Key Additions: Michael Hixon (transer, TX– diving), Ali Khalafalla (Egypt/VA – sprint free), Blake Pieroni (IN – free/IM), Cody Taylor (IN – breaststroke), Ryan Gordon (NY – backstroke), Teddy Kalp (Canada – freestyle), James Connor (Australa – diving)
Key Losses: Cody Miller (36.5 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Eric Ress (22 NCAA points/1 NCAA relay), Darian Schmidt (13 NCAA diving points), James Wells (9 NCAA points/1 NCAA relay), Emad Abdelatif (3 NCAA diving points)
Just about a month into NCAA competition, the 2013-2014 Indiana Hoosiers had seen the very best the NCAA had to offer.
It was a brutal opening stretch for coach Ray Looze‘s Hoosiers, who kicked off their season in Berkeley taking on the Cal Bears, the eventual NCAA champions. The very next day, IU was in Palo Alto dueling the Stanford Cardinal, and two weeks later was the annual triangular with 2013 NCAA champions Michigan and the Texas Longhorns, who would end up second to Cal at NCAAs the following spring.
That battering ram of an October schedule seemed to be solid preparation, though, and perhaps a glimpse of where Indiana wants to eventually be. The Hoosiers have snuck into the NCAAs top 10 for the past three seasons now, but it was always on the backs of a few high-placing swimmers, which made the finishes feel tenuous – a slip by just one stud in a major event, and the team would tumble down the NCAA’s steep scoring slope.
At the 2014 NCAAs, though, the studs were pretty much all on point. Cody Miller and Eric Ress each contributed a runner-up finish on the meet’s final day to add big points and keep the team in the top 10 for a third-straight season. It was an individual-heavy scoring load, with only two of the team’s five relays putting points on the board with a pair of 11th-place finishes. Meanwhile Miller (36.5 individual points), Ress (22) and diver Darian Schmidt (13) did the heavy lifting as the Hoosiers beat out Louisville by 12 points for top-10 status.
Reloading this season is paramount for Indiana, though, as all three of those big point-scorers have graduated. Miller will be the biggest loss. The breaststroker was a steadying force for the team in his events, even through some DQ issues in the middle of his college years. Miller won 7 of 8 Big Ten titles in the breaststroke events over his four years, losing only the 100 his senior season, when he saved a full rest for the NCAA championships.
Ress had been around for what seemed like a decade, injuries and Olympic redshirts stretching his NCAA career as long as they could, but the versatile Frenchman is also out of the picture in 2014-2015. Schmidt was the top diver in the team’s storied program a year ago, and though his graduation hurts the team, it’s safe to say they’ll be alright in the diving events this season (more on that below). Also graduated is backstroker James Wells, a consistent force for the team who won the NCAA B final of the 100 back his senior season.
The lone individual NCAA point-scorer left is Swiss army knife Steve Schmuhl, an all-around weapon who typically filled in the lineup gaps between IU’s older swimmers. Starting this fall, Schmuhl moves to become the centerpiece, coming off a season in which he scored in three events at the NCAA championships, including both of the IM events that were insanely fast on the national level.
Schmuhl highlighted his junior season with a 4th-place finish in the 400 IM, showing off the versatility that should make him a solid cornerstone around which to build the next generation of the Hoosier squad.
Reinforcements for Schmuhl
On the other hand, though, this is going to be a new-look team for Indiana, one predicated a little less on a handful of studs putting up major points, and more on a depth-based, team-wide effort. That’s spurred on by a 20-person freshman class that was ranked #4 in our men’s recruiting class rankings, and would be even higher had we factored in transfer students.
At the center are a pair of freestylers, Ali Khalafalla and Blake Pieroni, who should not only fill a gap Indiana has struggled in for a long time, but also strengthen the team’s scoring chances in all 5 relays. Khalafalla was a late addition, signing in May. The Egyptian national is a 44-second 100 freestyler and has the potential to be a big-time sprint freestyler for a team that’s lacked one for years. Pieroni, meanwhile, is an in-state commit who specializes in the 100 and 200 and already won a pair of Junior National relay titles with IU this past summer.
Those two make up the core of a redesigned sprint group that should give the Hoosiers the firepower to score points in more than two relays – in 2014, the team only ground out points in the longest of the relay events, the 800 free and 400 medley.
They’ll replace Cody Miller with Cody Taylor, a 54.2/1:56.4 breastroker from right in-state in Columbus, Indiana. Taylor’s got his work cut out for him to score at the Big Ten level, but given Miller’s huge improvement curve in Bloomington, Taylor could be in line to get there quicker than you’d think.
There’s the backstroke spots from Wells and Ress to deal with, and IU covered for that with New York’s Ryan Gordon, plus Khalafalla, who can also compete in the sprint backstrokes. And after graduating both NCAA-scoring divers, Indiana still manages to get better there, in a move that deserves its own heading (see below).
The big takeaway is that, for the moment, at least, this new class is weaker at the top, but much deeper, than the class it’s replacing. Depending on how quickly the freshmen develop, that might mean a step back for IU in the short-term, but it’s also a much more sustainable plan for future success. The upcoming season looks like a transition year for Indiana from a team of a few top-end talents to a team that will earn its keep with a more rounded attack and more consistent relay points. How the team finishes this season is wholly dependent on how fast the young swimmers come through and whether the relays can reach NCAA scoring levels by March.
The big pick-up
OK, we’ve teased it enough, time to stop burying the lead. Indiana’s biggest addition, bar none, is NCAA champion diver Michael Hixon, transferred in from Texas. Hixon won both springboards as a freshman last spring and took seventh on platform. If he can repeat those exact finishes, he’ll single-handedly replace not only all the points from both graduated divers, but the all the points from Cody Miller on top of that.
Plus, Hixon will have backup in freshman James Connor, an Australian Olympian who joins IU as a freshman this season. Connor has had his best finishes (including 20th at the London Olympics) on platoform, which was the only event Hixon lost at last year’s NCAAs. That should make the two a fantastic complementary pair.
The duo should help revive a storied diving program that fell off a little from its traditional scoring threshold last year. The Hoosiers scored just 16 NCAA points in diving in 2014, with just one championship finalist. Compare that to 54 points in 2013 and 71 the year before, and you get a feel for where IU is typically at. Hixon scored 52 by himself last year, so there’s a very good chance the team returns to its former levels this spring.
The longtime Achilles Heel for Indiana has been the sprints, where it’s struggled to keep up with conference rivals Michigan, Minnesota and Purdue in recent years. In addition to recruiting a new crop of sprinters, Indiana also hired legendary Big Ten sprints coach Dennis Dale, the former head coach at the University of Minnesota, to head up its sprint program.
Dale’s got plenty of experience coaching up big time sprinters. Most recently he tutored Derek Toomey, who became the first Big Ten man under 19 seconds last year as a senior. Now he’ll take over a young Hoosier crew that includes Pieroni, Khalafalla and current sophomore Anze Tavcar (19.91 and 43.54 as a freshman).
This revamped crew looks to eventually end an IU scoring drought in the 200 and 400 free relays – the Hoosiers have scored 0 NCAA points in those races over the last three years combined. With double relay points at such a premium in the NCAA, Indiana has been coming up empty in a major category for some time now, but looks to be doing everything possible to remedy the situation quickly.
Looking strictly in the pool, Indiana looks like a team in transition, with a big and deep freshman class probably a year or two away from fully replacing the points from a very strong senior class. The shift from a top-heavy team to a more rounded attack will take time, and the addition of Dale is a wild-card this early – the sprinters might immediately show the benefits of his tutelage, or it may take some time for Dale to adjust to the new environment and for Looze and the IU staff to figure out how to best use Dale’s skill set.
Still, the saving grace for the Hoosiers will be diving, where the addition of Michael Hixon should be enough to keep the team afloat points-wise as the swimming transition takes hold. If he can match or improve on his 52 NCAA points from 2014, the swimmers will collectively have a lighter load to keep the team in the top 10 overall.
Steve Schmuhl is a great building block, and a guy who’s developed really well in Bloomington and should be able to show the freshmen what’s possible if they buy into the system. Max Irwin (100 fly) and Mike Hurley (200 breast) are also returning Big Ten finalists who should see their roles expand in the coming season.
All told, Indiana’s graduations in the pool, their big diving addition and their influx of swimming depth could turn out to be about a wash, even though it would be a stretch for any of the freshmen to completely fill the gap left by Cody Miller, Eric Ress or James Wells. If things turn out that way, this team is a solid pick for a repeat top-10 performance. What might be even more interesting will be seeing if the Hoosiers can put a dent in Michigan’s Big Ten Championship stranglehold, given some big Michigan graduations (Connor Jaeger, Kyle Whitaker, Michael Wynalda and their combined 5 Big Ten titles) and the fact that Indiana’s depth should be rewarded more at Big Tens than NCAAs. Michigan is still the class of the conference, but don’t sleep on these Hoosiers.