We’ll be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s programs for the 2018-2019 season – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24. Can’t get enough college swimming news? Check out the College Preview issue of SwimSwam Magazine for more in-depth college swimming coverage, including a bird’s-eye view of the flood of coaching changes and our ever-popular rankings of the top 50 individual swimmers in college swimming.
#12 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Key Losses: Conner McHugh (28 NCAA Points, 2 NCAA Relays)
Key Additions: Max McHugh (WI – Breaststroke), Adam Kapusta (NY – Distance Free), Aidan Dillon (IL – Distance Free), Aidan Dulaney (Distance Free), Tommy Barr (IL – Sprint Free), Nic Chromey (MN – Breaststroke), Aiden Werner (IN – Diving), Ryan Phillip (MN – Diving)
As the NCAA finish order is determined by points, we base our grading scale on projected NCAA points. Versatility and high ceilings are nice, but they don’t win you NCAA titles unless they bring points with them. Bear in mind that all of these grades are projections more than 6 months out – and as none of us has a working crystal ball, these projections are very subjective and very likely to change over the course of the season. Disagreeing with specific grades is completely acceptable; furiously lashing out at a writer, commenter or specific athlete is not.
- A = projected to score significant (10+) NCAA points per event
- B = projected to score some (3-10) NCAA points per event
- C = projected on the bubble to score likely only a few (1-2) or no NCAA points per event
- D = projected to score no NCAA points
We’ll grade each event discipline: sprint free (which we define to include all the relay-distance freestyle events, so 50, 100 and 200 plus the 200, 400 and 800 free relays), distance free, IM, breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly.
Despite the loss of diving star Matt Barnard (24 points at 2017 NCAA’s), The Golden Gophers were able to move up from 23rd at the NCAA’s in 2017 to 15th in 2018. They managed to do so with only 3 individual scorers: Breaststroke star Conner McHugh (28 points), who finished his collegiate career with 1 6th place finish in the 100 breast, and 4th in the 200 breast, Bowen Becker (19 points), the steadily improving sprint freestyler who had a breakout year including a 3rd place finish in the 50 free and 14th in the 100 free, and Nick Yang (14 points), who had a stellar year in platform diving, culminating in a 5th place finish at the NCAAs.
In addition, the Golden Gophers were only able to score 6 relay points at last year’s NCAA’s, coming in a 14th place finish in the 200 medley relay. The only non-returning member of that relay is Connor McHugh.
Sprint Free: A
The Golden Gophers have some decent depth for dual meet/Big Ten scoring potential in the sprint freestyles, including sub-20 50 freestyler Tuomas Pokkinen and 1:34 200 freestyler Nick Saulnier. Those swimmers will provide some solid backup for Bowen Becker, who will be looking to ride the success of his Junior campaign into his Senior year.
Becker finished 3rd in the 50 free last year, and missed the A final in the 100 by only .04 seconds. With 4 of last year’s 100 free A finalists graduated, the possibility of Becker making 2 individual A finals is high. He is also the fastest returning 50 freestyler from last year’s NCAA’s, leaving him as one of, if not the favorite in the 50 heading into this season.
Minnesota has brought in a sprint freestyler in Tommy Barr, the Illinois native who has a best time of 21.27 in the 50, 46.44 in the 100, and 1:43.11 in the 200. Moreover, Barr dropped nearly a second last season in the 50, 2 full seconds in the 100, and over 6 seconds in the 200. Max McHugh, primarily a breaststroker, comes in with a 20.24 in the 50 free, and 45.49 in the 100 free.
Distance Free: C-
The Golden Gophers have no shortage of distance swimmers, bringing in 3 more with this freshmen class. That being said, the Minnesota distance squad had no sub-4:20 500 freestylers last year, their fastest 1000 was 9:19, and fastest mile was 15:26. Also, none of the incoming freshmen are faster than those times as of yet. Due to the size and depth of this distance group, the Golden Gophers will likely be able to score a decent amount of points in dual meets, and could probably score a moderate amount of points at the Big Ten Championships, but would need to see some big drops to get anyone in scoring position at the NCAA’s.
The Golden Gophers’ fastest IM’er from last season, Brian Poon (1:47.02/3:53.06), graduated. That leaves only 2 sub-1:50 200s on the team, and 2 sub-4:00 400s. This is likely the weakest area in the roster Minnesota, where they will be hardpressed to score many conference points, and will likely be outscored by many opponents in dual meets.
Tuomas Pokkinen and Matthew Thomas led the way for the Golden Gophers last season in the 100 fly with times of 46.37 and 46.64 respectively. Bowen Becker followed behind with a respectable 47.20. Those returning swimmers leave Minnesota in a good position to score a decent amount of points at Big Tens, and they shouldn’t have a problem at dual meets. However, they will need to each dip under 46 seconds to stand a chance of scoring NCAA points.
Last year Thomas led the 200 fly with 1:44.60, while Pokkinen was 2nd fastest with a 1:46.18. Those 2 are in good position to both score at the Big Ten Championships, but again will have to shed several seconds to possibly score at the NCAAs. Based on their current times, this year’s freshmen class hasn’t brought any immediate scoring potential.
The 100 back is the weaker of the back events for Minnesota, with Tom Donker leading the way last year in 48.18, and not having any sprint backstrokers coming in as freshmen. They will need to see some improvement in order to score any significant conference points.
The 200 back is much better for Minnesota, however, with Nick Saulnier coming in with a 1:43.16, and Cale Berkoff with a 1:44.64. Those times have good conference scoring potential, but it took a 1:40.2 to make the B final at NCAAs last year, marking a difficult battle for any NCAA points in backstroke events for Minnesota.
Despite the loss of breaststroke star Conner McHugh, who scored the most individual points for Minnesota at last season’s NCAAs, the Golden Gophers’ breast power will be kept alive by Conner’s younger brother, Max. Max McHugh comes in faster than his brother in the 100 breast (51.59), and fast enough to qualify for the A final at the NCAAs. Max is a little slower than Conner in the 200 (1:53.59), but that time would still have been good to make the B final at last season’s NCAAs.
The other positive to Max McHugh joining the roster is that it will help Minnesota’s medley relays, which are already Minnesota’s fastest relays. Max is already faster than his brother was in sprint breast events, and with every other member of the medley relays returning, Minnesota could have some A final material medleys.
Fellow freshman Nic Chromey will be providing backup on breaststroke events, coming in with a quick 55.54 in the 100.
2018-2019 Season Outlook:
The Gophers are in good position heading into this season, having only lost 1 of their NCAA Championships team members from last year. Although Conner McHugh was Minnesota’s highest point scorer at the NCAAs, his brother Max is in excellent position to at least make up for those lost points, if not add a few more. Max is also better suited than his older brother for the medley relays, which are already the Golden Gophers strongest relay events.
Bowen Becker will be looking to improve upon his already impressive junior campaign, and goes into this season as the fastest returning 50 freestyler from last year’s NCAAs. With a lot of the field graduated in the 100 free, Becker also stands an excellent chance of making the A final in that event as well. His 100 fly isn’t all that far off from being a B final contender either, although that is much more of a longshot.
Diving could sneakily be Minnesota’s biggest source of points this season, at least at NCAAs. Nick Yang, who finished 5th in platform at the NCAAs last year, will be returning, starting the team off with some established scoring potential. The Gophers will also be returning Alan Leblang, who qualified to the NCAAs in both 3 meter and platform diving last year.
Minnesota is also bringing in some solid new diving talent. Ryan Phillip will be joining the team as the reigning Minnesota high school state champ, while Aiden Werner is coming in as the Indiana high school runner-up. That squad should lead to considerable points at the dual meet, conference, and NCAA levels.
Minnesota has brought in 3 more distance swimmers to an already sizeable distance squad. Although they have a little ways to go before they have big point potential, the improvement of these swimmers will be one thing to be on the lookout for this season.
When all is accounted for, it seems the Golden Gophers are poised to be even better than last season, at least point-wise, and having finished 15th at the NCAAs last season, they could very realistically crack the top 10 this time around.