previews: Stability arrives for #8 Arizona in first full year under DeMont

Key Additions: Cameron McHugh (TX – backstrokes), Alexandra Martelle (NC – breaststroke), Jenna Bauer (CA – free/back), Laura Kurki (Finland – sprint free), Claire Lockridge (Canada – butterfly), Samantha Getzen (AZ – butterfly)

Key Losses: Margo Geer (36 NCAA points, 5 NCAA relays, NCAA 100 free champ), Ashley Evans (3 NCAA relays), Alana Pazevic (3 NCAA relays), Grace Finnegan (3 NCAA relays)

2013-2014 Lookback

2013-2014 was a season of leadership turmoil for several major programs with various coaches running into mid-season snags, but no team had a rougher go of it coaching-wise than Arizona.

The week after an early-season dual meet with Utah, then-head coach Eric Hansen took an unexpected leave of absence from the program. Though the reasons for his absence were never officially revealed, it turned out to be a sabbatical of sorts that Hansen never returned from.

All of that chaos went down in October, but it wasn’t until January that the school officially announced Hansen’s resignation as head coach. That meant that the team spent most of the year in a state of uncertainty, and to their credit, it didn’t seem to affect in-the-pool performance too drastically.

The beginning of 2014 brought the toughest parts of the Wildcats’ schedule and included road losses to Stanford and Cal, plus a home loss to Texas, three of the nation’s top 9 teams by year’s end. Arizona officially named longtime assistant Rick DeMont as the new head coach in early February, and kicked off the DeMont era with a big win over Arizona State in the regular season finale.

DeMont was essentially the head coach for the whole year, taking over leadership duties with Hansen’s absence, being named interim head coach after Hansen’s resignation and ultimately leading the program through its post-season run as the official head coach.

Though the Wildcats’ finishes at NCAAs (8th) and Pac-12s (5th) were far from disappointing, it still felt like a year where the ‘Cats just couldn’t catch a break. The team’s returning star was senior Margo Geer, the defending NCAA champ in the 50 and 100 free. But Cal dropped Olympic superstar Missy Franklin into the 100 to strengthen its lineup, the ripple effect at Pac-12s being that Geer missed first-place points in both her races and Arizona ultimately missed out on 4th place by just 3 points to UCLA.

Then at NCAAs, their second star, sophomore Bonnie Brandon, came down with a bad illness that took her out of two of her three individual races and limited her effectiveness on the team’s relays.

For a team that was built around the combination of Geer and Brandon dominating their races, those were tough-luck blows. The Wildcats managed to stay in the top 10, though, scoring in all 5 relays and getting a repeat NCAA championship in the 100 free from Geer, who avenged her loss to Franklin at Pac-12s with a win at the national championships. Brandon did manage to take 5th in the 500 free before the illness reached its peak, and the team compensated for her absence by scoring 72 timely points on the final day of NCAAs to leapfrog Texas for 8th place.

What can a healthy Bonnie Brandon do?

Bonnie Brandon’s absence at NCAAs was really a bum deal, both for the team and for swimming fans. One of the nation’s best young swimmers, the Coloradoan was often overshadowed by the specter of Missy Franklin in her younger days, but had really established herself as a star in her own right after one season with Arizona.

In her freshman season, Brandon scored in three events at NCAAs, finishing as high as 4th in the 500 free. More of a middle distance specialist, she paired extremely well with Geer, pacing the backstrokes and mid-distance freestyle races while her older teammate handled sprints. Brandon won the NCAA 200 back B final in 2013, establishing herself as yet another factor in what was becoming the NCAA’s toughest race.

Being sick in 2014 cost Brandon the 100 and 200 backstrokes, where her times from 2013 would have gotten her 12th and 4th overall. She had put up multiple lifetime-bests at the mid-season Texas Invite, so there was good reason to think Brandon would have been even faster than that had she stayed healthy through NCAAs.

This season, we’ll hope to see Bonnie Brandon back at full strength for the Wildcats. She’s got the potential to final in all three events – even those ultra-fast backstrokes – and perhaps even to take over for Geer as the team’s reigning national champion, though her best bet is probably in the 500, where she’ll have to get past Georgia’s Brittany MacLean.

Now a junior, Brandon is the clear-cut centerpiece of the Wildcats squad. With Geer gone, she’ll have to shoulder the load, especially on relays. If she’s back at full speed, though, it’s hard to ask for a better cornerstone to build around.

A full offseason for Rocket

There’s a Rocket taking off in Arizona, and it’s not the one you might have seen flying through outer space at the box office this summer. “Rocket” is the nickname of new head coach Rick DeMont, who gets his first crack at a full season at the helm in 2014-2015.

DeMont is a highly-respected coach in swimming circles, a former world record-holder in the pool who spent 25 seasons on the Arizona coaching staff before getting his shot as a head coach.

Though DeMont was in charge most of last season, he now gets the benefit of a full offseason as head coach, and should have a bit more of a plan for the season, compared to last year when he was thrown into the shuffle mid-season. It’s probably safe to say the team should have a less stressful road to NCAAs, or at least a less chaotic one, with a steadying presence like DeMont’s at the top of the program.

Small roster

A small crew of just 21 last season didn’t grow much this offseason. The team has 8 new freshmen to add to the 15 athletes currently listed on the roster, leading to a team that all combined doesn’t fill an normal-size travel squad (which is typically 24 athletes, with divers counting as a half each).

Arizona tended to bring in smaller classes during the Eric Hansen era, so an 8-person group isn’t out of the ordinary. Still, it’s tough to compete with a team that small – it leaves very little wiggle room for injuries, redshirts or just plain “off” seasons from expected contributors. It looks like things are set to change there under DeMont, who has already brought in 8 commitments to this point for next fall. The Wildcats will have to wait a year for that exceptional class to arrive, but until then, the bright side is that it’s somewhat-small freshman crew has some great potential.

Arizona’s first get of recruiting last fall was Finnish sprinter Laura Kurki, filling a big need for the ‘Cats, who graduated not only Geer, but also two more of their top sprinters (more on that below). Kurki’s a very solid sprinter, and she’s put up some of her best swims in short course meters, which Arizona hopes will ease her transition to yards swimming this season. She’s joined in sprints by Canadian Paige Kremer, who’s made appearances at Junior Pan Pacs for Canada.

Also joining the class were a couple of freestyler/backstrokers in the mold of Bonnie Brandon. Texas’s Cameron McHugh might be the team’s best pickup, holding bests of 1:48.43 in the 200 free and 1:56.32 in the 200 back. Getting to train with Brandon should be good for McHugh, and it’ll work the same way for Jenna Bauer out of California, who comes in with times just a tick behind McHugh.

On a roster that’s lacking in sheer numbers, that trio should at least give Arizona a couple of very strong events to hang their hat on moving forward.

The Wildcats got SwimMAC’s Alexandra Martelle to pair with established star Emma Schoettmer in the breaststrokes, plus a Canadian butterflyer/distance freestyler named Claire Lockridge to add to their talent over a distance. They kept Scottsdale butterflyer Samantha Getzen in state as well. It’s a pretty classic Arizona class based on the past several years – small in numbers but solid in talent. Of course, the trend of small classes might be changing with DeMont’s ascension, as the Wildcats have been scooping up prospects left and right in the current recruiting season, a sign they might be growing the roster in size down the road.

Rebuilding the Relays

Arizona needs in the incoming pieces for its relays, which must be almost completely rebuilt from a year ago. Geer swam on all 5 relays in 2014, putting up the team’s most impressive split in each of them. In addition to her, the team lost Alana Pazevic (200 free, 200 medley, 400 free), Grace Finnegan (200 free, 400 free, 800 free) and Ashley Evans (200 medley, 400 medley, 800 free) to graduation, who along with Geer accounted for 14 of the Wildcats’ 20 relay slots.

The good news, of course, is that Brandon should be back. She swam just two relays last year while battling sickness. In 2015, expect Brandon to jump back onto the 800 free relay, which she dropped out of last year, and to also be faster on her returning relays (400 medley, 400 free) when healthy.

Kurki and Kremer should help things out in the free relays, and McHugh and/or Bauer may be called upon to join the 800 free relay right off the bat. Senior Elizabeth Pepper was on that 800 free relay last spring and swam well, and she and Brandon will make up the core of that relay moving forward. The medleys should be alright: Emma Schoettmer holds down both breaststroke legs, which should be areas of strength for Zona. Brandon’s an excellent backstroker to lead off with, though they may need to find more of a sprint type for the 200 medley. But filling out the back ends of the medleys is going to be paramount if this team wants to score all 5 relays once again.

Ripe for the Pickens

One major boost for the Wildcats is in diving, where 2013 NCAA champ Samantha Pickens is once again listed on the roster after redshirting what would have been her senior season a year ago. In 2013, Pickens scored 27 NCAA points, including a national championship on the 1-meter springboard.

She picked up early last season right where she left off, winning a pair of titles at the team’s November diving invite, but an injury took her out of competition from then on. She’ll return for one last year in the NCAA, and the timing couldn’t be better, considering Georgia’s Laura Ryan, the 2014 NCAA champ on 1-meter, is graduated, leaving the event wide open once again.

Pickens also scored on 3-meter in 2013, and it’ll be worth watching to see if she added the platform event to her repertoire during the redshirt season.

She’s joined on the boards by sophomore Michal Bower, who had a strong rookie season in Pickens’ absence. Bower specializes on the springboards, just like Pickens, and scored on both 1-meter and 3-meter at Pac-12s last year. Also returning is senior Izzy Diamond, who scored on 3-meter and platform at the conference level.

Other swimmers to watch

  • We haven’t yet discussed Tjasa Oder, but she’s a huge part of this program moving forward. As a freshman, Oder took 6th in the 1650 free at NCAAs and also competed in the 400 IM and 500 free. Oder is a Slovenian Olympian and took fourth this summer at Euros in the 1500, so the spotlight is nothing new to her. That’s good, because she moves center stage this season as one of Arizona’s pillars.
  • We discussed Emma Schoettmer a bit above, but she’s been among the Pac-12’s top breaststrokers since joining the program in 2012. More of a 100 specialist as an Indiana high schooler, Schoettmer has developed into a great 200 swimmer, scoring in that event at NCAAs last season. She’s got a shot to score in both breaststroking distances this year and should be a mainstay on the team’s medley relays.
  • Taylor Schick is a freestyler and backstroker who should be another big part of the relay effort this year. She held down a key leg of the team’s 7th-place 200 free relay at NCAAs last year and is the only returning member of that team. Look for her to make a run at the 400 free relay this year, which graduated three of its four legs after finishing as the national runner-up.
  • A pair of former transfers to keep an eye on: Lauren Neidigh came to Zona from Florida last season, and Elizabeth Pepper made a similar migration from Florida State. Pepper made the Pac-12 B final in both butterflys last season, while Neidigh was just on the outside of scoring range in the 400 IM and 200 fly. Now more comfortable in their second season in the desert of Arizona, look for these two to become a bigger part of the rotation moving forward.

Outlook

There are some big positives and big negatives to this season for the Wildcats. On the bright side, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where this team has to deal with more drama or outside scrutiny than it did last season during the coaching turnover. With essentially a full year under Rick DeMont wrapped up, it’s reasonable to predict a step up for this roster. It’s also unlikely they’ll face adversity as debilitating as one of their top two swimmers getting sick at NCAAs, as happened to Bonnie Brandon in 2014. Expecting the pendulum of luck to swing back the other way a bit this season, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about this program.

On the other hand, it appears Arizona will be somewhat hamstrung this year by their small, thin roster. Depth will be an issue, and the Wildcats are a few key injuries from really struggling to fill out relays come the post-season.

Ultimately, this team will have to follow a familiar blueprint to stay in the top 10 – milk as many points as possible out of a few studs while relying on a couple big splits to eke out the double relay points wherever possible. It’s a formula that can work: this team took 8th a year ago while getting individual points from just 4 athletes, and despite the graduation of Margo Geer and her 36 points, the other three all return.

Brandon, Tjasa Oder and Emma Schoettmer all look like potential NCAA A-finalists. Add in the return of Samantha Pickens on the boards – who could potentially account for some or all of Geer’s 36 points – and you’ve got a similar quartet in 2015. The biggest issue is going to be replacing those relay legs, since relays added up to 88 of the team’s 156 points last year. If the Wildcats can fill out 5 different relays deep enough to score, they’re probably a solid bet for another top 10 finish, though they’re probably still a longshot to jump back into the top 5, where they finished in 2013 and 2012. If the relays struggle, though, this team is going to put a lot of pressure on Brandon and Pickens to keep them afloat in a tough NCAA.

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About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson just can’t stay away from the pool. A competitive career of almost two decades wasn’t enough for this Minnesotan, who continues to get his daily chlorine fix. A lifelong lover of writing, Jared now combines the two passions as Senior Reporter for SwimSwam.com, covering swimming at every level. He’s an …

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