College Swimming Previews: #8 Cal Women’s Bear Market

It’s that time of the year again. SwimSwam will be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s teams (and then some) from the 2022 NCAA Championships. Follow along with the College Swimming Preview Channel. Want to read even more? Check out the latest edition of the SwimSwam magazine

#8 Cal Bears

Key Losses: Elise Garcia (NCAA qualifier, 3 relays), Robin Neumann (previous NCAA qualifier, 41 Pac-12 points), Ema Rajic (NCAA qualifier, 49 Pac-12 points), Maddie Ward (26 Pac-12 points), Alicia Wilson (NCAA qualifier, 61 Pac-12 points)

Key Additions: Jade Neser (South Africa – free/breast), Abigail Herscu (CA – breast), Sydney Griscavage (CA – free)

Returning Fifth Years: Izzy Ivey (37 NCAA points, 4 relays)

GRADING CRITERIA

Three 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.

2021-2022 Lookback

The Cal women entered last season riding the high of breaking Stanford’s four-year Pac-12 Championship title win streak and taking the title for themselves in 2021. As the season unfolded, that rivalry continued and Stanford triumphed in their dual meet about a month before NCAAs. The Trees just had a deeper roster that year even in events that Cal won, like the 200 back where Isabelle Stadden took first but Stanford’s Regan Smith, Torri Huske, and Brooke Forde earned second, third, and fourth place.

Stadden had a strong sophomore season that was simultaneous to her performances at high-level international meets like the 2021 FINA World Short Course Championships. She nearly made the 200 back podium at NCAAs, placing fourth by .09, and she scored in the 100 back and relays. 

Senior Izzy Ivey was Cal’s highest point scorer last season, totaling 46 NCAA points across the 100 free, 200 free, and 200 IM. She was an integral part of four out of Cal’s five NCAA relays as well which led the team to an eighth place finish at NCAAs, dropping four spots from their 2021 finish. The Bears took second place at the 2021 Pac-12 Championships after a close battle with USC which ended up in third place. 

In late June, allegations of abuse surfaced about head coach Teri McKeever who spent 30 years at the helm of the team. Cal put McKeever on administrative leave in late May and soon after that some of Cal’s highest 2022 NCAA point scorers (Ivey, Stadden, Lea Polonsky, Ayla Spitz, and Emma Davidson) entered the transfer portal. Those swimmers have chosen to remain at Cal next season and Dave Durden will take over head coaching responsibilities of the women’s program alongside the men’s team.

Sprint Free:

A lot was riding on Ivey’s decision to take either a semester or full fifth year at Cal. She told SwimSwam she plans to graduate in December 2022 and then explore her options with graduate schools and using her fifth year of eligibility. Cal’s sprint group could be taking big hit this season if Ivey, the 2022 national runner-up in the 200 free who also placed 13th in the 100 free, does graduate and leave before the 2023 NCAA Championships. She was their only entrant in the 100 free last year. 

If Ivey leaves before the 2023 NCAA Championships, current senior Ayla Spitz will likely take up the sprint baton; she finished 13th in the 200 free last year. The Bears also have now-senior Mia Motekaitis who competed in the event in 2022, placing 39th.

The 50 free is a large weak spot for the Bears currently. They had no NCAA swimmers in the event, making for (another spot Michigan prevails because MacNeil finished third) They have a couple freestylers coming in with the potential to fill that gap, though: Sydney Griscavage (23.17/51.31) and South Africa’s Jade Neser whose short course meters times convert to 23.49/50.72. They would need someone with a 22-low 50 free or a 47-high 100 free to make finals.

Distance Free:

The Bears had no distance freestyle finalists last season, but Spitz came within reach of the 500 free ‘B’ final in 24th place. Their second-fastest 500 freestyler is also a senior this season and that’s Rachel Klinker who placed 29th. They have some depth with sophomores Mia Motekaitis and Fanni Fabian who also competed at NCAAs in this event, but they were a ways off the 4:40-high it took to make it back last year.

Cal only had two 1650 freestyle NCAA qualifiers last season: now-senior Sarah Dimeco, who placed 39th, and Fabian, who was 44th. Both were both at least 20 seconds away from scoring. The good news is that neither of them has graduated and they have the opportunity to train and improve, but unfortunately there are no incoming distance freestylers to help back them up.

Backstroke:

Backstroke is a very fast field in the NCAA right now, but Cal is definitely in the mix with Stadden. She went up against a tough crowd in the 200 back: world record holder Regan Smith, 2022 World Championships silver medalist Phoebe Bacon and their fellow 2021 Olympian Rhyan White in the 200 back, and placed fourth. The Bears had three other backstrokers in this event to deepen their training group (Spitz, Alicia Wilson, and Annika McEnroe), but none came close to finaling last season

Stadden also snagged seventh place in the 100 back, scoring 12 points for the Bears. The problem is, she had no Bears behind her in this event and it looks like there are no backstroke specialists within the group of incoming freshman. This shouldn’t be an immediate problem for Cal since Stadden can swim for them for another two-three seasons, but it does affect how many points they can gain without a deep field. Luckily for Cal, Regan Smith recently turned pro and will not be in contention to win the 200 back NCAA title again.

Breaststroke:

Ema Rajic was the Bear’s best and only NCAA 100 breaststroker last season, finishing 29th in the event. She was well off her career-best form at nationals, failing to crack the 1:00-barrier after going sub-59 seven times previously. 

Rajic is now at USC for grad school (not swimming), leaving a gaping hole in the Bears breaststroke group this season.

Rajic was also their highest finisher in the 200 breast (47th) closely followed by Lea Polonsky in 49th place. Polonsky had an incredible freshman season as an IMer and breaststroke relay swimmer.

Cal has potential to improve their breaststrokers in individual events – incoming freshman Abigail Herscu (1:01.97/2:12.84) would have placed between Rajic and Polonsky in the 200 last season. Herscu competed at the 2021 Olympic Trials and the FINA World Swimming Cup that fall. University of Arizona transfer Jade Neser (59.63/2:14.73) will be using her fifth year at Cal and will reinforce the sprint side of this group.

Butterfly:

Cal’s butterfly group has no singular star and is more of a group effort, but that is what makes it so strong. Mia Kragh, a sophomore this year, led the sprint butterflyers with an 18th place finish in the 100 last year followed by senior Rachel Klinker in 23rd place. But in the 200, Klinker rose to the challenge and snagged sixth place.

While there are no incoming freshman flyers that we know of, this group is solid and did not graduate any of their top swimmers after last season. Cal was within five points of surpassing seventh-place Michigan last season, but the butterfly events were one of the main things that gave the Wolverines an edge. Maggie MacNeil took third in the 100 while Olivia Carter took third in the 200. 

For a moment, Michigan butterfly dominance looked like it might change when MacNeil announced her decision to use her fifth year of eligibility at Cal, but she chose LSU instead during the McKeever investigation. The Bears will still have to battle MacNeil next year, but she will at least be on a different team and take away some points from Michigan to help level the playing field.

IM:

Ivey made the 200 IM a huge source of points for the Bears last season, placing third and becoming the second Bear to podium (third) in the event two years in a row. In 2021, it was Alicia Wilson, who had a tough season last year and placed 19th. While Wilson did have a slower swim, this event has gotten exponentially faster in recent years. It took a 1:54.51 to podium in 2021 whereas Ivey had to blast a 1:53.02 to make it last season. Virginia’s Alex Walsh is untouchable in the event, lowering her winning time to 1:50.08 last season, and she is only a junior this year. 

Cal also had Polonksy make the 200 IM ‘B’ final and Stadden finished 22nd, but her best time would have placed her in the ‘B’ final as well. Polonsky led the 400 IMers last season as a freshman, also scoring ‘B’ final points in that event. Wilson was on the cusp of making the ‘B’ final and together their points could add up significantly for Cal this season.

Diving:

While Cal has no diving recruits that we know of this year, two-thirds of their current divers are young and likely to contribute to the team for at least two more years. Cassie Graham, a senior, placed 15th on platform at the 2021 Pac-12 championships and also scored on 3-meter and platform at the 2020 Pac-12 Championships. While she didn’t compete at Pac-12s last year, sophomore Danielle Killeen has the potential to contribute points to the team as well. Lara Phipps would have been entering her second year with Cal this season, but she transferred to the University of North Carolina.

 Relays:

The Bears’ relays are going to look different this year, that’s for sure. One of their staple relay freestylers, Elise Garcia, is using her fifth year of eligibility at USC this season. She was part of three NCAA relays last year including their second-highest finishing relay, the 200 medley which placed seventh. In 2021, she led-off Cal’s NCAA-winning 200 free relay. Ivey was on four NCAA relays last year (all but the 200 medley), so if she decides to transfer before NCAAs, half of their relay crew will be gone.

Stadden and Polonsky are ready to step up, though. Polonsky anchored the 800 free relay which placed third last year and swam breaststroke on both the point-scoring medley relays. Stadden was a staple medley swimmer as well and she competed on the 400 free relay which placed 11th. There are definitely other strong relay swimmers who will be there next season including butterflyer Kragh, alongside freestylers Spitz, Mia Motekaitis, Emma Davidson, and Eloise Riley. But, Ivey leaving would be a big change that would be hard to work through in the short-term future.

Total Stars: 16/40

2022-2023 Outlook 

There is a good amount of uncertainty surrounding the Cal Bears going into this season. Durden is alleviating some of that by taking on the head coaching position of both programs, but how long Ivey will be competing throughout the season is still a question.

There are a couple things working against the Bears this year, mainly the large volume of speed they graduated in the class of 2022 and the small crop of incoming freshman who won’t help refuel many of their training groups. 10th or 11th place seems like a good estimate for those reasons.

Women’s Preview Index

Team Sprint Free Distance Free Backstroke Breaststroke Butterfly IM Diving Relays Total Stars
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
#8 California Golden Bears ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ 16/40
#9 Ohio State Buckeyes ★★★ ★★★ ★★ ★★★ ★★ ★★ ★★★ ★★★★ 22/40
#10 Tennessee Volunteers ★★★ ★★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★ ★★★★ ★★★ 24/40
#11 Indiana Hoosiers ★★ ★★ ★★★ ★★ ★★★★ 16/40
#12 Kentucky Wildcats ★★ ★★★ ★★ ★★★ ★★ ★★ 16/40

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Seli''s Lover
2 months ago

My heart is where the bears are 💙💙💙

Klorn8d
2 months ago

What’s with the random comparisons to Michigan?

PK Doesn't Like His Long Name
Reply to  Klorn8d
2 months ago

Cal finished 5 points behind Michigan at last year’s NCAAs.

Pac-Man
Reply to  PK Doesn't Like His Long Name
2 months ago

and they almost scored MacNeil

oxyswim
2 months ago

Think sprint freestyle actually could end up being a relative strength. They have 4 returning who were 22.5 and 48 or faster last year (not counting Ivey). Those times are more impactful at the conference level, but I think someone breaks through in a real way this year.

Thomas
2 months ago

Diver Lara Phipps transferred to UNC

swimmerTX
2 months ago

Is Emily Gantriis back with the team? She’s still enrolled and training at Cal. Would be a huge boost to sprint group and relays since she scored in both sprint free events as a freshman.

Sherry Smit
2 months ago

Cal isn’t looking too sharp this season… There recruiting class for 2022 isn’t very strong. None of the top 20 recruits are joining, and it seems like the weight of the team is going to be on Stadden.

Hmmm
2 months ago

Ema Rajic is at USC

Admin
Reply to  Hmmm
2 months ago

Ema is at USC as a NARP – she won’t be swimming there.

Austinpoolboy
Reply to  Braden Keith
2 months ago

What’s a NARP?

Stewie
Reply to  Austinpoolboy
2 months ago

Non Athlete Regular Person

austinpoolboy
Reply to  Stewie
2 months ago

HAHA! that’s great.

CanSwim13
Reply to  Austinpoolboy
2 months ago

Non Athletic Regular Person.

A title you work hard to avoid, but all our days go

Admin
Reply to  CanSwim13
2 months ago

Non-Athlete**

I’m sure she’s still very athletic.

BearlyBreathing
2 months ago

I hear you but I still think 8th is too high.

lmao
Reply to  BearlyBreathing
2 months ago

i think theyre based on last years placements at ncaas

Admin
Reply to  lmao
2 months ago

That’s correct, these listings are based on last year’s NCAA Championship placements. When we’re done with all of the previews, we’ll do our start-of-season rankings.

BearlyBreathing
Reply to  Braden Keith
2 months ago

Thanks for the clarification of something I probably should have known.

Jimbo
Reply to  BearlyBreathing
2 months ago

New enough to maybe not have known, but this does take away any suspense…

About Annika Johnson

Annika Johnson

Annika came into the sport competitively at age eight, following in the footsteps of her twin sister and older brother. The sibling rivalry was further fueled when all three began focusing on distance freestyle, forcing the family to buy two lap counters. Annika is a three-time Futures finalist in the 200 …

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