Key Additions: Sophie Cattermole (FL – mid-distance free/IM), Grace Long (OH – free), Mallory Comerford (MI – free), Manuela Sampaio (Brazil/KY – breast), Rachael Bradford-Feldman (FL – IM/breast), Emily Moser (IN – mid-distance free), Caitlin Ahern (FL – breast), Clara Baggett (IN – sprint free), Erin Duffey (KY – diving), Carly Hill (KY – diving), Ayaka Schmitz (CO – diving)
Key Losses: Tanja Kylliainen (41 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Abby Chin (NCAA qualifier, 1 NCAA relay), Erica Belcher (ACC finalist)
It’s been a steady rise for the Louisville Cardinal program, and the apex of their flight so far came last spring, when the team pulled off the highest NCAA finish in program history, checking in at 6th place.
Much of that finish can be attributed to Kelsi Worrell, who had one of the finest seasons of any swimmer in the nation. A little-known 54-second butterflyer out of high school, Worrell has soared in the NCAA, rising into the nation’s elite ranks last year with NCAA titles in both the 100 and 200 flys.
She punctuated that monster of a meet by taking down a hallowed American record, besting the 50.01 in the 100 fly set over a decade ago by Olympian Natalie Coughlin. Worrell became the first swimmer ever under 50 seconds, doing it in both prelims and finals and ending with a time of 49.81.
In addition to Worrell, senior Tanja Kylliainen scored in three individual events, making the A final in all three. Kylliainen, a Finnish team member internationally, finished as high as 4th in the 400 IM while taking on a brutal meet lineup featuring the 200 IM and 200 fly.
Breaststroker Andrea Cottrell contributed a 100 breast B final appearance, and Louisville scored in four relays, three of them in the top 8. All that added up to 197 points, putting Louisville firmly ahead of the 7th-8th-place logjam and just outside the top 5 teams, which were pretty well removed from the rest of the field by meet’s end.
It’s Kelsi’s Worrell-d, we just live in it
It’s hard to overstate just how valuable a swimmer of Kelsi Worrell‘s caliber is to an NCAA team. Not only did the junior put up over 25% of her team’s NCAA points last year in her individual races alone, she was also the driving force on all four scoring relays, which totaled 94 points.
Worrell’s butterfly splits weren’t just good – they were insane. In the 200 medley, Louisville’s strongest relay race, Worrell became the first female swimmer ever to break 22 seconds in the 50 butterfly split. In the midst of an elite NCAA A final, Worrell was almost one full second faster than anyone else in the field. Her split would have been an improvement on several freestyle legs in the NCAA’s championship final. She turned a half-second deficit behind California into a lead of seven tenths over just two lengths of the pool. (How many more italics does it take before we’ve given that split its full due?)
Louisville was second in the nation in that relay, and those 34 points tied it for their highest-scoring event of the meet. The 400 medley was much the same, with Worrell’s absurd 49.42 once again becoming the fastest split in history.
Her free relay splits came up huge as well – Worrell was 21.25 on the 200 free relay, the second-best split of the field. And she went 47.66 on the 400 free relay, powering Louisville from a tie for 6th in their heat all the way up to first by more than half a second. The team would hold on for 3rd in that B final, 11th overall.
With Worrell returning for her senior year, the Cardinals instantly boast one of the NCAA’s top 4 or 5 individual swimmers (and that’s probably a conservative estimate). It’s incredibly hard to crack the NCAA’s true top tier without at least one completely game-changing swimmer, but Worrell’s presence means Louisville has outside potential to do just that, for this season at least.
Cottrell and the Breaststroker flock
The other returning individual NCAA scorer for the Cards will be Andrea Cottrell, who’s rapidly become one of the best sprint breaststrokers in college swimming.
Cottrell was 59.44 a year ago, finishing 11th overall in the 100 breast. She also just barely missed the cut in the 200, taking 19th overall. The coming junior year will be a big one for Cottrell, though, as she’ll have to step into a major role alongside Worrell in putting NCAA points on the board.
Like Worrell, Cottrell is extremely dangerous on relays, which is huge for Louisville in the NCAA’s relay-heavy points system. Cottrell had the nation’s second-best 50 breast split last year at 26.55, and top splitter Molly Hannis has since graduated from Tennessee. That means Louisville has a real shot to rule the two middle legs of the shorter medley relay by wide margins – a domination of the short-axis strokes that could be a nightmare of a weapon against the NCAA’s other relays.
In another similarity to Worrell, Cottrell was a developmental prospect out of high school who has made huge strides in two college seasons. Behind her are a host of breaststrokers vying to be the next Louisville success story.
Margaret Patterson and Lucy Kramer were both C finalists at ACCs last season with very similar times in both breaststrokes – Patterson had the edge in the 100 while Kramer finished higher in the 200. But they’ll be joined by three freshmen with some intrigue as well.
Manuela Sampaio and Rachael Bradford-Feldman come in with identical 100 times of 1:03.44. Sapaio, who comes right out of Kentucky, but represents Brazil internationally, is a tick faster in the 200 breast, but both have ACC B-final type times there. Bradford-Feldman is one of three Florida imports in this class, and looks like an ACC scoring level 200 IMer coming in the door as well.
Another Florida prospect is Caitlin Ahern, who actually has both beat in the sprints with a 1:03.30 in the 100. She’s less versatile and will need some development in the 200 to score at conference, but swimmers like Cottrell have proven just how incredibly valuable pure speed is, and Ahern seems to have it.
Kylliainen a big loss
In terms of height, few swimmers in the NCAA have done more with less than Tanja Kylliainen. Despite standing just 5-foot-1, the Finnish senior accounted for 41 of Louisville’s NCAA points last year with three A finals appearances and legs on all four scoring relays.
That kind of production means the graduation of its smallest swimmer will be a big loss for the Cardinals in 2015-2016.
Kylliainen was a coach’s dream in terms of writing event lineups, with the versatility and endurance to swim just about anything. The biggest question in her absence is who will fill the IM roles for the coming year.
Luckily, Louisville recruited another extremely versatile talent in Florida’s Sophie Cattermole, and she could likely plug right into Kylliainen’s vacated IM spots, where Cattermole has been 1:59.40 and 4:12.40.
In fact, the only thing that might keep the freshman out of the IMs is her value elsewhere. Her mid-distance freestyles are arguably more impressive, with her 200 time standing a 1:46.85 and her 500 at 4:43.91.
Whether she swims free individually or not, Cattermole’s 200 makes her an instant upgrade to the 800 free relay, which is the only Cardinal relay to fail to score last year. Cattermole’s lifetime-best would have been the second-fastest split on the relay at NCAAs in 2015.
Freestylers on the Rise
As much as Worrell is clearly the backbone of the team, it might be freestyle that gives the team it’s strongest position group, with some talented returners and a lot of new faces in the mix.
Dutch swimmer Andrea Kneppers is the top returner and a key piece on all 5 relays.
Last season, Kneppers swam 5 relays plus the 100 and 200 frees at NCAAs, giving up the 500 free (in which she was an ACC finalist) to add the extra relay. The busy schedule left her just outside of scoring range individually, but she did earn 3 All-America honors through top 8 finishes with relay teams.
This year, she’ll look to bump those mid-20s individual finishes into scoring range, while still serving as an all-around relay asset for Louisville. She’s a 48-second 100 freestyler and a 1:45 in the 200 free, plus swims up to a 4:44 in the 500 and a 22.5 in the 50 – with Worrell holding down the 50 individually, it probably makes most sense to let Kneppers handle the 500, at least for dual meet season.
Unfortunately, this appears to be Kneppers’ last year in Louisville red and black. Despite swimming as a sophomore last season, she’s listed as a senior on Louisville’s roster.
Cattermole could jump right into the freestyle mix as well, depending on whether she focuses on that or the IM races, and her presence may take some of the relay weight off of Kneppers’ shoulders.
A pair of distance swimmers return behind Kneppers in Mara Pugh and Abby Houck. Both were ACC scorers in the 500 last year, but need some improvement to rise to the NCAA level. They’ll be joined by freshman Emily Moser, who already has an ACC scoring time in the 500.
In the shorter races, the team only scored Worrell and Kneppers at ACCs last year, but will try to improve depth with three solid prospects out of the midwest: Ohio’s Grace Long, Michigan’s Mallory Comerford and Indiana’s Clara Baggett. All three hover in the 23s in the 50 and right around 50 seconds in the 100, and Long and Comerford are probably best over 200 meters with times of 1:48.17 and 1:47.60, respectively.
Other Key Swimmers
- Rachel Grooms is a returning NCAA swimmer, having finished 18th as part of the 800 free relay. That squad loses top distance swimmer Abby Chin to graduation, but is probably better as a whole with all the incoming 200 free talent. Grooms was also an ACC B finalist in the 200 free individually.
- Last year, Worrell and Kylliainen made a formidable 1-2 punch in the 200 fly. This year, Louisville will hope to do the same in both flys with senior Devon Bibault. The Canadian was an ACC-level scorer in both butterflys last year, and is also a pretty solid 500 freestyler.
- The biggest relay legs to fill in are the backstroke slots on the medleys, vacated by Kylliainen. Kenzie Buss and Hannah Magnuson were the fastest individual backstrokers on the ACC team last year. But keep an eye on sophomore Ashley Leclair, who broke out with a big 10th-place 200 back swim.
- Andrea Aquista is the only diver returning with ACC scoring experience, but she’s joined by 3 incoming freshmen.
There’s no bigger comfort than coming back with an American record-holder and one of the NCAA’s hottest swimmers on your roster, and Louisville has just that in Worrell, who probably has as much momentum as anyone in the NCAA.
Losing Kylliainen is a big hit. She was threat 1B for most of the season for the Cards, and her versatility was legendary. The gameplan would seem to be replacing Kylliainen’s points with the combination of Cottrell and Kneppers, each of whom looks like a legitimate breakout threat nationally.
It will take some serious effort to maintain the 6th-place slot in the NCAA, especially with rising programs like Texas and USC in hot pursuit, but Louisville has maintained a steady rise for the past few seasons (22nd in 2013, 15th in 2014 and 6th in 2015) and generally outperforms expectations.
Perhaps the next big step for the Cards to take will be moving up in the ACC, where they were just 4th last year, and behind two teams they beat handily at NCAAs. The difference at the conference level is depth, especially with the ACC scoring all the way down to 24th place. Louisville will need their depth to come through better to pass up teams like Virginia Tech and UNC.
A solid freshman class suggests improved depth could be on the way, but only time will tell if a higher ACC finish is in the Cards.