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.
#8 Tennessee Volunteers
Key Losses: Katie Armitage (6 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Micah Bohon (2 NCAA points)
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.
2017-2018 LOOK BACK
The pieces all fell into place for the 2017-2018 Vols. Erika Brown had one of the finest breakout seasons we’ve ever seen in the NCAA, rising from a relative unknown to a three-event NCAA title contender. Fellow sophomores Tess Cieplucha and Meghan Small took major steps forward at the college level. USC transfer Stanzi Moseley jumped in as an immediate contributor and star sprinter Maddy Banic returned from an unexplained absence that was just this week revealed to be Banic taking time away from school and the pool to attend rehab and help improve her mental health.
That group combined to form a juggernaut that flew from 22nd in the NCAA in 2017 to 7th in 2018. Brown scored 47 points and all three freestyle relays finished inside the top 6 – but that wasn’t even the best that group could have done.
Both medley relays missed scoring points on some odd errors. The 400 medley team qualified 3rd in prelims, then took a finals DQ for a stroke infraction on freestyler Moseley. Then the next morning in the 200 medley, freestyler Brown accidentally swam butterfly on her leg. Officials didn’t see her swimming fly and thus didn’t DQ the team, but her split (22.97), while fast for a fly split, was well off a typical free split and left the team in 19th, outside of the final. Their season-best would have qualified them 2nd.
SPRINT FREE: A+
The sprint frees look stellar for the Vols in 2018-2019. Erika Brown returns as the top 50 free finisher in the nation after taking second in 21.51 last year. And her season-best 21.39 was even faster than that. In the 100, Brown was 47.08 and returns behind only Louisville’s Mallory Comerford (46.20), Cal’s Abbey Weitzeil (46.74) and Michigan’s Siobhan Haughey (46.91) this year.
And Brown isn’t the only sprint free scorer returning to Knoxville. Stanzi Moseley was 13th in the 50 and 16th in the 100 – not massive points, but certainly an outside contender for an A final spot with a handful of scorers graduating in those events. She was 22.2 in the 50 (near a lifetime-best), 47.9 in the 100 (a lifetime-best) and 1:44.63 in the 200 (near a lifetime-best) last season.
Maddy Banic didn’t score individually in freestyle, but very well could this coming year. She was 21.97 leading off the 200 free relay, but just 22.46 later in the same session individually. That 21.9 would have placed her 10th in the final. Banic was only 48.7 in the individual 100 free, but could wind up scoring there with a decent improvement and a full year of training – she only had a very limited training window last season.
The 200 may struggle more for individual scorers, with Brown (1:42) likely not swimming it individually. But Moseley has a shot to score, and on the 800 free relay, the team’s versatile young talent all contribute in big ways.
Speaking of relays, the Volunteer free relays return every single leg from last year. Brown, Banic, Moseley and Bailey Grinter all split 21s on the 200 free relay last year and any/all of the four have a shot to score individually. Brown, Moseley and Meghan Small split 47s on the 400 free relay, and Grinter was as fast as 48.2 at NCAAs. In the 800 free relay, Brown and Small were 1:42s, Moseley 1:43.1 and Tess Cieplucha 1:44.1. Suffice to say these Volunteer relays have a chance to be really, really good in the coming year.
DISTANCE FREE: D+
With the main focus on sprint free, Tennessee’s distance group isn’t likely to chip in a lot of NCAA points. The team had no milers and only one 500 free entrant at NCAAs last year, and that 500 freestyler was the more IM-focused Cieplucha.
The team’s top pure distance swimmer was freshman Amanda Nunan, who took 10th at SECs with a 16:19 in the mile. Nunan would ultimately improve to 16:16 at Tennessee’s last chance meet, but would need a huge sophomore year to reach NCAA scoring time (16:03 last year) in that event.
Mid-season, Cieplucha was 4:40.43 in the 500, which wouldn’t have been far out of NCAA scoring range. But carrying a pretty busy event lineup at NCAAs, Cieplucha was way off in the 500 (4:48, 63rd place) and missed scoring by a lot. Nunan has been 4:45, but didn’t improve much in the 500 as a freshman compared to her 11-second mile drop.
Best-case scenario, Cieplucha can grind out a 500 free point or two and Nunan follows in the footsteps of Brown, Cieplucha and Small with a huge sophomore campaign. In that case, this group probably scores like a C+ grade. More likely is that the distance freestyles are a weak spot for Tennessee, with enough SEC points to stay afloat, but not much NCAA production to speak of.
Once ranked as the top prospect in the high school class of 2016, Meghan Small has had two productive NCAA seasons but probably still hasn’t hit her scoring ceiling nationally. She’s the school record-holder in both IMs and a potential NCAA A finalist in both. Small was 5th in the 200 last year, going 1:53.18. Ahead of her, Cal’s Kathleen Baker has turned pro and Texas A&M’s Bethany Galat graduated, leaving her as one of the best IMer nationwide. In the 400 IM, Small was 9th as a freshman but struggled to a 23rd place finish last season. Her season-best (4:06.91) was a ways off her 2017 time (4:04.93), but still would have scored NCAA points. Small is maybe trending more towards shorter yardage, but still has a solid chance to be a two-event IM scorer in 2019.
Tess Cieplucha was 15th in the 400 IM last year, and that was without even swimming her best at NCAAs. Her season-best of 4:05.43 would have moved her up about three spots. If you’re catching a theme, then you’ve been paying attention: Tennessee has struggled a bit over the past few years to put together its best times at NCAAs. Last year was a step in the right direction, with more season-bests at the national meet and the relays in particular really showing up to swim in the spotlight. But Tennessee needs to keep the momentum moving forward this year, putting together its best swimming at the NCAA Championships – if they prove they can do it (not an easy feat), they will probably outperform this #8 rank significantly.
The versatile Cieplucha swam the 200 breast and 500 free at SECs and NCAAs, so is not a likely 200 IM entrant this year.
Two of the team’s top freshmen are primarily IMers, but don’t come in with times that pop quite yet. Danika Katzer (1:59/4:16 in the IMs) and Hannah Foster (1:59/4:17 IMs) are good developmental prospects but probably shouldn’t be expected to make NCAA contributions in their rookie seasons.
Erika Brown entered NCAAs with the fastest 100 fly time in the nation last year (49.85), though she ultimately lost to USC’s Louise Hansson, 49.80 to 50.34. It’s hard to fault a swimmer for a 50.3 butterfly swim, but Brown is another swimmer who could raise Tennessee’s ceiling by hitting best times at NCAAs next season.
Maddy Banic also scored at NCAAs in the 100 (51.81 for 13th) without a full season of training, and gives UT a lot of relay flexibility as a senior. Both she and Brown are standout flyers and freestlyers, so the team can flip-flop the two over the final two legs of the 200 medley relay and potentially use Banic instead of Brown on one of the medleys if it allows Brown to swim the other four relays.
The 200 fly is less loaded, but still has a good chance at NCAA points. Small took 16th last year in the 200 fly, and her season-best (1:53.97 from SECs) would have upgraded by six places and six points.
The incoming class has some talent to work with here as well. Trude Rothrock out of Indiana is 52.9 in the 100, and Kentucky’s Mallory Beil has been 53.3 and 1:58.0. Neither is in line to score at NCAAs quite yet, but should have good opportunities to eventually take over for Brown (a junior) and Banic (a senior) as the veterans move towards graduation.
Backstroke is a clear weakness, but a perhaps-mitigated one for the Vols in 2018-2019. Their only NCAA entrant was Micah Bohon, who scored 2 NCAA points but graduated. Behind her, there aren’t a lot of pure backstrokers with NCAA scoring potential.
But the weakness shouldn’t spread to the medley relays. Small is versatile enough to hold down both medley relay leadoff legs and keep the team right in line with the field. Small was 51.46 leading off the relay in prelims last year, and actually went a tick faster (51.43) in finals, though that time was wiped out by the relay DQ. That’s not going to stake the team to a lead, but pretty much keeps pace with most of last year’s A final. In the 200 medley, Small was 24.35, which is towards the bottom end of the A final splits, but not really outside the range of good NCAA medley relays.
Individual NCAA scorers, on the other hand, are probably few and far between for this roster. Small was 1:56 in-season in the 200 back, but is probably a better entrant in the 200 fly for NCAAs. Cieplucha is decent (1:58 in-season) but probably a better fit for the 200 breast. The best incoming prospect is SwimMAC’s Sinclair Larson, who trends more towards the 200. She’s 1:53.51 in the 200 and 53.53 in the 100 and is coming off of big time drops in her senior season. It wouldn’t be out of the question for her to cut to NCAA scoring range (52.0/1:52.1) but would take a massive freshman season.
Breaststroke is maybe the costliest weakness on the roster. Katie Armitage scored individually and held down both medley relay legs last year, but graduates with no firm in-house replacement. Tjasa Pintar qualified for NCAAs through a last-chance meet as a freshman, going 1:00.00. She was ultimately a little slower at NCAAs, but doesn’t need a massive drop to reach NCAA scoring level there. The bigger question is whether she can replace the sprinty Armitage’s 58.8/27.3 splits on the medley relays.
In the 200, Cieplucha wen 2:08.66 at SECs last year, but once again regressed to 2:10 and missed scoring at NCAAs. Again the scoring window is there, but again Tennessee has to prove it can show up at its best at the national championships before we can confidently project this group as scorers.
While we don’t dedicate a section entirely to diving, it’s worth noting that Tennessee had one-even scorer Rachel Rubadue put up 7 points as a junior and brings in Georgia state champ Rachel Renner.
There was a lot of internal discussion within our staff regarding Tennessee’s #8 ranking – and for good reason. It’s hard not to get excited by the ceiling of this team. Scoring last year’s NCAA meet just based on season-bests (using our Swimulator program), Tennessee finishes 6th at NCAAs, and just a half-point back of Louisville in 5th. Without two very strange relay flubs alone, Tennessee scores about 56 more points than it actually did last year. They also graduated very few point and impact scorers from last year.
On the other hand, there are plenty of teams that look great on paper, but it’s hard to project a team to swim to their ceiling when they previously haven’t done so at NCAAs. Outside of projecting the future (which is usually a difficult task), the biggest pluses for Tennessee are an absolutely loaded sprint group (complete with dominant relays), great IMers and flyers and all the momentum in the world. On the flip side, the issues are the very painful graduations of the team’s best backstroker and breaststroker along with a freshman class that looks like great developmental talent without any surefire instant-impact additions.
All that combined makes this #8 ranking one of the higher-variance rankings of our top 10. Check back later this fall, because this is one high-talent team that could see some serious fluctuations in our running Power Rankings.