Key additions: Alec Scott (JUCO transfer – Indian River – 200/400 IM), Matthew Adams (SC – everything but breaststroke), Will Freeman (AL – middle distance free/fly), Braxton Young (GA – sprint free/breast), DJ Lang (TX – free)
Key losses: BJ Hornikel (7 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Vlad Caciuc (2 NCAA relays)
Overall, the Crimson Tide are coming off their best season in recent memory, setting new team records in 12 of 16 swimming events, and recording their highest SEC (4th) and NCAA (12th) finish in 20 years. Had the Crimson Tide not been bitten by the DQ bug that hit seven teams in that opening relay, they would have cracked the top ten for the first time since 1994.
Looking at the athletes, a majority of the Crimson Tide’s success can be contributed to seven people: BJ Hornikel, Vlad Caciuc, Kristian Gkolomeev, Brett Walsh, Connor Oslin, Anton McKee, and Pavel Romanov. Five of the seven qualified individually for NCAA’s, and with multiple sprint freestylers in addition to stroke specialists across all four disciplines, Alabama was able to put together four very, very strong relays.
McKee was a sensation for the Crimson Tide last year as a true freshman, taking the 200 breaststroke at SEC’s (the first event win there for Alabama since 2007), earning All-American honors at NCAA’s, and crushing team records in both breaststrokes. In addition to his conference success, McKee scored 18 points individually at NCAA’s, and was key in propelling each of the Crimson Tide medleys to top eight finishes.
Despite all of those accolades, McKee probably wasn’t the most noteworthy performer of the season. That distinction belongs to freshman Kristian Gkolomeev, who touched even with Bradley Tandy at NCAA’s for a shared win in the 50 freestyle, giving the Crimson Tide their first national title since 2007, the first sprint freestyle one since Associate Head Coach Jonty Skinner’s 100 free title back in 1975.
Gkolomeev was supported in the sprint group for his half-season in Tuscaloosa (he arrived in January for the spring semester) by veterans BJ Hornikel and Vlad Caciuc, who were both critical to Alabama’s conference and NCAA successes. Hornikel was a bright spot for the Crimson Tide throughout his career, capping off his senior year with a top ten finish in the 100 freestyle and four huge relay swims, including a team record 200 freestyle leading off their 800 freestyle relay at NCAA’s. Curiously, the coaching staff scratched Hornikel out of the open 200 freestyle, where he would have finished fifth. Caciuc wasn’t the individual stud as Hornikel, but he came up big time on Alabama’s team record freestyle relays.
Freshman Connor Oslin and sophomore Brett Walsh each had breakout seasons, as well, with Oslin immediately taking the reins as Alabama’s top backstroker, and Walsh earning butterflying duties on the medleys. Oslin broke team records in both backstroke events en route to a pair of top eight finishes at SEC’s.
Wanted: Sprint Freestyle Replacements
Alabama’s prospects of duplicating or bettering their 2013-2014 finish depend on their ability to replace the holes left from the graduations of Hornikel and Caciuc. Had Walsh not unnecessarily jumped in the 200 freestyle relay on day one, Alabama would have ran away with the B-final at NCAA’s. Two days later, they came back to finish an impressive fifth in the 400 free relay to close the meet. Those two events could again be major opportunities for Alabama to score big points if a couple swimmers step up.
While their medleys should be in great shape (more on those below), the freestyle relays will be hurting without two others making the leap to cover the losses. Hornikel was one of the best short-distance freestylers in the NCAA, capable of splitting down around 19.0, 42.0, and sub-1:33. Caciuc wasn’t quite on that level, but splitting near 19.0 and 43.0, his loss will surely sting a bit.
Their replacements? Although Alabama doesn’t have a ton of information available on their incoming freshman class (any additional info in the comments section would be appreciated), we do know they have at least one incoming swimmer poised to make a sprint difference in South Carolina native Matthew Adams, a high-potential prospect who cut multiple seconds off his best times across the board his senior year. He’s coming in as a 45.3 flat start 100 freestyler, which means he could easily splitting in the 43’s if he mimics what we saw from Alabama sophomore Alex Gray a year ago.
Gray is the fastest returning sprinter who wasn’t on those relays a year ago, dropping 0.7 and 1.3 seconds from his high school bests to clock in at 20.16 and 44.66 in the 50 and the 100. He was even more impressive this summer, going from 23.9 to 23.1 in his 50 meter free, and from 52.8 to 50.7 in the 100. Already in position to split 19-mid and 43-mid, with another year under his belt, Gray could be the next dangerous Crimson Tide sprinter.
The Key? McKee… and Gkolomeev
Unquestionably, the two swimmers with the biggest expectations this season are sophomores Anton McKee and Kristian Gkolomeev. We covered their 2013-2014 endeavors extensively above, but their summer performances deserve some mentions, as well. Gkolomeev cracked the 22-second barrier for the first time in the 50, and also recorded a personal best in the 100. McKee crushed his previous bests, cutting 1.5 seconds off his 100 and nearly 5 seconds off his 200. With a year of experience in handling the conference-to-NCAA-meet turnaround, McKee and Gkolomeev are on track to score at least 25-30 points each, in addition to their immense value on relays.
Oslin and Walsh should join McKee and Gkolomeev on what should once again be some excellent medley relays, once again capable of contending for SEC titles and NCAA top eight finishes. Walsh is the “weak leg” of the four, but he showed incredible improvement this summer, cutting 1.5 seconds off his best 100 fly, 0.6 off his 50 free, and 1.0 off his 100. If he gets down to the 45-mid split range for his 100 fly, the Crimson Tide could find themselves in the mix for a top four finish in both medleys.
The supporting cast hasn’t broken through yet, but there is plenty of talent capable of making a difference for the Crimson Tide:
- The top swimmer we haven’t mentioned yet is Pavel Romanov, who would have been the fastest freshman on most teams in the NCAA had it not been for McKee. Romanov boasts bests of 53.2 and 1:55.4, which were good enough to qualify for NCAA’s. Romanov cracked the top 30 in both events in Austin last March, and was a round a second from coming back for finals in the 200.
- Crews Wellford made massive strides alongside Oslin last year in the backstroke events, cutting 3+ seconds from his best 100 backstroke, and 2.5 from his 200 backstroke. At 47.8 and 1:44.0, he’s the second best backstroker in Crimson Tide history behind Oslin. Although he’s not a huge asset from a national perspective yet, he could get there with another year of strong improvement. He’s a strong 200 freestyler, too, coming in at 1:37.7. Phillip Deaton, a 1:44.5 200 backstroker, also deserves a mention.
- The Crimson Tide also have an intriguing pair of IM’ers in Ian Decker and Alec Scott. Decker exploded in the 400 IM at SEC’s last year, dropping almost 13 seconds from his seed time and 5 seconds from his previous best. At 3:47.95, he’s the #2 400 IM’er in Crimson Tide history. Scott is an Indian River Community College transfer who, with resurrected passion last season, claimed NJCAA titles in both IM events, finishing in 1:48.41 and 3:56.27.
- Incoming freshman Will Freeman had a great Junior National meet last summer, cutting three seconds off his previous best in the 200 fly to get down to 2:01.1. Like Wellford, he’s also a pretty good 200 freestyler, at 1:37.1 and 1:52.0 in short course and long course, respectively.
The Crimson Tide didn’t have much in the way of diving last year; they only had one finisher in the top 15 at SEC’s in any of the three boards. The good news: that finish (13th) was from freshman Brent Sagert on the 3m board. To hold off Missouri and Tennessee at SEC’s, Alabama will need some more points out of Sagert and company.
The Crimson Tide roster isn’t deep, but their top-end swimmers sure are fast. Gkolomeev and McKee should score at least 50 individual points alone, and with their medleys returning in full strength, Alabama shouldn’t have a problem hitting 100 points at NCAA’s before we even blink. If a couple of their sprinters can improve to support Gkolomeev and Walsh, and Oslin can break into scoring position, we could see Alabama eclipse 150 points. On the other hand, if Gkolomeev and/or McKee hit a sophomore slump, things could turn ugly pretty quick.
… Of course, all of this could change if another elite sprinter like Gkolomeev arrives in January
Our take: They have some talent to replace, but Alabama is a program on the rise, and last year wasn’t just an aberration.