College Swimming Previews: Peaking At The Right Time Is Key For #5 Tennessee

We’ll be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s programs for the 2019-2020 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.

#5 Tennesee Volunteers

Key Losses: Madeline Banic (4 NCAA relays)

Key Additions: Kaitlin Harty (Texas transfer – back/free), Isabella Gable (OH – free/back), Whittney Hamilton (VA – back), Kara Holt (FLA – diving), Lyndsey Huizenga (FLA – free/IM), Elle Renner (NV – diving), Abby Samansky (CAL – free), Natalie Ungaretti (IL – free/IM), Emily Ann Wolfson (GA – diving)

GRADING CRITERIA

We’re unveiling a new, more data-based grading criteria in this year’s series. Our grades this year are based on ‘projected returning points’, a stat of our own making. We started with our already-compiled “no senior returning points” (see here and here), which is effectively a rescoring of 2019 NCAAs with seniors removed and underclassmen moved up to fill those gaps. In addition, we manually filtered out points from known redshirts and swimmers turning pro early, while manually adjusting points for outgoing and incoming transfers and adding in projected points for incoming freshmen with NCAA scoring times, as well as athletes returning from injury or redshirts who are very likely NCAA scorers.

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. Bear in mind that our grades and painstaking scoring formula attempts to take into account all factors, but is still unable to perfectly predict the future. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.

2018-2019 Lookback

After a disastrous 22nd place finish at NCAAs in 2017, the Tennessee women reaffirmed their status as a top program with a second consecutive top-10 finish in 2019. The Volunteers took eighth with 185 points but were just 5.5 back of fifth in a very close battle with Texas (190.5), Virginia (188) and NC State (187.5)

Our projection for this team one year ago was that they were a high-ceiling, high-variance team with a lot of talent.

That proved to be true.

While we picked them eighth coming into the season and that’s where they ended up, the potential for them to place significantly higher was there.

Using the Finis Swimulator, if we go off of best times done in the 2018-19 campaign and score them out as if they were all done at NCAAs, Tennessee scores 250.5 – 35.4% higher than they actually did – and finish fourth.

The cause?

Nearly all of the season-best times from their top athletes were not done at the National Championships. Including relays, out of 14 swims that scored in the Swimulator, 11 came from outside of NCAAs. If we stretch it to swims ranked inside the country’s top-25 for the year, it’s 17 out of 20.

Swimmer Swimulator Points Actual NCAA Points Difference
Erika Brown 49 46 -3
Meghan Small 34.5 21 -13.5
Nikol Popov 18 3 -15
Tess Cieplucha 11 13 +2
Sinclair Larson 0 2 +2
Relays 138 100 -38
Total 250.5 185 -65.5

And despite the fact the team peaked for SECs, they still only finished fourth there. They had some very strong performances from their swimmers throughout the year, but peaking a few weeks later will push them to the next level.

They return all five of their swimmers who scored individually at NCAAs: Erika BrownMeghan SmallTess CiepluchaNikol Popov, and Sinclair Larson.

SPRINT FREE: ★★★

The Vols are losing their second-fastest 50 freestyler and sprint relay mainstay Madeline Banic, but maintain a solid group led by senior Erika Brown.

Brown was the runner-up at NCAAs last season in the 50 free behind Cal’s Abbey Weitzeil (also a senior this year) and had a breakout long course swim in August where she finally cracked 25 seconds (24.71).

Her personal best of 21.15 from SECs stands as the #3 swim of all-time, so another showdown with Weitzeil is imminent in March.

Behind Brown, the team has Stanzi Moseley and Bailey Grinter, who both proved they could produce 21-second relay legs at NCAAs. Grinter’s individual best of 22.08 from last year (done at the Tennessee Invite) also puts her in contention to score at NCAAs (22.09 was 16th fastest in the 2019 prelims).

Junior Megan Sichtermann went 22.47 at SECs and provides some depth.

The 100 free is a similar story, with Brown in title contention after going 46.41 last season, just off of Weitzeil’s 46.35 (both done at their respective Conference Championships).

The relay has Moseley and IMer Meghan Small returning alongside Brown, and Grinter (49.2 individually) will likely be the one to fill in for Banic.

Small’s SEC time of 1:43.31 in the 200 free would’ve slid her into the A-final at NCAAs. And if the event didn’t coincide with the 100 fly, Brown could potentially win the national title this season after her monster 1:40.6 relay leg.

They also have some incoming freshmen who could make an impact. Natalie Ungaretti has been 22.9 in the 50 and 50.3 in the 100, Abby Samansky has times of 23.4/49.7/1:47.6, and Isabella Gable is also right there with 23.8/50.7/1:47.6. They’ll have room to grow this year before significant losses could force them into prime relay roles by 2020-2021.

DISTANCE FREE: ★★

Last season as a sophomore, Amanda Nunan placed 17th at NCAAs in the 1650, narrowly missing scoring individually by less than a second. Her 16:02.34 from SECs would’ve put up a few points, and both her and rising sophomore Sinclair Larson are right on the cusp of getting into the top-16 in the 500.

Other than those two, the team is thin on the distance side.

BACK: ★★★

Small topped the B-final at NCAAs last year in the 200, and should be able to break into the top-eight this season based on her 1:51.13. Larson had an impressive fifth-place finish at SECs in 1:52.44, a time that projects her to score at NCs this year.

Brown’s event lineup is full, but another event she could seriously compete in is the 100 back, as she dropped a 50.88 leading off the 400 medley relay at SECs. That was the relay she would ultimately sit out of at NCAAs, but that was when they had the benefit of Banic on fly. The other backstroke option is Small, who was 52.16.

Grinter and redshirt senior Carrie Johnson were SEC B-finalists last year, but the team had no entrants at NCAAs.

In terms of newcomers, Whittney Hamilton has been 25.5 and 55.2 in the 50 and 100 respectively. The high-upside option is Kaitlin Harty, who transfers in after two seasons at Texas. Harty was an elite recruit with high school times of 51.6 and 1:50.6. But she went just 53.8/1:54.2 in her freshman  year and has gone backwards every year since. Her summer with Tennessee was decent in the 100 back (1:01.9 compared to a lifetime-best 1:01.1), but not great in the 200 (2:14.5; career-best is 2:10.2). It’s probably not safe to expect a ton from Harty, but her 100 back time from last summer does convert roughly to 52.6, and she could be a nice addition, even if she’s only a factor in the shorter backstrokes.

BREAST: ★★

Junior Nikol Popov is the centrepiece of Tennessee’s breaststroke group. The 20-year-old swam to a runner-up finish at SECs in 2019 in the 100, clocking a time of 58.24, and was fifth in the 200 at 2:07.87.

Consistent with the rest of the team, her performances fell off a few weeks later, but if the timing is right this year she’ll be right in the mix in the NCAA A-final (in the 100). With Lilly King graduated, things are wide open, and the runner-up time last season was only four-tenths quicker than Popov was at Conference.

She will continue to be a key member of the medley relays obviously (after helping them win the title last season in the 200) and has the ability to reach the top-eight in the 200.

In the supporting cast, they’ve got sophomore Alex Gebel and junior Tjasa Pintar who hit 1:00s last year, and both Tess Cieplucha (seventh) and Alexis Yager (10th) had strong swims at SECs in the 200. Cieplucha has the ability to score at NCAAs after going 2:08.8 at SECs.

FLY: ★★★

Brown is the team’s ace in the hole on fly obviously as one of only four women in history to go under 50 seconds. Given her standout 49.85 at SECs, placing fourth at NCAAs (50.38) was no doubt a disappointment. Louise Hansson and Maggie MacNeil will both be back this year, setting up another epic race.

As previously mentioned, Banic was their other fly option on the medley relays, which complicates things this year. Small, Moseley, and sophomores Trude Rothrock and Mallory Beil were all in the 52s last season so if one of them sees a drop it will help.

Similar to the 100 back, the Vols had no individual NCAA swims in the 200 fly last year. Small, who was 1:55.08 at the Tennessee Invite, could’ve scored, but is likely to put up more in the 200 back. Beil (1:57.82) was their only swimmer inside the top-24 at SECs.

IM: ★★★★

Small had a dynamite swim in the 200 IM at SECs, out-touching Sydney Pickrem in a thrilling race to win in 1:51.62, but couldn’t back it up at NCAAs, placing seventh. Beata Nelson will be tough to beat, but Small should be considered the favorite for second with the graduations of Ella Eastin and Pickrem.

Cieplucha also got up in the B-final to put some points on the board, and both she and Larson did in the 400. With half of last year’s A-final gone, both have a chance to reach the top-eight in 2020.

Yager is another strong medley swimmer with swims of 1:56.8 and 4:08.3 last season, placing 17th and 11th at SECs respectively.

DIVING: ★

Tennessee had no NCAA divers last season, and no points contributed at SECs. Ana Celaya-Hernandez was 20th, 21st and 22nd at the conference level over the three dives last season and will lead the three incoming freshmen.

RELAYS

Tennessee’s relays were very strong last season. Three victories and a runner-up finish at SECs was followed up with a National title in the 200 medley and two more A-final appearances at NCAAs in the 200 and 400 free.

The only change from 2018-19 will be the absence of Banic, who was an integral piece. She swam on four relays at both SECs and NCAAs, including all four that won titles. Her replacements will have to come by committee.

Sichtermann will most likely be the fourth on the 200 free relay, and then Grinter will join the 400 free alongside Brown, Small and Moseley. If both of them can take a small step forward this season, the team should remain in the country’s top-eight.

The 800 free relay last season really magnified the discrepancy between their performances at SECs and NCAAs. After going 6:55.15 at the Conference Championships, a time that would’ve placed fifth at Nationals, they flopped to a 7:01.91 and out of the points at the end of the season.

They return all four of what will be an all-senior relay this year and have the potential to do some damage if they’re on top form.

On the medley relays there are plenty of options. After sweeping both at SECs and then winning the shorter distance at NCAAs, they’ll have to move some pieces around without Banic. A potentially easy fix is to just slide in Moseley on fly, and keep the Small/Popov/Brown lineup they used successfully last season.

Using Brown on back and Grinter on free also worked at SECs in the 400. There’s also the potential that Grinter continues to drop time and they move Brown over to fly. Harty could be a potential solution if she returns to form in the sprint backstrokes.

Figuring out which relay Brown sits out is the biggest conundrum right now. At SECs it was the 400 free relay, and NCAAs it was the 400 medley.

Whatever route they opt to go, they’re going to remain strong across the board. Whether or not they can re-create some of last year’s success depends on Grinter, Moseley, and their utilization of Brown.

2019-2020 Outlook

We now know that if the Tennessee Volunteer women had performed optimally at the end of last year, everyone swimming season-best times at NCAAs, they could’ve finished fourth. The main difference between last year’s team and this lineup is the loss of Banic, but she wasn’t in line to score individually anyway and her relay performances can be made up for.

Another thing working against this team is a weak recruiting year relative to the top contenders. They don’t have anyone who is going to come in and make an immediate impact.

But we have learned that freshmen don’t make a huge impact points-wise at NCAAs anyway, and so if Brown, Small, Cieplucha and Moseley all go out with a bang in their senior year, and their sophomores and juniors continue to make improvements, there’s no reason this team can’t finish in the top-five.

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Wondering

At least they swam the right strokes on their relays last year. So that’s progress

Nswim

Ideally, Tennessee would be in great form if Harty returns to great form, they could move Small into the 200 fly and then use her as the backstroke leg on the relay

Heyitsme

I think they’ll be 4th

volmenusa

We be third this is the year we win SECs and a top 3…next year will be major rebuild like out of top ten!

Greg

I think 5th is a best case scenario but also a likely one, that or 6th. I just don’t see them beating Stanford, Cal, UVA, or NC State this year.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James formerly competed for the Laurentian Voyageurs in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in February of 2018, placing 11th at the OUA Championships in the 200 IM, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics in May. He …

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