Key Additions: Joe Bonk (NC State transfer – sprint free), Justin Ress (NC – IM/Free/back), James Bretscher (TN – fly/back), Jon Burkett (NJ – fly/back), Patrik Schwarzenbach (Switzerland – breast), Daniel Graber (CO – breast), Jabari Baptiste (Trinidad & Tobago – sprint free/back/fly), Trey Poff (NC – free)
Key Losses: David Williams (6 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), John Newell (1 NCAA relay), Stephen Coetzer (NCAA qualifier)
Though 2015 saw NC State’s best team finish at NCAAs in nearly four decades, the Wolfpack was still arguably the nation’s biggest heartbreak team.
A brutish sprint corps left NC State among the favorites for NCAA titles in both the 200 and 400 free relays. But on opening day, the 200 free relay hit some turbulent water.
NC State barreled away with the top seed out of prelims, only to have their relay disqualified on a false start. That marked the second year in a row the team had DQ’d a title-contending 200 free relay in prelims at NCAAs.
But after an appeal, the Wolfpack was reinstated, being inserted back into lane 4 for the finals session. That night, the team jumped out to a lead at the halfway point and surged home with the national title…
…only to find out the team had been DQ’d again.
That was a loss of 40 points, putting the team in a huge hole in the very first event. You could almost feel the team’s deflation all the way up in the media section.
To their credit, NC State fought back hard over the next 20 events, salvaging an 8th-place finish, the team’s highest slot in 39 years.
Sophomore Simonas Bilis pulled off top-10 finishes in all three of his races, showing amazing range with a runner-up spot in the 100, a share of 3rd place in the 50 and 10th overall in the 200.
Freshman Anton Ipsen scored in both distance races, including 5th place in the mile, and the Pack got big production out of several more rookies – backstroker Hennessy Stuart and sprinter Ryan Held.
That came after the team won its 25th overall ACC title, and its first since 1992, and the whole season was a rewriting of the NC State record books.
Still, the fact that those lost 40 points from the relay DQ would have bumped NC State from 8th up to just outside of the top 5 has to leave a bitter taste in the team’s mouths. But it also offers hope that 2016 could bring something even bigger.
Sprint Group Grows Even Stronger
Last year, NC State had one of the best all-around sprint groups in the nation, and that crew could arguably be better in 2016, with one tough graduation but one big incoming transfer.
David Williams graduates and moves out of the college ranks for NC State, and he’ll certainly leave a void. Williams swam on 4 relays at NCAAs last year, serving as the team’s anchor on three of them. The false start on the 200 free relay notwithstanding (Williams reaction time was a heartbreaking -0.01), Williams split a wicked 18.2, and he was also 41.5 on the 2nd-place 400 free relay.
But the Wolfpack sprint group was hardly dependent on one swimmer. Bilis is still among the nation’s best, with range that should make him a threat on any of the 5 relays. One of just four men to break 19 last year in the 50, Bilis is the third returning swimmer in the NCAA. He’s also the second-best returnee in the 100, and should provide game-breaking relay splits for the ‘Pack in 2016.
Behind him is the freshman Held, who would’ve been in the hunt for Rookie of the Year in sprints were it not for NCAA champ Caeleb Dressel of Florida. Held dropped times of 19.27 and 42.44 in the 50 and 100 frees, cutting nearly a full second off his 100 time over the course of the year. If he can continue that type of improvement curve as a sophomore, Held could be adding to his multiple All-America honors.
Joining the crew in 2015-2016 is former Virginia Tech standout Joe Bonk, who transfers in with two years of eligibility left. Bonk comes out of the same YMCA of the Triangle club that produced current NC State sophomore Colin Ellington, and should be a key sprinter for the team this coming year. Bonk has been 19.79 in the 50 and 43.38 in the 100 – he’ll have to improve that to fill the gap left by Williams, but there can’t be a much better environment for a sprinter right now than right in the middle of the ‘Pack.
The relay races will still be the core of this team moving forward, and that’s a smart bet in the NCAA, where relays count for double the points of individual races. In fact, last season exactly 100 of NC State’s 199.5 points came in just four relay events, and that number would have been 140 if the 200 free relay hadn’t been DQ’d.
The Wolfpack returns 3 of 4 legs on all five relays, and should have somewhat built-in replacements for all of the graduating pieces.
Last year, the team had all of its free relays touch the wall inside the NCAA’s top 2 teams – the would-be national champion 200 free relay, the 2nd-place 400 free relay and the 2nd-place 800 free relay.
Starting at the lowest distance, only Williams graduates off that 200 free relay, and the next man up might be the incoming transfer Bonk, unless a freshman explodes early on (more on the freshman class in the next section). Pretty solid on the relay are Bilis, Held and Andreas Schiellerup, who is the team’s top sprint backstroker, but also a 19-low relay split on freestyle.
The 400 free relay also features Held and Bilis, with rising junior Soeren Dahl returning. All three of those guys can split 41’s with relay starts, and Bilis can likely do it on a leadoff. Williams once again graduates, and Bonk might again be in line to replace him. His best is two tenths faster than Schiellerup in the 100, so expect a battle for that final spot.
It’s the same crew in line for the 800 free relay, with Held, Bilis and Dahl returning and Williams departing. Ironically enough (and hopefully not in the Alanis Morissette way), this distance is probably the least strong for Williams, but it’s the one where his absence will be most felt. A 1:34.18 in the individual 200 free (fourth-best on the team), Williams dropped a huge 1:32.51 split, the fourth-fastest in the entire NCAA.
Combined with that vacated clutch relay split, NC State’s depth takes a big dive after the top 4 in the 200 free. Last year, the next-best 200 swimmers were freshmen Noah Franz (1:38.06) and Colin Ellington (1:38.44). Head coach Braden Holloway will have to hope for some big development out of one or both of them, otherwise they’ll probably be competing with Bonk (1:38.87) or incoming freshman Justin Ress (1:37.64) for the final spot.
The medley’s should still be in good shape. The 8th-place 400 medley is an interesting study. The team went after the race in prelims, and took 8th, but then pulled arguably its two best legs off the relay at night, content to punt the relay, settle for 8th and rest up Dahl and Bilis for their upcoming swims.
Graduated senior John Newell was the flyer in finals, but Dahl was more than a second faster in prelims, so losing Newell shouldn’t be a death sentence. Bilis was the anchor in prelims, but the team’s wealth of sprint freestylers gives them the option to use Held or Bonk there, depending on who needs the most rest. Breaststroker Derek Hren held his own, and the backstroke leg should be Schiellerup, though is sophomore Hennessey Stuart looks good enough, he could take that slot. Schiellerup in contention for the free leg as well.
The 200 medley looks pretty similar. It’ll be Schiellerup or Stuart on back, Hren or a freshman on breast, Dahl on fly and any of the freestylers taking Williams’ anchor leg.
Breaststroke is probably the leg that has to improve most for NC State to challenge the top 8 in either race. Last year, the breaststroke slot was a battle between two young swimmers: sophomore Derek Hren and freshman Ben Cono. Cono is no longer listed on the Wolfpack roster, but incoming freshman Patrik Schwarzenbach should take his spot in pushing the incumbent Hren.
The Pack Gets Bigger
Speaking of freshmen, NC State has no shortage of them. The team’s roster lists a whopping 12 freshman, plus the newcomer Bonk as the Wolfpack takes on a whole litter of new pups (Is that an awkward metaphor to use? Probably).
At the risk of leaving out swimmers who will blossom under Holloway’s tutelage, we’ll just run through a few of the fastest incoming names.
The aforementioned Justin Ress is probably the team’s top incoming recruit. Ress has outstanding freestyle range, from 20.35 in the 50 and 44.23 in the 100, through the middle distances with times of 1:37.64 in the 200 and 4:26.18 in the 500, all the way up to a solid 15:34.31 in the mile, though that’s not an event he’ll likely be swimming.
Ress could also turn out to be the team’s IMer of the future, with a 1:47.56 in the 200 IM and 3:50.57 in the 400 IM. He’ll be right on the brink of spots on several relays, and could be following the Ryan Held blueprint towards multiple freshman-year All-America awards via relay legs.
Patrik Schwarzenbach has the talent to instantly upgrade the team’s breaststroke events, if he can transfer his long course speed to the short course yards setting. The former Swiss national champ was a World University Games competitor this summer, and holds top times of 1:02.95 and 2:13.22 in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes (in Long Course Meters).
NC State really loaded up on butterflyers in this class, perhaps seeing the impending graduation of All-American Christian McCurdy. They pulled in a pair of butterflyer/backstroker types from out of state: Tennessee’s James Bretscher has been 47.5/1:47.1 in the flys and 48.3/1:47.5 in the backs. Meanwhile Jersey Wahoo Jon Burkett holds top times of 48.5/1:47.3 in the fly races and also a 49-second 100 back.
Over a little more distance, SwimMAC’s Trey Poff has an ACC scoring time in the 500 free (4:25.71) and could also put himself in the hunt for that wide-open 800 free relay spot with some improvement to his 1:38.76 200 free time.
Other Key Swimmers
It’s hard to go this long without talking about Christian McCurdy, who is the team’s best flyer and IMer. He pulled out a 4th-place finish nationally in the 200 fly last year, the fastest mortal behind sub-1:40 machines Joseph Schooling, Jack Conger and Dylan Bosch- each of whom is secretly an android programmed solely to rule the world of butterfly. McCurdy has cut almost 3 seconds in the event since his freshman year, and with a big senior explosion, could push towards that hallowed 1:40-barrier. He also just missed scoring in both IMs at NCAAs with twin 26th-place finishes.
- Danish sophomore Anton Ipsen is the team’s best distance man, and the reigning ACC champ in the 500 and 1650 frees. Ipsen was 10th and 5th, respectively, in those events at NCAAs, with All-America or better potential in both in his second year with the Wolfpack.
- We briefly mentioned Hennessey Stuart above. He had a breakout freshman year topped off by a 7th-place showing in the 200 back at NCAAs. Stuart could be looking to add NCAA points in the 100 back and 200 IM as a sophomore – he finished in the 20s in both events last year.
NC State is both a team on the rise, and a team that left significant points in the pool at last year’s NCAAs. That makes them doubly dangerous in 2016.
It’s no longer just a one-off joke to say NC State needs to spend significant time working on its relay exchanges. Two years in a row now, the team has lost 30+ points to an ill-timed false start. Coaching relay starts is an interesting thing. Some coaches preach safe starts. Some pinpoint a certain target range for reaction times – often between 0.10 and 0.20. Some believe the risk is worth the reward, and coach their swimmers to push exchanges in order to not leave valuable time on the starting blocks.
It’s hard to say for certain which category NC State falls into, and whether the past two years have been bad breaks, mere lapses in focus, or the risk in that risk/reward relationship finally rearing its head. What is clear is that NC State really can’t afford a three-peat of relay DQs, especially if their reloaded free relays can again contend for the team’s first NCAA title since Cullen Jones in 2006.
That big focus aside, the Wolfpack looks very strong heading into the new season, and the 13 new additions should bring a lot of optimism to the defending ACC champs.
The past few years, the storyline for NC State has been outstanding early season swims followed by lights-out dual meet performances followed by the inevitable cries of “They tapered!” from the peanut gallery. But as the team continues to drop time and perform well at ACCs and NCAAs, the time-honored swimming tradition of speculating about who’s resting for dual meets has given way to a new train of thought on NC State’s program.
Maybe NC State isn’t always swimming rested. Maybe they’re just good.