After a one year-hiatus to the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-2021 season, our college previews back! We’ll be previewing the 2021-2022 seasons for the top 12 men’s and women’s programs from the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24.
#11 Kentucky Wildcats
Key Losses: Jaclyn Hill (2021 NCAAs qualifier in breast events)
5th Years: Bailey Bonnet (7 NCAA points in 2021)
Two 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.
Back at the 2019 NCAA Championships, Kentucky came in 15th with 100.5 points. Last season, the Wildcats racked up 152 points to finish 11th, just a single point out of a top 10 team finish. Their NCAA finish came a month after Kentucky won its first SEC women’s team title in program history, accumulating 1124 points to beat Florida by 50 points. Kentucky had 12 top-3 finishes at last year’s women’s SECs, also marking a program high.
The team set another program record, earning 14 NCAA qualifiers, only 2 of which were seniors.
Sprint Free: ★★★
Despite coming in 2nd in the 800 free relay at NCAAs last season, Kentucky doesn’t have a whole lot of NCAA scoring power on their roster in the sprint free events. The 200 free is probably their best of the 5 free events. Rising senior Riley Gaines is an excellent 200 freestyler, boasting a personal best of 1:42.70, which is an A-final caliber time any year at NCAAs. Last year as a sophomore, Kaitlynn Wheeler qualified for the B final with a 1:45.72 in prelims of the 200 free. Returning 2 NCAAs finalist to the team this year sounds great, but unfortunately, it seems unlikely as things stand now that a 1:45 200 free will make it back to finals this season. That means Wheeler will have to improve in order to score points for the team again.
Gaines is also a bubble A finalist in the 100 free, coming in with a best of 48.21. Last year, she finished 40th in prelims of the 100 however, as she was pulling a touch 100 free/200 fly double on the final day of NCAAs. Last season, Wheeler was the 2nd-fastest 100 freestyler on the team, coming in at 49.13.
Gaines also led the team in the 50 free with a 22.52, and was the only swimmer on the roster under 23 seconds flat-start. The Kentucky staff did a great job bringing in 50 and 100 freestylers with this freshmen class to build depth in the events, however, they’ll have to improve a bit before they’re in the realm of qualifying for NCAAs, let alone get to the point scoring points at NCAAs.
Freshmen 50 free times:
Freshman 100 free times:
- Megan Ciezczak – 50.42
- Megan Hartlieb – 50.43
- Kaelan Daly – 50.98
- Maddie Welborn – 50.82
- Kailey Orr – 51.11
Distance Free: ★★
Rising junior Beth McNeese is poised to lead this Kentucky distance group yet again. McNeese was a bit off her 500 personal best of 4:38.97 last season, only getting down to 4:40.69. However, she did swim a best of 16:04.07 in the 1650 free last season, and went on to clock a 16:11.73 at NCAAs, finishing 13th. Her 16:04 from mid-season would have placed her 8th at NCAAs.
The freshmen class doesn’t bring in too much help in the distance events, however, the Wildcats still have really nice depth in the 500 and 1650. In the 500, both Kaylee Williams and Kaitlynn Wheeler are 4:42 lifetime bests, while Williams also clocked a personal best of 16:23 in the 1650 last year.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, they return their backstroke group from last year. Caitlin Brooks will be back in the fold, and her 51.5 100 back and 1:51.5 200 back put her in position to score again this year. Sophie Sorenson is fresh off an A finals appearance in the 200 back last year, and her lifetime best of 1:50.94 ranked 8th in the NCAA last year. Sorenson is also a 52.02 100 backstroker, which likely puts her just outside what it will take to score this year.
Last year, this squad only scored 6 breaststrokes point at NCAAs, but speed-wise they have the ability to score more this year. Bailey Bonnett picked up a 16th-place finish in the 200 breast, swimming a 2:09.92 in finals, after a 2:08.61 in prelims. Bonnett’s personal best of 2:06.61 would have put her in the A final last year. Similarly, Gillian Davey finished 12th in the 200 breast. Davey swam a 2:05.59 lifetime best last season, and had she done that at NCAAs, she would have finished 5th.
Lauren Poole is another potential scorer in the 200 breast, entering this season with a lifetime best of 2:07.33. The Wildcats also picked up a few breaststrokers in this freshmen class. Olivia Mendenhall enters college as a 1:02.03 100 and 2:12.78 200 breaststroker. Sabina Hartman comes in with a 1:04.86 100, while Madeline Wenig is 1:04.13 in the 100, and 2:16.50 in the 200.
Izzy Gati leads this fly group after winning the B final of the 100 fly at last year’s NCAAs, and qualifying for the A final in the 200 fly. Riley Gaines was the next fastest 200 flyer last season, and she finished 22nd in prelims at NCAAs in the event. Caitlin Brooks is a 52.57 100 flyer. For right now, scoring looks to be up to Gati, but that isn’t a problem as Gati’s times are fast enough to make it back to finals in both events.
IMs were the strongest point on Kentucky’s roster last year, as they scored 37 points at NCAAs between the 200 and 400. The Wildcat had 4 finalists in the 400 IM at NCAAs, including Lauren Poole who finished 3rd. The rest were in the B final, with Bailey Bonnett taking 11th, Gillian Davey 13th, and then-freshman Anna Havens Rice taking 16th.
In the 200 IM, Poole led the squad again, finishing 11th, right ahead of Sophie Sorenson, who was 12th. Bonnett came in 17th in prelims, one spot out of qualifying for finals. Havens Rice took 21st in prelims, while Izzy Gati came in 25th.
The freshmen class doesn’t add too much to this already strong IM group, but with all the scoring swimmers from last year returning, Kentucky should be looking at another big IM haul this year. the depth in these events will also be critical to Kentucky as they attempt to defend their SEC crown.
Rising senior Kyndal Knight scored at NCAAs last year, coming in 11th in 1-meter diving. She also competed in 3-meter, taking 44th, and platform (28th). At SECs, Knight came in 3rd on platform and 6th in platform.
Kentucky is in the fortunate position of returning all their members from their NCAA relays last year, so we’re largely looking at a “run it back” type of situation this year. That’s great news for the Wildcats, as they were able to grab a 2nd-place finish in the 800 free relay at NCAAs last year. They also came in 10th in the 400 medley, and finished just outside scoring in the 200 medley.
Kentucky didn’t qualify either free relay to NCAAs last year, but this year’s freshmen class might be able to help that. With 4 new 50-point 100 freestylers entering the team, by the end of the season, the Wildcats should be able to put 4 sub-50 100s together for a 400 free relay. That will mark an improvement over last year, where at SECs they had 50.71 and 50.25 splits on the relay. Coming in as a 22.75 50 freestyler, freshman Megan Ciezczak should be able to immediately help the 200 free relay as well.
Kentucky had a massively successful season last year, winning the SEC crown for the first time in program history, and finishing just 1 point out of the top 10 at NCAAs. They are one of the few teams who return all NCAA scorers from last year, and all their relay members.
Kentucky keeping its team almost completely intact from last year is great news as they attempt to defend the SEC title. This freshmen class should help them in that effort, as they specifically address some areas where the 2020-2021 Wildcats lacked depth, like the sprint free events.