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.
#10 Men: Texas A&M Aggies
Returning Fifth Years: Kurtis Mathews
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.
The Aggies tied their highest NCAA finish in program history last season, taking 10th place to match their showings in 1943 and 1999. That success was buoyed by junior Shaine Casas, who transitioned from all-star into arguably the NCAA’s best swimmer by sweeping his individual events at the national championships for 60 points, plus key contributions on four relays.
Combining individual events and relays, Casas had a hand in 146 of Texas A&M’s 151 points. In addition to winning the men’s 100 back, 200 back and 200 IM, he also led off the 200 free relay (fifth, 28 points), 800 free relay (third, 32 points), 200 medley relay (ninth, 18 points) and 400 medley relay (13th, eight points).
Senior Mark Theall was the lone man to put points on the board individually outside of Casas at NCAAs, placing 15th in the 100 free and 16th in the 200 free, and he was also a stalwart by appearing on four of the five relays.
At SECs, the Aggie men picked up fourth place, 7.5 points back of Tennessee and 1.5 clear of Alabama. Casas was once again the team’s top performer, winning the 200 IM and 200 back and taking third in the 100 fly, but we also saw Koko Bratanov (sixth 100/200 free, seventh 200 IM) earn three ‘A’ final appearances and Theall (second 200 free, sixth 500 free) and Andres Puente Bustamante (sixth 100 breast, fifth 200 breast) had two apiece.
Senior Kurtis Matthews also picked up a victory in the 1-meter diving competition and added a runner-up showing on 1-meter.
Casas was the story of the season, but the Aggies also saw progress from some of their underclassmen.
Sophomore Puente Bustamante and freshman Alex Sanchez raced both breaststroke events at NCAAs, sophomore Jace Brown earned a top-eight SEC finish individually and was relied upon to swim fly on the scoring medley relays at NCAAs, and freshman Carter Nelson got his feet wet with some relay swims at nationals.
Casas was the clear star of the A&M men’s team, but he’s gone now. He entered the NCAA Transfer Portal this offseason with the intention of transferring to the University of Texas, and ultimately decided to go pro.
SPRINT FREE: ★
There’s a strong argument to be made that the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle could be ranked as Shaine Casas‘ seventh, eighth and ninth-best events in short course swimming, but the fact remains that he was the driver of Texas A&M’s 200 and 800 free relays last season that combined to score 60 NCAA points.
Casas is the school record-holder in all three events, setting the 50 (19.02) and 200 free (1:30.59) marks leading off the relays at last season’s NCAAs that went on to place fifth (200 free) and third (800 free). In his absence, the 400 free relay squeaked out two points in 16th.
Now, with their ace in the hole gone, the sprint corps will go through a massive rebuilding phase, and not just because Casas left.
The lone returner from the 200 free relay, Koko Bratanov, will likely assume the role as leader of the sprinting squad moving forward.
The rising senior split sub-19 (18.94) on the 200 free relay last season at NCAAs, and also has the potential to score individually in the 100 free, having placed 22nd last season in 42.68. Bratanov also led off the 400 free relay in a PB of 42.48, and on the podium-placing 800 free relay, he came through with a 1:33.3 split, having hit a flat-start best at the Art Adamson Invite in November (1:33.70).
Clayton Bobo, also a senior this season, will be relied upon heavily to step up in the relays, with solid best times of 19.6/43.2/1:34.4, though none of those were set last season and the 100 and 200 are from November 2018.
Ultimately, this group was led by Casas last season in the relays, and the only individual threats to score at NCAAs were Theall and Bratanov. As the only one of the three back, Bratanov has the capabilities of being in the mix to place top-16, but it’s far from a certainty.
DISTANCE FREE: ★
Theall was the only Aggie entrant in the 500 free at NCAAs last season, and no one swam the 1650. The team only returns one SEC point, a 24th-place finish from rising senior Luke Stuart in the 1650, in either distance free event.
However, Texas A&M does get a nice freshman addition in the form of in-state product Trey Dickey, who owns a best time of 15:10 in the mile that puts him within striking distance of a top-eight SEC finish, and his 8:59 1000 will be valuable in dual meets. In the 500, Dickey has a PB of 4:23.5, putting him near the top of the team, with Stuart the fastest returner last season at 4:21.6.
So needless to say, it’s not a group primed to put up any NCAA points. Theall led the charge here for many seasons, and now it’s time to enter rebuilding mode.
With the reigning NCAA champion in both backstroke events departing from their roster, Texas A&M will look to some of its newcomers to fill the Casas void and hopefully chip in some NCAA points.
Based on current bests, University of Iowa transfer Anže Ferš Eržen is the only one that projects to challenge for a top-16 NCAA position this season, with his 1:41.64 200 back from the 2020 Big Tens just over a half-second shy of the 16th place time from last season’s prelims (1:41.08).
Incoming freshman Tyler Hulet has a PB of 1:42.87, so he’s got the chops to be a contender at the NCAA level if he can improve, and will score at SECs right away.
In the 100 back, rising junior Ethan Gogulski snagged an eighth-place finish at SECs last season by hitting a PB of 46.8, and Ferš Eržen (46.9) and Hulet (47.0) have near-identical bests, so the trio should push each other in practice.
After having the luxury of getting a lightning-fast medley relay lead-off the last three seasons with Casas, the Aggies will need Gogulski, Ferš Eržen or Hulet to show some tangible improvement in the 50 and 100 back if they want to keep their medley relays competitive this year.
While the Aggies lose their top 100 breaststroke performer from last season in Olson, they do return Andres Puente Bustamante and Alex Sanchez, both of whom raced both the 100 and 200 at NCAAs last season.
Puente Bustamante, a Mexican native who will be a junior this year, placing fifth in the 200 and sixth in the 100 breast at SECs last season, though he wasn’t quite able to recreate his best times from the 2020 Conference Championships (52.27/1:52.39).
If he manages to return to that level in the 200, he’ll be fighting for a top-eight NCAA spot, and the 100 would put him within scoring range.
During his freshman season in College Station, Sanchez clocked best times of 52.77 in the 100 and 1:53.87 in the 200 breast, qualifying him for the NCAA Championships where he finished 38th and 31st, respectively. The 200 in particular puts him just a half-second shy of NCAA scoring.
Along with those two, the Aggies bring in first-year Noah Beladi, who owns bests of 54.7 in the 100 and 1:59.2 in the 200.
Given their losses elsewhere, Texas A&M would benefit greatly if Puente Bustamante, Sanchez, or both were right on or better than their best times to put some NCAA points on the board. The potential is there.
Aside from Casas’ third-place finish in the 100 fly at SECs, Jace Brown was far and away Texas A&M’s top flyer last season.
Brown, a Mesquite, Texas native who is entering his junior year, was leaned on to perform on both medley relays at SECs and NCAAs, and largely pulled through.
After hitting a personal best of 46.58 to make the SEC ‘A’ final in the 100 fly, he was brought to NCAAs as a relay-only swimmer and dropped a 45.85 leg in the 400 medley relay to help the team take 13th. He also split 20.49 on the 200 medley relay that finished ninth, and if he can recreate some of that relay magic this season, it will be a huge boost to the team.
Individually, it took 45.6 to score at NCAAs last season, so Brown’s got some work to do, but he’s already proven he can step up and perform in the big moments.
In the 200 fly, Brown was just off his PB early in the season in 1:44.55, about a second off an NCAA invite.
Freshmen Hulet (47.8 100) and Munzy Kabbara (1:46.9 200) will also provide a bit of depth in fly, but as it currently stands for the Aggies, getting solid medley relay legs and an individual entry at NCAAs would be a success on butterfly. Last season they had no fly entries at nationals.
There’s reason for optimism in the IM group between the returning Bratanov, the transfer Ferš Eržen, and the freshman Kabbara.
Bratanov hit a 1:44-low 200 IM early last season, and then matched it at both SECs (seventh) and NCAAs (23rd).
Ferš Eržen is in the same vicinity in the 200 at 1:44.8, but is even better in the 400, where he should secure an NCAA invite if he’s able to drop any time from his 3:45.76 PB.
Then there’s Kabbara, who represented Lebanon in the 200 IM at this summer’s Olympic Games and enters his first year with SCY bests of 1:46.5 and 3:47.6.
In addition to those three, the team also has 1:45 IMers Vincent Ribeiro and Puente Bustamante back in the fold.
With that group, significant SEC points and NCAA invites (likely) won’t be an issue, but NCAA points will still be hard to come by.
One bright spot for the Aggies this season is the return of fifth-year diver Kurtis Mathews, the 2020 SEC Men’s Diver of the Meet that repeated his conference title last season on 3-meter. The Australian native also followed up his 2020 SEC title on 1-meter with a second-place finish in 2021, scoring a combined 60 conference championship points, but ultimately did not compete at NCAAs last season.
Given Mathews’ ability, he should be a top-eight NCAA scorer this season in both the 1-meter and 3-meter events. He scored three points at the 2019 NCAAs as a sophomore but appears to have made some serious strides since then.
Rising sophomore Kyle Sanchez has something to build on after placing 16th on 3-meter and 18th on 1-meter at the 2021 SECs.
As has already been alluded to numerous times, Casas was the foundation upon which all of Texas A&M’s relays were built last season, save the 400 free, which in turn was their weakest of the five.
Now, with him no longer in the mix, the relay teams are really going to need to come together as a unit and be greater than the sum of their parts if they’re going to score NCAA points. Bratanov will carry a big load, and on the medleys, one of the backstrokers needs to emerge.
The writing was on the wall when word broke that Casas was transferring out (and now appears to be turning pro): Texas A&M is only in this #10 slot because of him, and without him, they’ll fall well down the rankings.
It’s just the reality when arguably the best swimmer in the NCAA drags the team to 10th place in the country and then abruptly leaves. As was mentioned off the top, he had a hand in 146 of the team’s 151 NCAA points. 60 individual points disappear, and the relays will be greatly diminished, especially when you factor in the departures of Theall and Olson as well.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Aggies, though. They’ve got some names with potential to be individual NCAA scorers, such as Bratanov, Ferš Eržen, Puente Bustamante and Sanchez, and Mathews should recover at least a portion of the lost NCAA points after he didn’t compete last season.
But by and large, this will be more of a rebuilding season for Texas A&M, with some promising incoming freshmen such as Hulet, Dickey and Kabbara looking to further develop with an eye on making more of an impact down the line.
More than a rebuilding season, this is a ‘bridge’ season for the Aggies. They have the #1 recruit in the class of 2022 Baylor Nelson committed for next fall. He was #2 in the rankings at the time of his commitment, but is now #1, making him likely the first #1 recruit to ever commit to the Aggies. Bounded by a good class that includes some immediate-impact internationals means that A&M is reloading in a hurry.
If they can push through this season and the loss of Casas, the Aggies’ trajectory need not be impacted on a macro level.
But expectations need to be tempered this season, because the Casas hole is one that simply cannot be filled.