We’ll be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s programs for the 2019-2020 season – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24. Can’t get enough college swimming news? Check out the College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine for more in-depth college swimming coverage, including a bird’s-eye view of the flood of coaching changes and our ever-popular rankings of the top 50 individual swimmers in college swimming.
#8 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Key Losses: Chantal Nack (21.5 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Rachel Munson (5 NCAA points), Zoe Avestruz (3 NCAA relays)
Key Additions: Grace Bennin (WI – breast/free), Emma Lezer (MN – breast), Maggie Summit (MA – free), Jordan McGinty (MN – free), Lillianna Brooks (CO – back/free), Rachel Butler (UT – free/back), Maggie Erwin (ID – distance), Grace Wollschlager (MN – fly), Jiaming Zhu (China – diving), Jae Sarkis (Buffalo transfer – diving), Jaclynn Fowler (CA – diving), Yasmin Nasimova (MN – diving), Hannah Craley (CT – diving),
We’re unveiling a new, more data-based grading criteria in this year’s series. Our grades this year are based on ‘projected returning points’, a stat of our own making. We started with our already-compiled “no senior returning points” (see here and here), which is effectively a rescoring of 2019 NCAAs with seniors removed and underclassmen moved up to fill those gaps. In addition, we manually filtered out points from known redshirts and swimmers turning pro early, while manually adjusting points for outgoing and incoming transfers and adding in projected points for incoming freshmen with NCAA scoring times, as well as athletes returning from injury or redshirts who are very likely NCAA scorers.
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 men’s 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. Bear in mind that our grades and painstaking scoring formula attempts to take into account all factors, but is still unable to perfectly predict the future. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.
Since 2006, the Golden Gopher women have hovered between 10th and 13th, with only a 2011 9th place and a 2016 16th place as outliers. Minnesota stayed as rock solid consistent as any program in the nation with an 11th-place finish last year.
That came with one of the best performances relative to seed of any team at 2019 NCAAs. Minnesota came in with 68 points on the psych sheet and ultimately scored 118.5 swimming points, a +50.5 jump. Add in the nation’s third-best diving total (40 points) and Minnesota wound up just a half-point out of the top 10 and well within the top 12.
Diver Sarah Bacon was the highest individual scorer, winning on 1-meter and taking 5th on 3-meter for 34 points. Sophomore Mackenzie Padington was third in the 500 and the mile, breaststroker Lindsey Kozelsky 4th in the 100 breast and senior Chantal Nack fifth in the 500 free to represent Minnesota in A finals.
Sprint Free: ★
An underrated loss for the Gophers will be Zoe Avestruz, who was their top sprinter last year and anchor on both scoring medley relays. The 22.5/49.1 Avestruz was really the key piece in a thin sprint group. The good news is that the Gophers are now extremely young in the sprints, though they’ll need some development to make an NCAA impact.
Three freshmen come in with faster 50 times than any returner. Top recruit Grace Bennin is 22.8 – she’s a major get, coming out of rival state Wisconsin. Meanwhile Maggie Summit from Massachussetts is 22.9 and in-state talent Jordan McGinty 23.1.
Last year, freshman Olivia Bloomer went from 23.7 to 23.2. Her improvement curve bodes well for the incoming freshmen, but also for her chances to step up again this season.
The 100 will need more help to get swims under 50 seconds. Padington was 48.8 last year, and that helps relays, but she’s probably swimming the 200, 500 and 1650 individually. McGinty (49.9) might be the team’s top swimmer from the get-go, with Summit (50.0) not far behind. Colorado’s Lillianna Brooks has been 50.9, and Bloomer returns at 50.8 after dropping a full second last year.
The outstanding Terry Ganley heads up Minnesota’s sprint group, and she’s going to have lots of raw talent to work with – if this group can have improvements like Bloomer did last year, Minnesota’s free relays could rebuild significantly.
The 200 free has the more established Mackenzie Padington in the mix. She was 1:44.2 last year at Big Tens, and that would have scored big points at NCAAs. But Padington fell off two and a half seconds in that event. She’ll have to adjust this year to maximize her point output – she’s projected at 33 “no senior” points.
Another of last year’s freshmen returns well: Kate Sullivan went 1:47.5, dropping about a half-second. She returns in a mix with Summit (1:47.7) and McGinty (1:48.6) with outside NCAA invite possibilities.
Distance Free: ★★★★
The inverse of Michigan, who we profiled earlier this week, Minnesota’s grade sheet is about peaks and valleys. They’ve got some holes, but the things they do well, they do very well. Distance is firmly in the latter category.
Mackenzie Padington was third in the NCAA in the 500 and 1650 last year, and returns #2 in the mile. She’s coming off an outstanding summer, too, in which she cut two seconds off her 1500 free and represented Canada at the World Championships in the 400 and 800 frees. Padington should be in line to score huge points – perhaps 40+ if she can be at her best in all three events. As with any international, there’s always the looming specter of a possible redshirt year, but for what it’s worth, Padington is still listed on the official Gophers roster for the year.
Chantal Nack was an outstanding 200/500 freestyler, and had an incredible improvement curve over her four years. Her graduation hurts the 500 here, but there are a few underclassmen returning with a shot at invite times. Abbey Erwin is the top candidate. She went 4:45.8 last year and was 16:17 out of high school in the mile, though she added time last year.
Abigail Kilgallon was a revelation as a freshman, dropping from 16:35 to 16:22. She’s got a real shot to hit invite status (16:14 last year) in the mile.
This is a spot where Minnesota should probably well outperform its star rating. Tevyn Waddell went 1:52.4 midseason in the 200, which would have scored, but she went just 1:53-high at both Big Tens and NCAAs. Waddell was a season-best in the 100 in the postseason (52.2 at Big Tens), so the dropoff in the 200 is hard to explain.
Meanwhile Washington State transfer Emily Cook just kept getting better. She was 53.9 at midseason, then 52.5 at Big Tens. When they got her on a relay at NCAAs, Cook blasted a 52.0. She’ll be a junior this year, and both she and the senior Waddell are right at NCAA scoring level (51.9 last year).
Waddell should score in the 200 if she can find the same speed she had at midseason. She’s also been 51.7 before in her career in the 100. Cook, meanwhile, dropped from 1:57.5 to 1:56.2 in the 200 back last year, so while she’s a long way from scoring, she’s moving in the right direction.
Breaststroke has been and continues to be a standout event at Minnesota. Lindsey Kozelsky has been in the top 4 at NCAAs in the 100 breast all three of her collegiate seasons, and that shouldn’t have reason to change in 2020. In fact, with Lilly King and Delaney Duncan graduated, Kozelsky returns as the #2 breaststroker nationwide.
Kozelsky was also a B finalist in the 200 breast (2:07.7) and should score again there.
Rachel Munson was great breaststroke depth, and scored last year in the 100. She graduates, but two incoming freshmen have great potential. Grace Bennin out of Wisconsin dropped from 1:02.1 to 1:00.6 as a senior, and joins one of the nation’s elite breaststroke coaches in Kelly Kremer. Meanwhile Emma Lezer is one of the top in-state prospects at 1:01.4.
Both Bennin (2:15.9) and Lezer (2:16.2) need work in the 200, but could see early postseason action in the sprints. Minnesota also returns senior Madison Preiss (2:15.2) in the 200.
Waddell has continued to improve in the 100 fly, and that keeps this discipline afloat. She was 52.00 at Big Tens last year and it took 51.99 to score at NCAAs. The 100 fly/100 back combo can be tricky on the same day, but Waddell usually makes it work at Big Tens – she just has to do so at NCAAs.
From there, this discipline is really thin. No one returns below 2:01 in the 200 and no one besides Waddell under 55 in the 100. The freshman class should add some intrigue, with 100 fly/100 breast combo Lezer bringing in a 55.3 and fellow in-state recruit Grace Wollschlager a 56.2.
The IMs are pretty thin as well. Waddell was the team’s top 200 IMer by three seconds last year, going 1:57.8 at mid-season. But the only way she swims this is if Minnesota decides the 100 fly/100 back combo is hurting her backstroke too much.
The freshman Bennin could be an option, too: she’s 1:59.9, but will have to likely choose between this and her 22.8 50 free.
The 400 has a few more prospects. Abbey Erwin was 4:16 as a sophomore last year and Kelli McCarthy also 4:16 as a freshman. Erwin was actually 4:14 back in 2018. It takes 4:10 to make an NCAA invite, but that could be in range for McCarthy, who dropped from 4:21 in her freshman year.
The Minnesota dive group is always elite, and this year might be even more that way. Minnesota projects the most “no senior” diving points out of any team in the nation, and they add five divers to their roster.
Sarah Bacon is the headliner. The junior surged to a 1-meter title last year and also placed top 8 on 3-meter. She returns for a senior year after winning World Championships silver on 1-meter.
The Gophers also return senior Kristen Hayden, who scored on 3-meter last year and projects to move into scoring range on both 1-meter and platform.
New to the Golden Gopher roster is Jiaming Zhu, listed as a sophomore out of Wuhan, China. The Gophers have had huge success with Chinese divers, including former NCAA Diver of the Year Yu Zhou. Their head coach is Wenbo Chen, the Chinese national dive team coach from 1983 to 1991. This group is about as close to a five-star discipline as we’ve had in our series so far, and if Zhu is a scorer early, they’ll get there with no problem.
The Gophers get a transfer, too: Buffalo’s best diver Jae Sarkis joins the team as a sophomore. She was third in the MAC last year on 1-meter. Then Minnesota gets three freshmen: in-state product Yasmin Nasimova, California’s Jaclynn Fowler and Connecticut’s Hannah Craley.
Minnesota really rolled with its advantages in the relays last year, scoring in three of them but not even competing in the other two. The Gophers were 7th in the 400 medley and 11th in the 200 medley.
The medleys really only lose their anchor, Avestruz. Padington should fill in just fine as a 400 medley anchor, and could be 48-low or better. It might be Bennin or Bloomer on the end of the 200 medley.
The free leg probably won’t be a standout regardless. But breaststroke should carry the load, with Kozelsky able to split 57-low and 26-mid. Waddell should probably slide over to butterfly again (she was 23.4 and 51.6 last year at NCAAs with a 23.0 at Big Tens) as Cook is rising fast in backstroke. The medleys should have great shots to score again this year, perhaps even both in the top 8.
The free relays will need to be almost entirely rebuilt. The 800 scored last year, but graduates two of four legs. Waddell (a great 1:44.6) and Padington (1:44.9) return. It’ll probably be some combination of the sophomore Sullivan (1:47.5), freshman Summit (1:47.7) or freshman McGinty (1:48.6) filling out the relay. Scoring will take big drops from the youngsters.
Minnesota scratched the 400 free relay last year, but return 2 of 4 legs from Big Tens – again it’s Waddell and Padington, who were both 49-lows. Bloomer (50.8), McGinty (49.9), Summit (50.0) and Brooks (50.9) are all in the hunt.
The 200 free relay is probably the one Minnesota punts this year with a very young lineup. Bloomer split 22.7 at Big Tens, but three of four legs graduate and Minnesota didn’t even qualify for NCAAs last year. But put together a group of Bloomer (sophomore), Bennin (22.8 freshman), Summit (22.9 freshman) and McGinty (23.1 freshman) and you’ve got a very young relay that is a longshot to score this year, but could score big as they improve together the next three seasons.
There are some very high highs for this Gophers roster: breaststroke, diving and distance. There are also some big weaknesses in fly and IM. Luckily, they have the pieces to still fill out solid medley relays even through those holes, which will go a long ways in 2020.
It feels like the Gophers usually have great top-end talent – enough to sit right around the top 10 every year. What they lack compared to the top-5 type teams are a true middle class of low-level NCAA scorers. Minnesota had four athletes score 20+ points individually last year – that’s more than any team other than Cal (which also had four) and Stanford (which had six). But they only had 7 individuals competing and 6 individual scorers. Compare that to the teams around them:
|Individual Invitees||Individual Scorers|
|#13 Texas A&M||13||8|
|#7 NC State||12||7|
The good news is that this recruiting class for Minnesota is very deep. It’s actually a pretty underrated group, with a chance to balance the sprint free relays and create more of that middle class. The Gophers were very efficient in converting their scoring opportunities last year, with 6 of 7 individual NCAA participants scoring and the 7th (Waddell) contributing heavily on relays.
That might take a few years with this class. But even still, the strengths of this team are enough to push for the highest finish in program history: we’re projecting them at #8, with the program-best at 9th from 2011.