After a one-year hiatus due to the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-2021 season, our college previews are 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.
#2 CAL GOLDEN BEARS
Key Additions: Liam Bell (Alabama transfer – breast), Robin Hanson (Sweden – free), #6 Jack Alexy (NJ – free), #16 Ziyad Saleem (WI – back), #18 Trent Frandson (IA – distance free), Gabriel Jett (CA – free/fly), Kai Crews (CA – free), Will Roberts (Michigan transfer – free/IM), Jacob Soderlund (CA – breast)
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.
After holding the title of NCAA champions for two years, having won the 2019 title to halt Texas’ run of four straight (and the 2020 meet cancelled), the Cal men came up just 27 points short of repeating at the 2021 NCAAs, with the Longhorns edging them to return to the top of the heap.
Cal scored 568 points—eight more than they put up in winning the 2019 championship—to trail Texas’ 595, which was the highest total put up by any team since 2004.
Leading the charge for the Golden Bears was senior sprinter Ryan Hoffer, who was dominant in winning the men’s 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly at NCAAs, scoring the maximum 60 individual points. Hoffer, who graduated after the season and has since turned pro, also contributed four scintillating relay splits on Cal’s NCAA relays which all placed in the top three and included a pair of titles in the 4×50 free and 4×100 free.
The team’s No. 2 NCAA scorer was upstart freshman Destin Lasco, who flourished in his first season at Berkeley and is a surefire star in the making. Lasco scored 49 points, placing second in the 200 back and third in both the 100 back and 200 IM. Lasco’s 200 back time of 1:35.99, also made him the third-fastest swimmer in history and the fastest freshman ever by well over a second, with Cal legend Ryan Murphy holding that distinction previously at 1:37.35.
Lasco wasn’t the only first-year to perform well, as Swedish native Bjorn Seeliger stepped in to form a formidable 1-2 punch with Hoffer in the sprint free events, and can take the mantle as the team’s go-to in those races moving forward. Seeliger was a blazing 18.71 to take second to Hoffer in the 50 free, and was also fourth in the 100 free at NCAAs.
In addition to Hoffer, the Bears had an incredible senior class last season in the form of Trenton Julian (49 NCAA points), Bryce Mefford (36), Sean Grieshop (31), Daniel Carr (25) and Zach Yeadon (24). Julian, Grieshop and Carr will all be back this season.
Cal’s seniors were actually the highest scoring class at the meet with 222 individual points.
The team’s other top performers were juniors Hugo Gonzalez and Reece Whitley, who scored 42 and 36 NCAA points, respectively. Gonzalez’s point total doesn’t tell the whole story, as he narrowly missed the 400 IM ‘A’ final before dropping a time in the ‘B’ final that would’ve won the ‘A’ final.
At the Pac-12 Championships, the Bears were dominant, winning 17 of 18 swimming events en route to a fourth straight victory. Hoffer scored 60 points, while Julian, Gonzalez, Lasco and Carr also put up 50 or more. Runner-up Stanford was 182 points back.
Ultimately, Cal performed as well as it could’ve hoped at Pac-12s and NCAAs. Under longtime head coach Dave Durden, they were close to lights out. But the difference in their battles with Texas has often been diving, and that held true again last season as the Longhorns scored 83 points on the boards at NCAAs to Cal’s zero.
SPRINT FREE: ★★★★★
Losing Hoffer knocks 40 points off Cal’s total in the sprint free events compared to last year right off the bat, but they’ve got a premier title challenger in Seeliger in both the 50 and 100.
After Seeliger went 18.71 last season it would be hard to not assert him as the favorite to win the 50 this season (though Brooks Curry may have something to say about that). There’s certainly no shortage of men that can crack the 19-second barrier this season, but Seeliger did so five times in the span of less than a month last March, which is a level of consistency that will help propel him to perform when the pressure is on.
Seeliger got down to 41.65 in the 100 free and split 41.07 on the 400 medley relay, putting him in the running for the national title there.
Looking solely at the 50 and 100 free, Hoffer and Seeliger were the team’s only two NCAA entrants last season. Jack Alexy, the 17-18 National Age Group Record holder in the long course 100 free and the sixth-ranked recruit in the high school class of 2021, figures to join Seeliger as a mainstay in the sprints for seasons to come.
Alexy is the top 100 freestyler in the class at 42.63, a time that’s less than two-tenths off of NCAA scoring position. Given Alexy’s recent progression, it would be somewhat of a surprise if he didn’t improve that time and make his way in the top 16 as a freshman, if not top eight. He’s also close to the cutline in the 50 free (19.61) and has potential in the 200 free (1:35.52).
Cal also brings in another Swede, Robin Hanson, who has accrued a lot of international experience in recent years and should be a pivotal part of the Bears freestyle group moving forward.
Hanson owns LCM best times of 22.6, 48.9 and 1:46.5 in 50, 100 and 200 free, converting roughly to 19.6, 42.6 and 1:33.0 in yards. Not only does that make him a massive relay asset, but Hanson will also be in contention for a top-16 spot in the 100 and top-eight in the 200, at the least.
18th-ranked recruit Trent Frandson is more suited to the distance free events, but is also a strong 100/200 swimmer with bests of 43.79 and 1:35.68. Fellow freshmen Kai Crews (20.8/44.6), Gabriel Jett (1:36.0) and Ziyad Saleem (20.7/45.5) add some depth with potential for future contributions.
The individual entries may not look like a team that won national titles in 200 and 400 free relays, but that’s because swimmers like Carr, Lasco, Gonzalez and Nate Biondi all stepped up with some big relay swims last season.
Biondi has graduated, but Carr remains a versatile option in any free relay and Lasco and Gonzalez were clutch in splitting 41.7 on the 400 free relay at NCAAs.
The 200 free is led by Julian, who ripped three consecutive 1:31s at NCAAs last season (including the 800 free relay lead-off) and ended up taking third in the individual final. That event only gets deeper this season, with Kieran Smith and Drew Kibler joined by Georgia freshman Matt Sates and potentially Havard senior Dean Farris. But Julian remains in the hunt for a top finish.
Hanson should be right up there, somewhere in the individual scoring area in the 200, and he can smoothly take over the 800 free relay spot that opens up with the departure of Bryce Mefford.
Seeliger could also be a potential 200 fee entrant, having clocked 1:35.82 at Pac-12s before DFS’ing at NCAAs.
So despite losing Hoffer, Cal has swimmers that will contend for national titles in all three sprint events, with additional names that should be able to score in all of them as well.
DISTANCE FREE: ★★★
Trenton Julian is the team’s top option in the 500 free, having thrown down a Cal Record 4:09.49 to win Pac-12s before taking fourth at NCAAs in 4:09.78.
Grieshop and Yeadon placed seventh and ninth last season, respectively, and with Grieshop returning Cal has two swimmers in the ‘A’ final mix again this year.
The Bears also had freshmen Tyler Kopp (4:18.6) and Dare Rose (4:19.5) and sophomores Colby Mefford (4:18.6) and Michael Petrides (4:19.1) sub-4:20 last season, and they’ve got Trent Frandson entering the fold with a best time of 4:20.4. That gives the team a lot of potential to gain more NCAA qualifier in the event, with the cut sitting at 4:16.75 last season.
Kopp (43rd) and Rose (47th) did race the event at NCAAs last season after qualifying in other events.
In the mile, Grieshop took 14th last season in 14:48.98, well off his PB set in 2019 when he placed fourth (14:35.82). A return to top form in the event and adding 10 to 12 points could go a long way for Cal, especially with the loss of Yeadon (who was sixth last season).
There is upside for Kopp in the 1650, who was 36th in his first season after delivering a big best time of 14:58.05 at Pac-12s. Frandson hasn’t raced the event since December 2019 but has a best of 15:12.92.
Will Roberts transfers over from Michigan as a graduate senior, with his best event lying in the 400 IM but also owning strong bests of 4:16 and 14:54 in the 500 and 1650. While those may not be in NCAA scoring range, they’ll be a big asset at Pac-12s.
The points won by Julian and Grieshop in the 500 and 1650 last season add up to 30, putting them right on the edge of three or four stars. Grieshop’s focus seems to be more geared towards the 400 IM and 500 free recently, so we’ll be a little conservative.
Cal’s vaunted backstroke group was out in full force last season, scoring an incredible 81 NCAA points across the two events, plus that historic 1-2-3-4-5-6 sweep in the 200 back at Pac-12s.
Lasco hit that 1:35.99 in the NCAA final, pushing Casas all the way to the finish, and seemingly has limitless potential in the event and could be the fastest swimmer ever as early as this season.
Following that dominant Pac-12 performance, the Bears went 2-3-4 in the 200 back at NCAAs, with seniors Mefford (1:38.31) and Carr (1:38.86) trailing Lasco. Mefford has graduated, but Carr returns, and Bryce’s younger brother, Colby Mefford, could make his way into the ‘A’ final this season after placing 13th as a sophomore in 1:40.64.
Sebastian Somerset, the sixth-place finisher in that Pac-12 final in a PB of 1:40.62, should also push for a top-16 showing in his junior year after taking 24th at NCAAs in 1:42.0.
In the 100 back, Lasco took third last season in 44.49, with NC State’s Kacper Stokowski the only returning swimmer faster than him.
Carr returns with ‘A’ final potential after placing 11th in 2021, and the team also get a shot in the arm with the addition of 16th-ranked recruit Ziyad Saleem.
Saleem owns bests of 46.95 in the 100 and 1:42.36 in the 200 back, both in the vicinity of the NCAA cutline. Given his rapid improvement of late, it’s easy to imagine him being the next in a long line of breakout Cal backstrokers.
There’s also Hugo Gonzalez, who was third in the 200 back at Pac-12s before switching to the 200 breast at NCAAs. He’s coming off a big summer that included winning the European Championship title and then placing sixth in the 100 back at the Olympics, so there may be a chance he opts to race the 200 back at NCAAs this time around. That would add some more monster points.
Reece Whitley‘s quest for an individual NCAA title continues in his senior year, coming off a runner-up showing in the 200 breast last season and a third-place showing in the 100 breast.
Max McHugh, the defending national champion in both breast events, is back for the Minnesota Golden Gophers this season, but Whitley is certainly in the hunt. Last season he recorded the third-fastest swim ever in the 200, 1:48.53, in November. McHugh won the NCAA title in 1:49.02 (a best time for him), so Whitley simply needs to hit his taper optimally at nationals and he should be able to win. Last season he was just over a second off his best in 1:49.54 at NCAAs.
The 100 breast is more of McHugh’s specialty, but Whitley remains a threat. Florida’s Dillon Hillis broke out to edge Whitley last season, 50.96 to 51.03, and Josh Matheny joins Indiana as a freshman this season, but Whitley remains a good bet for a top-three showing.
Cal also had the versatile Hugo Gonzalez race the 200 breast last season at NCAAs, opting to take on the event instead of the 200 back (where we know Cal is loaded), and he dropped a best time to take third in 1:51.20. If the balance between Cal’s back and breast groups has evened out a bit this season, with the departure of Mefford and the addition of Liam Bell, Gonzalez may not be in the 200 breast come NCAAs. But Bell can fill the void.
Bell, who formerly swam at Alabama, scratched from NCAAs in 2021 and ended up transferring to Cal with 2-3 seasons of eligibility left.
Though he was relatively off form at the 2021 SECs, Bell was the 100 breast runner-up in 2020, clocking a time of 51.39, and took fourth in the 200 breast in 1:52.93. In Cal’s early-season meet against Virginia, Bell threw down a time of 52.49 in the 100, showing he’s back on track.
With Whitley and Bell, the Bears could have two swimmers in the ‘A’ final of both breast events this season.
They’ve also got a rising talent in Forrest Frazier, who was 52.9/1:54.6 as a freshman, and Swiss native Jacques Laeuffer (53.9/1:54.9) is also a reliable Pac-12 scorer as he enters his junior year. They’ve also got incoming freshman Jacob Soderlund, who was potential with a 54.24 best time in the 100 set in 2019.
Even if Gonzalez isn’t in the 200 breast, Whitley and Bell swimming reasonably well at NCAAs should make the Bears eclipse 50 points in the breaststroke events.
The Bears were just a few tenths away from sweeping the butterfly events at the 2021 NCAAs, with Louisville’s Nicolas Albiero edging out Julian for the 200 fly victory in the final individual swimming event of the meet after getting clipped by Hoffer one night prior in the 100 fly.
Albiero and Julian both return as fifth-year seniors for a rematch this season, with Julian notably coming off a 1:54.7 long course 200 fly swim in August. He was actually the fastest swimmer in the NCAA last season, clocking 1:38.53 at Pac-12s to become the third-fastest swimmer ever, and was 1:38.85 at NCAAs compared to Albiero’s 1:38.64.
Cal also has rising sophomore Dare Rose as a likely scorer in the 200 fly, having placed 14th in his freshman season after hitting a PB of 1:42.13 at Pac-12s (that time puts him just eight-tenths off the top-eight). Freshman Gabriel Jett (1:44.6) also has potential to make an impact.
The 100 fly could end up being the team’s only event (in the pool) that doesn’t score, with Rose the fastest returner in 46.58. Julian could probably be elite in this event after clocking 51.7 in long course, but it doesn’t fit his schedule.
Cal had five swimmers score in the 200 IM last season, led by Gonzalez and Lasco who went 1-2 and will vie for the national title in 2022.
Carr and Whitley should also be back in ‘B’ final territory, making them likely to put up more than 40 points in the event despite losing last season’s ninth-place finisher Mefford.
In the 400 IM, Grieshop was third last season and as previously mentioned, Gonzalez was fast enough to win but was relegated to ninth-place after a lackluster prelim swim.
With Gonzalez back in the big heat, the Bears are in line for somewhere in the vicinity of 35 points in the 400 IM, with Chris Jhong also having the ability to maybe sneak in a second swim after taking 21st last year. Tyler Kopp was 3:45.67 at Pac-12s as a freshman, so we could easily see him contending for a spot in the top-16 next season as well.
There’s also Will Roberts, who was 16th last season for Michigan in 3:44.05 (prelims). He added more than four seconds in the final, but showed he has the ability to earn a second swim.
Diving has long been Cal’s Achilles heel, and that doesn’t appear to be changing this season.
Cal’s relays were absolutely phenomenal last season, putting up a massive 180 points and finishing no worse than third.
The loss of Hoffer is huge, as evidenced by his NCAA relays splits last season, (all flying start):
- 200 free relay – 18.06 (#1 in the field)
- 400 free relay – 40.86 (#1 in the field)
- 200 medley relay (fly) – 19.70 (#2 in the field)
- 400 medley relay (fly) – 43.80 (#1 in the field)
In terms of where Cal needs to fill holes, the runner-up 800 free relay can easily slide in Hanson for Mefford, and Alexy, Hanson and maybe even one of their other versatile options could slot in for Hoffer and Biondi on the 200 free relay. Hanson and Alexy can battle for Hoffer’s spot in the 400 free relay, or both may get on and bump off either Gonzalez or Lasco.
The biggest question mark comes on the medley relays, as without Hoffer, they don’t have any pure sprint flyers. Early this season they used Julian on their fastest team against UVA (200 medley), which makes sense. He’ll probably assume the role unless someone else emerges.
The other strokes are covered with Lasco/Carr on back, Whitley on breast and Seeliger on the anchor.
So while Cal’s relays remain in very good shape, especially with the additions of Hanson and Alexy, things are extremely close at the top. The Bears’ wins over Florida in the 200 and 400 free relay came by a combined four-tenths, which includes Hoffer’s blazing splits. With his loss, they may fall a spot or two in each of the sprint relays, but the team events will remain to largely be a strength.
A team couldn’t have had a more significant loss than a 60-point swimmer who’s also extremely valuable on the relays. But that’s what Cal loses in Hoffer.
Despite that, they’ve filled things in as well as they could’ve, especially with the intrigue that comes with Swedish freestyler Robin Hanson and the promise of Jack Alexy. Liam Bell forms a 1-2 combo with Reece Whitley on breast, and Destin Lasco is already a star.
The Bears have several NCAA title contenders, including Lasco, Hugo Gonzalez and Julian, but the question remains whether or not they can overcome Texas. With Texas returning the majority of their NCAA scorers, plus a strong freshman class of their own, it will be difficult for Cal to get by them. The Bears swam lights out last season, and it still wasn’t enough. Without Hoffer, it’s an even taller task.
The diving barrier may be too much to overcome, but if everyone swims up to their potential at NCAAs, they can make it close.