Key Additions: Aidan Burns (CA – free/IM), James Guest (Canada – breast), Colin Monaghan (FL – breast/IM), Alex BeMiller (GA – sprint free), Blake Atmore (GA – back/fly), Reed Wynn (GA – free)
The 2014-2015 season saw a long period of uncertainty finally resolved for the Georgia Bulldogs. Longtime coach Jack Bauerle began the year under an indefinite suspension as the NCAA investigated potential academic violations.
But at the year’s halfway point, the NCAA finally announced that Bauerle could begin coaching with the start of the second semester, giving the Bulldogs their figurehead back for the duration of their post-season run.
Coaching staff finally stable, the Bulldogs rolled to a runner-up finish at SECs, topping Auburn and trailing only Florida, who were the runaway team winners. Georgia’s meet included 7 conference championships: 2 from Chase Kalisz (400 IM, 200 fly), 2 from Nic Fink (100 breast, 200 breast), 2 from Matias Koski (200 free, 1650 free) and 1 from Tynan Stewart (200 IM).
The NCAA Championships, though, ended with some moments of disappointment. Kalisz failed to repeat as 400 IM champ and had a disastrous 200 fly that saw him gain four seconds and miss the final by a longshot. Returning All-American Koski couldn’t figure out prelims, getting stuck in two B finals before putting up times that would have been 3rd and 6th in the A heat. Ultimately, Georgia slid to 7th overall with 208.5 points, falling just a half-point short of Stanford in the 6 spot.
The bright spot was an NCAA title from Koski, though. In the 1650, the only event not swum in prelims/finals format, Koski finally came up with a big swim at the right time, going 14:32.28 to crush Big Ten challengers PJ Ransford and Jordan Wilimovsky for the gold.
Senior Nic Fink also contributed a 2nd-place 100 breast finish and 4th in the 200 breast, and Kalisz and teammate Gunnar Bentz went 2-3 in the 400 IM, tempering the disappointment from Kalisz being upset for the win.
A different take on roster-building
Georgia has a very unique roster composition compared to the other teams in its tier. Where most college swimming programs tend to build around sprint freestylers (like the last three men’s teams we’ve profiled), Georgia has taken the complete opposite approach. The Bulldogs are currently built around great 400 IMers, with the most glaring weakness being those sprint freestyle races.
That led to some unique relay combinations, particularly on the 200 and 400 free relays. The Bulldogs took 12th in the 400 free relay at NCAAs, using a lineup of a distance man (Koski), a breaststroker (Fink), an IMer (Bentz) and only one true sprint freestyler (Michael Trice). The team didn’t even enter a 200 free relay, but used Koski, Fink and backstroker Taylor Dale to round out the relay with Trice at SECs.
It’s also caused Georgia’s NCAA points to come in quick bursts with long dry spells between. The Bulldogs had multiple athletes score in four different events (500 free, 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 fly), but missed scoring entirely in the 50 and 100 frees, both backstrokes and that 200 free relay.
It certainly looks like the next step neccesary for Georgia to step forward into the NCAA’s top tier is to start scoring better in all 5 relays. It’s tough for a team to place within the top 5 when its relays are consistently finishing outside the top 10 (Georgia was 12th in the 800 free relay, 12th in the 400 free relay, did not score in the 200 free relay and was 11th in the 200 medley).
A pair of freestyling freshmen will look to help bolster those relays. Aidan Burns is great through basically every freestyle distance (we’ll talk more about him below) and Alex Bemiller has been a little faster in the 50 and 100 frees, going 20.60 and 45.12.
Those times will need work to score at SECs, much less NCAAs, but at least the presence of a few more sprinters builds up the depth behind Trice, who has been 19.39 and 43.01, but was basically Georgia’s sprint group by himself last year.
Koski does it all (and Burns will too)
With that thin depth in sprints, though, Georgia is fortunate to have a swimmer with the otherwordly range of Koski. Not very often does the NCAA’s mile champion swim all the way down to the 50 free at a high level, but Koski is that rare breed of swimmer.
The rising senior goes 4:11.8 in the 500 free, while also swimming down to 1:32.6 in the 200 and 42.9 in the 100. Further, he split 19.3 on the 200 free relay at SECs last year, and is likely a staple of that relay in 2016 as well.
Interestingly enough, the ‘Dawgs brought in a freshman with similar abilities as they look to eventually replace Koski’s all-yardage production in the freestyles.
Santa Clara (CA) Swim Club’s Aidan Burns was our #5-ranked recruit overall last summer, and he’s only gotten better over his senior year of high school. Burns specializes in the longer freestyles, but has the Koski-like ability to contribute in basically any free distance.
Burns has been 14:57.07 in the mile (only about two seconds out of NCAA scoring range), 4:17.97 in the 500 and 1:36.50 in the 200. But further down, he’s 45-low and 20-point in the sprint distances, which could make him a relay piece for the sprint-starved Bulldogs.
Complicating matters, though, is that Burns is arguably as dangerous in the IMs (1:45.36 and 3:48.60), and given Georgia’s track record of success in those events, he may focus more on the IM and less on freestyle as a college swimmer.
Kalisz Out, Bentz in as IM’er to beat
The only thing that would keep Burns out of the IMs are his teammates. If there’s one event discipline Georgia doesn’t need much help in, it’s the individual medley. The Bulldogs scored 4 men in the 200 IM last year and 3 in the 400 IM at NCAAs – all but one of them underclassmen.
There will be some turnover, though. Fink is graduted (11th in the 200 IM), and Kalisz will be taking an Olympic redshirt and moving to Arizona to train with Bob Bowman and Michael Phelps.
Still, Georgia has plenty of depth in the event. Gunnar Bentz was third in the nation as a freshman, and the former Junior World Champ is a bright young talent on his own. Fellow rising sophomore Jay Litherland had a huge summer, and he and his two twin brothers (Mick and Kevin) are all capable IMers. The team also has returning SEC champ Tynan Stewart in the 200 IM
Fink Out, Who’s in as Breaststroker to Beat?
Versatility will also be Georgia’s best weapon in trying to fill the shoes of SEC record-holder breaststroker Nic Fink, who graduates after a star-studded career in Athens.
It sounds repetitive, but once again, Bentz is the man of the hour. A great breaststroker, Bentz mostly focused on IM last year, but was also an SEC scorer in the 200 breast. A 200IM/400IM/200Breast lineup is likely in Bentz’s future again at NCAAs, but in dual meets, with only one IM distance in the lineup, he’s probably going to hold down the 100 and 200 breaststrokes.
In addition, Bentz will be in the hunt for a relay role on the medleys as well, with a few freshmen in pursuit. Canada’s James Guest should be the team’s top pure breaststroker, with long course times of 1:02.79 and 2:15.21 in the long course pool. But transitioning from long course meters to short course yards is always a gamble, and converting times is difficult, particularly so in breaststroke, where underwater pullouts, stroke counts and wall timing are major factors.
The Bulldogs also bring in Gainesville, Florida’s Colin Monaghan, who is a classic Georgia IMer/breaststroker like Bentz. Monaghan has been 54.6 and 1:59.4 in the breaststrokes.
Other Key Swimmers
We mentioned Tynan Stewart above, but he’ll have a big role as the team’s top butterflyer. An NCAA A finalist in the 200 fly and a B finalist in the 100 fly and 200 IM, Stewart could be looking at upwards of 30 points individually for Georgia at NCAAs next year.
- He’ll battle with teammate Pace Clark for the fly spots on the medley relays. Clark swam both medleys at NCAAs last year, but Stewart was the faster 100 flyer individually. Clark also managed to score in the B final of the 200 fly individually.
- The Litherland triplets are all versatile athletes, which gives coach Bauerle plenty of lineup flexibility. Jay is coming off a huge World University Games gold medal in the 400 IM. Kevin scored in the 500 free last year at NCAAs, and Mick was close in the 200 fly, taking 30th.
- A sophomore last season, Taylor Dale has mad some great strides over his college career and is the team’s top backstroker. Dale led off both medley relays last year and wasn’t far off scoring in the 100 back individually.
Though Georgia didn’t graduate much in quantity, the quality of their losses will sting. Fink accounted for 50 NCAA points by himself last year (counting his quarter of each relay swim) and the team doesn’t have any breaststrokers standing by with Fink’s speed on relay splits.
Kalisz scored a meager 21.5 points last year (again, counting his split on the 800 free relay), but is probably capable of much more after scoring 37 individually in 2014 and 27 individually in 2013. Losing Kalisz both drains points from the team and hurts the overall roundedness of the lineup, given Kalisz could swim a wide range of events when needed.
It’s pretty clear that much of Georgia’s stock this year will fall on the shoulders of Gunnar Bentz. Called upon to replace both Fink and Kalisz in their main events, Bentz is a key man for the Bulldogs. A sophomore slump could spell disaster for UGA in a tough SEC, but some improvements and Bentz could be the NCAA’s breakout star – he was already a double A-finalist last year.
Then, too, how the relays fare will go a long way in deciding where Georgia winds up. Double relay points will make it tough for Georgia to remain in the top 8 if they can’t qualify several relays for championship finals at NCAAs.
The biggest plus for Georgia though? Having Bauerle on deck. Almost all of the 2014 calendar year was marred by the coach’s absence, and there’s no denying that the cloud of uncertainty didn’t make for an ideal training environment for much of last season.
Bauerle’s back in the fold for a full season now, and with Kalisz and Fink out the door, he’ll have his work cut out for him to keep Georgia at #7.