College Swimming Previews: Fifth Year Returnees Bolster #7 Ohio State Women

After a one-year hiatus due 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. 

#7 OHIO STATE BUCKEYES

Key Losses: Taylor Petrak (1.5 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Hanna Gresser (NCAA qualifier), Freya Rayner (2 NCAA relays)

Key Additions: HM Malia Rausch (TX – free), Teresa Ivan (NC – free), Mia Rankin (AZ – IM/free), Paige Hall (VA – back), Nyah Funderburke (OH – back), Alyssa Graves (Iowa transfer – free/fly)

Returning Fifth Years: Kristen Romano (20 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Katie Trace (13 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay)

GRADING CRITERIA

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.

2020-2021 Lookback

After ending a 34-year drought in 2020, the Ohio State women repeated as Big Ten champions in 2021, rolling to a decisive 257.5-point victory over the University of Michigan.

The Buckeyes won three out of five relays and had four individual event victories at Big Tens, including senior Kristen Romano sweeping the 200 and 400 IM and adding a runner-up finish in the 200 back to lead the way with 92 individual points.

Junior Sally Tafuto (500 free) and sophomore Hannah Bach (100 breast) also earned individual conference championship titles, giving the Buckeyes plenty of momentum heading into the NCAA Championships.

2021 proved to be the team’s best NCAA performance in program history, and by a wide margin.

The Buckeyes scored 215.5 points to finish seventh overall, just nine back of sixth-place Michigan, trouncing their previous-highest showing of 10th from way back in 1983.

The relays were a critical part of that success, putting 134 points on the board, including a third-place finish in the 200 medley and a fifth-place finish in the 200 free relay.

Freshman Katherine Zenick and senior Taylor Petrak were stalwarts, racing on four of five relays, and sophomore Amy Fulmer appeared on three while junior Emily Crane and senior Freya Rayner swam on two.

Individually, Tafuto scored 21 points, taking seventh in the 500 and ninth in the 1650 free, and Romano put up 20 points, placing eighth and ninth in the IMs.

The season was a massive success, and despite several of the team’s top performers being seniors, the Buckeyes still got some contributions across the board. They also had five freshmen qualify to swim individually at NCAAs, including Maya Geringer scoring three points in the mile.

SPRINT FREE: ★★

Despite being a team that combined to score 78 points in the freestyle relays at the 2021 NCAAs, the Buckeye women only had one scoring swim—Taylor Petrak‘s tie for 15th in the 50 free—in the 50, 100 or 200 free.

The reason for that is two-fold: 1) They had some big-time relay performances from swimmers like Katherine Zenick and Amy Fulmer, who outperformed their individual swims, and, 2) Some of their top relay performers, especially in the 800 free relay, didn’t race the subsequent individual event.

So if we forget about the relays briefly and take a look squarely at the individual sprint free events, Ohio State has no surefire NCAA scorers, but a few who will be right in the thick of things.

The aforementioned Petrak is not returning. Zenick, a rising sophomore, has the ability to step in and assume that role as the go-to relay swimmer and an individual scorer in the sprints, having tied for 34th in the 50 free at the 2021 NCAAs and taken 20th in the 100 free.

Zenick, who owns flat-start bests of 22.24 and 48.74 in the 50 and 100, respectively, both set at last season’s Big Tens, recorded relay splits of 21.7 and 47.8 last season, indicating there should be more in the tank individually.

Fulmer, entering her junior season, is also a relay beast, including a 21.57 anchor split on the come-from-behind 200 free relay win at Big Tens, and also has the ability to score individually with lifetime bests of 22.27/48.44.

A pair of underclasswomen, sophomore Catherine Russo and freshman Teresa Ivan, have 50 free scoring potential as well, with Russo hitting a best of 22.31 at Big Tens and gaining some experience with a 54th-place NCAA finish. Ivan owns a best time of 22.46 in the 50, lightning-fast for an incoming freshman, so she’ll be one to keep an eye on.

Another swimmer to keep on your radar is British senior Emily Crane, who is primarily relied upon in the 100 back and the medley lead-offs but hit a PB of 22.24 in the 50 free that earned her fifth-place at the 2021 Big Tens.

Looking to the 200 free, the only individual entrant in that race at last season’s NCAAs for the Buckeyes was the distance-oriented Sally Tafuto, who swam a PB of 1:46.48 at Big Tens. Tafuto managed to come through with a sub-1:45 split on the 800 free relay at NCAAs, but was well off of that individually.

The other members of that relay were Kristen Romano (1:44.83 lead-off), who will return for a fifth year this season, Fulmer (1:45.42) and another rising fifth year, Katie Trace (1:45.56), though none of those three are likely to take the race on individually.

Among the incoming freshmen, Malia Rausch is a well-rounded swimmer with a 1:45.96 200 free best time, which puts her firmly into NCAA scoring contention. Last season 1:45.81 was required to earn a second swim at NCAAs.

DISTANCE FREE: ★★★

In the distance realm, Ohio State has a strong group led by rising senior Tafuto, who led the team last season with 21 individual NCAA points.

The reigning Big Ten champion in the women’s 500 free, Tafuto earned an individual ‘A’ final at NCAAs in that race, placing seventh, and added a ninth-place finish from one of the early heats in the 1650 free.

Joining Tafuto in being a distance scorer last year was freshman Maya Geringer, who stepped up with a lifetime best of 16:11.97 to take 14th at NCAAs in the mile.

Add in Rausch, who is an elite 500 freestyler at 4:40.26 (would’ve been seventh in last season’s NCAA prelims), and this trio appears set to put some big points on the board. Rausch also has a 16:19 mile to build upon, and two other newcomers, Mia Rankin (4:48.9/16:21) and Alyssa Graves (4:47.5/16:18) add more depth to the mix.

BACKSTROKE: ★★

The Buckeyes have a very solid backstroke group that’s led by Crane, the Big Ten runner-up in the 100 back last season, finishing just .06 shy of conference champion Phoebe Bacon in a time of 51.38.

Crane went on to place 12th in the event at NCAAs, though had she gone her PB in the prelims, she would’ve made the ‘A’ final.

In the 200 back, they’ve got Romano, who is best in the medley events but could be an NCAA scorer in the event given her second-place finish at Big Tens in a time of 1:53.18. She’s been even faster, 1:52.86 back in 2017, but only placed 25th at the 2021 NCAAs in 1:54.82.

In addition to those two, Ohio State had three other swimmers finish in the top 16 at the 2021 Big Tens in both the 100 and 200 back, with all but Freya Rayner (12th in the 100 back) returning. That includes juniors Morgan Kraus, who was ninth in the 100 back, and Brynna Wolfe, who was 11th in the 100 and 16th in the 200 back.

They’ve also got a few high-end recruits in Paige Hall (53.6/1:54.7) and Nyah Funderburke (52.9), who are already under the NCAA cutline from last season and could be scorers as soon as this season with slight drops.

So the backstroke group is certainly talented, but the difference between scoring a few NCAA points and upwards of 20 will likely hinge on whether all of the team’s swimmers can hit their taper perfectly for NCAAs, or if some of them peak at Big Tens like last season and are unable to replicate those performances a month or so later.

BREASTSTROKE: ★★★

The OSU breaststroke squad is headlined by reigning Big Ten 100 breast champion Hannah Bach, who followed up that performance by going even faster (57.94) to finish fifth in the NCAA final.

Bach, who is entering her junior year, is a surefire scorer in that race and also provides the Buckeyes with a reliable breaststroke leg on their medley relays. Last season, she split 26.5/57.9 at NCAAs as the two medley teams combined for 56 points.

In addition to Bach, who also was an ‘A’ finalist in the 200 at Big Tens, the Buckeyes also return sophomore Janessa Mathews, who was an NCAA qualifier and finished 42nd in both the 100 and 200 breast as a freshman.

The team loses Hanna Gresser, a Big Ten Championship finalist last season in both events and the 24th-place finisher in the 100 breast last season, but they’ve also got Leah Baker and Josephine Panitz coming back. Baker is a top-eight Big Ten scorer in the 100 breast, while Panitz took 12th in both races last season.

The success of the breaststroke group at the NCAA level essentially hinges on the performance of Bach, who really came into her own last season and should carry that momentum forward this year. She’ll continue to be a premier contender in the 100 breast, and if she can bring her 200 breast down to a similar level (best time is currently 2:10.98), that will give the team a few more critical points.

BUTTERFLY: ★

The dynamic freshman duo of Zenick and Russo lead the charge in the 100 fly, with Zenick following up a fifth-place finish last season at Big Tens by dropping a personal best 52.26 to place 21st at NCAAs.

With a 51.7 relay split under her belt, Zenick has a lot of potential to be a consistent top-16 scorer in the event moving forward. Despite being five places off of earning a second swim, her NCAA time was only .13 shy of 16th place in the prelims.

Russo had a massive Big Ten performance, following up a 53.37 prelim PB by dropping over a second to win the consolation final in 52.33. Despite failing to match that swim at NCAAs, that flash of brilliance is a big stepping stone to build on this season.

Both Russo and Zenick will be in contention to score in the 100 this season, while both Morgan Kraus and Tristan Harrison will be solid conference scorers after hitting 53-lows last year. Incoming freshman Nyah Funderburke (54.6) has potential.

In the 200, fifth-year senior Katie Trace is back after snagging a third-place finish at Big Tens last season in 1:56.13. Trace’s bread and butter lies in the 400 IM, where she placed sixth at the 2021 NCAAs, but all she needs is a half-second drop to put some points up in the 200 fly as well.

University of Iowa transfer Alyssa Graves comes in with a personal best time of 1:57.8, making her the team’s #2 option in the event. Last season Graves was sixth in the event at Big Tens and then 33rd at NCAAs, just over two seconds outside of a top-16 placing.

Giving this fly group only one star is a little bit harsh, because Zenick, Russo and Trace are all so close to scoring, but just a tad shy for the time being. Don’t be surprised if the team manages to score in both races, but it will take lifetime bests to do it.

IM: ★★★★

The medley group is headlined by the formidable duo of returning fifth years Kristen Romano and Katie Trace, who combined to score 33 NCAA points in the two IM events last season, not to mention Romano swept the 200 and 400 at Big Tens (going 1-2 with Trace in the 400).

At NCAAs, Romano was about two seconds off her 200 IM best of 1:54.19 set at Big Tens to finish eighth in the event, scoring 11 points.

Trace, who took 27th in the 200, had a big swim to claim sixth in the 400 IM in 4:06.49, while Romano followed up a lackluster prelim swim (4:08.20) with a defiant PB of 4:04.28 to win the consolation final and score nine points (a time that would’ve placed fourth in the ‘A’ final).

If both swimmers perform up to their ability level in the NCAA prelims, they could easily combine for three ‘A’ finals and one consol, potentially nearing the 50-point range—but that’s if everything goes perfectly.

Freshmen Mia Rankin and Malia Rausch come into a great situation where they can learn and train with Romano and Trace in their final season before taking over the mantle as the team’s top IMers down the line.

Rankin is an elite 400 IMer with a best time of 4:10.3, just half a second shy of NCAA scoring, and Rausch is only a second outside of last season’s cutline in 4:14.3. Like Romano and Trace, both are relatively weaker in the 200, with Rankin holding a PB of 2:00.2 and Rausch 1:59.4.

There’s more depth from returning swimmers Kyra Sommerstad (4:14.55 400 IM) and Josephine Panitz (1:58.46 200 IM) that could crank an NCAA invite with small drops.

DIVING: ★★

Junior Mackenzie Crawford and sophomore Ciara McGing were the team’s two divers at NCAAs last season, with Crawford putting up four points with a 14th-place finish on 3-meter and a 16th on 1-meter. McGing narrowly missed getting on the board, taking 17th on platform.

If both can build on those performances this season, they’ll sufficiently supplement the Buckeyes’ swimming numbers as they jockeying for position in the top 10.

RELAYS

As was outlined in last season’s lookback, the relays were a massive part of Ohio State’s success in 2020-21. The team placed no lower than seventh in any relay, and combined to score 134 points (26.8 per relay event) at NCAAs.

There are two key losses on the relay front: Taylor Petrak, who swam everything but the 800 free relay at NCAAs, and Freya Rayner, who raced both sprint free relays.

That creates two openings in both the 200 and 400 free relay for the likes of Russo, Crane and Ivan, who should be able to hold firm in the former but may give up a half-second or so given Petrak was a consistent 48-mid or better lead-off leg.

The 800 free relay returns all four swimmers from last season (Romano, Fulmer, Tafuto, Trace) and also adds a potential option in Rausch, who has a 1:45 flat start under her belt to possibly help push the team into the top five.

The medleys are in good shape as well, with Petrak, who served as the freestyle anchor, the only one departing, and several candidates to fill in there. If Crane, Bach and Zenick all take a step forward this season, the medley relays will continue to bring in some monster points.

However, it’s safe to say that there are many schools out there that will have vastly improved relay corps compared to last year. Stanford is the first one that stands out with a completely revamped squad after the Buckeyes beat them in all five NCAA relays last season. So from that perspective, OSU would do well to simply match their relay performances from last season, especially considering they’re probably weaker as a whole with the loss of Petrak.

2021-2022 OUTLOOK

The core of Ohio State’s team is coming back this season and they’ve reloaded with some standout recruits. The return of Kristen Romano and Katie Trace as fifth-year seniors is a true game-changer in their fight for NCAA positioning.

The Buckeyes followed up a 25th-place showing in 2019 with a breakout seventh-place finish last season, and appear poised to fight to get even higher this year if their rising sophomores and juniors can take a step forward and their veterans hit their peak at NCAAs. Top five isn’t out of the question, and a third consecutive Big Ten crown is in their sights.

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OSU
2 months ago

Go Zenick

TeamRegan
2 months ago

Can’t forget about former National Junior Team member Claire Pophal. Great development in distance freestyle events and an extremely talented open Water swimmer

Peter
2 months ago

Ivan already clocked 21.9 back in March when they broke NAG mix relay record and OSU will be a big relay contender again at B1G and NCAA.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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