Key Additions: Megan Moroney (FL – free/fly), Vivian Tafuto (PA – breast/IM), Eryn Eddy (CO – mid-distance/distance free), Julia Durmer (GA – distance free), Peyton Baldwin (NY – fly/back), Kasey Schmidt (FL – free), Sara Stranick (NC – breast/IM), Rachel Politi (OH – fly/free), Kylie Towbin (CT – diving), Kirsten Parkinson (CT – diving)
Key Losses: Ellen Williamson (2 NCAA points, 3 NCAA relays), Shaun Casey (NCAA qualifier), Alison Haulsee (NCAA qualifier)
The 2015 NCAA Championships saw the Virginia Cavaliers really hit their stride, thundering to a program-high 5th-place finish behind a pack of workhorses having career seasons.
Leah Smith rose to the top of the NCAA’s distance pack, winning dual national titles in the 500 and 1650 free. Those were particularly impressive given that Smith wasn’t even the favorite heading into the meet. Cal’s Cierra Runge broke the NCAA 500 free record at her conference meet, which allowed Smith to fly under the radar right up until the moment she smashed the record herself in prelims of the 500 on day 1.
Smith would go on to top Runge by a whopping 12 seconds in the 1650 for her second NCAA title as a sophomore.
The Cavs stable of stars would boast two more NCAA runners-up over the course of the meet. Courtney Bartholomew nearly broke Natalie Coughlin’s American record in the 100 back at a mid-season rest meet, and was ultimately denied dual NCAA titles by a pair of American Olympians: Rachel Bootsma in the 100 back and Missy Franklin in the 200 back.
Then, too, German breaststroker Laura Simon was the silver medalist in the 200 breast behind Minnesota’s Kierra Smith. Simon was 4th overall in the 100 breast, and she and Bartholomew combined to give both the medley relays major head-starts to secure top-4 finishes.
The Cavaliers roped in scoring spots in all 5 relays, with both medleys and the 800 free relay finishing top 10.
In its second year under coach Augie Busch, the team extended its ACC Championships streak to 8 years, and wound up 5th overall in the NCAA, a mere two points behind Texas A&M.
Stars Align for Leah Smith
As great as Leah Smith‘s 2015 season was, several major breaks have already gone her way for 2016 that could make the coming year even better than its predecessor.
Most of Smith’s top competitors in the distance freestyle races have graduated out of the NCAA – Sarah Henry, Amber McDermott – and her top underclassmen threats will also be conspicuously absent in 2016.
That starts with Runge, who first announced she’d redshirt her sophomore season, then that she’d be transferring to Wisconsin when she did return to the NCAA.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s American record-holder Katie Ledecky‘s decision to defer her enrollment at Stanford until after the 2016 Olympics. Ledecky would have instantly become the major favorite to win all three of Smith’s events at NCAAs, but her delaying of an NCAA career leaves Smith solidly in that role.
Not that Smith needs a lot of help to be productive. She’s already the fastest 500 yard freestyler in history not named Ledecky, and was among the NCAA’s top individual scorers last year with 52 points.
She’ll be joined in Virginia’s distance group by top recruit Megan Moroney out of Florida. Moroney comes in with times in the 200 and 500 that would have made her an ACC A finalist last year, and a solid freshman season could see her scoring NCAA points right out of the gate.
Moroney’s best event is probably her 1:45.86 200 free – that would already be an upgrade on Virginia’s 800 free relay, which was 9th last year and returns all four legs. A Moroney/Smith combination on the relay gives the team clutch legs for both the leadoff and the anchor and could be a big jump in points – the Cavs were just eight tenths of a second out of 7th last year, a gain of 6 points from where they finished.
Moroney probably centers more around the mid-distance events, but her recruiting class fills in around her nicely in the mile. Julia Durmer and Eryn Eddy are both 16:27s in the 1650, fast enough to make last year’s top 8 at ACCs. Durmer is a bit more of a one-trick pony at this point, but has some developmental upside in the IMs as well as the 200 and 500 frees. Eddy is a great 500 freestyler and a 1:46 in the 200 free, which should put her in contention for an 800 free relay spot as well.
Bartholomew’s Time To Shine
Another swimmer who already appears primed for a breakout year is Bartholomew, who is the top returning 200 backstroker in the NCAA after Franklin elected to turn professional after her sophomore season at Cal.
And in the 100, 3rd-place Melanie Klaren graduates from Cal, leaving Bartholomew’s biggest returning competition to be Bootsma, who has been somewhat inconsistent in her three seasons in the NCAA.
A further boost to Bartholomew: Indiana’s former NCAA champ Brooklynn Snodgrass will also sit out the season in preparation for the Canadian Olympic Trials, and Denver’s 3rd-place finisher in the 200 back, Sam Corea, is now graduated.
Still, the biggest test for Bartholomew this season will be coming up with her season-best swims at the NCAA Championships, something she hasn’t been able to do since her freshman season three years ago.
Bartholomew is notoriously great at her mid-season rest meets and on relay leadoffs, but for the past two years, hasn’t equaled those times at the most important moment: finals of the individual 100 back at the NCAA Championships.
Here’s a quick look at Bartholomew’s swims mid-season and post-season over her career in the 100 back. Relay leadoffs are denoted with an asterisk (*) with her best individual time in parentheses.
|NCAAs||51.63||50.95* (51.12)||50.19* (50.51)|
The difference isn’t massive in any season, but in a sport governed by hundredths of a second, a gain of any kind can be a difference-maker. Case in point: Bartholomew’s mid-season time last year would have earned her an NCAA title over Bootsma in the 100 back.
Bartholomew is probably the best all-around backstroker returning in the NCAA this season, and her Cavalier teammates and coaches will be pulling for her to regain her freshman form and claim the NCAA title that’s dangled like a carrot just in front of her for her entire college career.
The stars continue to align for Virginia in the breaststrokes, where Simon is the top returning swimmer in the 200 after yet another Olympic redshirt.
Minnesota’s Kierra Smith will take the year off of college competition to prepare for Canada’s Olympic Trials, bumping Simon into the nation’s top returning spot.
Simon, a junior, will also be the 2nd returning finisher in the 100 breast after graduations from Alabama’s Kaylin Burchell and Notre Dame’s Emma Reaney. Simon was just two tenths behind national champ Sarah Haase of Stanford last year.
The difference with Simon is that she’ll have a bit of a split focus herself. A German national, Simon should also have her eye on the long course pool this season in an attempt to make her home nation’s Olympic team.
Germany boasts one of the world’s toughest Olympic qualifying standards: Simon will have to place first or second at German nationals in the spring while hitting a qualifying time in both prelims and finals, then will have to hit the qualifying time once more at another meet during the summer.
That stringent selection procedure means Simon will have to be swimming her absolute best in long course in both the spring and summer to join Germany’s Olympic team. It’s hard to say how this will affect her NCAA season, but it’s certainly a possibility that her taper will look somewhat different for NCAAs with the all-important German nationals looming.
Still, Simon is the top returning 200 breaststroker by a whopping two seconds, and she could conceivably win an NCAA title even if she’s not at her peak during the meet.
She’s joined in the breaststrokes by another of Virginia’s top recruits Vivian Tafuto, who hails from Hershey, Pennsylvania. Tafuto is a 1:00.74/2:14.72 breaststroker who should be an ACC scorer coming in the door.
Sophomores Ready For Breakout
In addition to their upperclassmen stars, the Cavs have a herd of sophomores chomping at the bit for a more featured role.
Jenn Marrkand was the freshman phenom a year ago, eking out an NCAA point in the 200 back while pulling a brutal 200 back/200 fly double on the final day of NCAAs. Marrkand wasn’t far out of scoring in the second half of that combo, either, taking 24th in a lifetime-best 1:56.27.
Marrkand was also top-30 in the 100 fly, and could be a three-event scorer nationally with a good sophomore bump.
Virginia also brought in a pair of young freestylers last year who came up big in supporting roles. Both Caitlin Cooper and CeCe Williams swam legs of NCAA scoring relays last spring.
Cooper flirted with a 21-second split on the 200 free relay, going 22.02. Williams, meanwhile, swam to a 1:46.6 in the high-pressure anchor leg on the 800 free relay.
All three should be in line for bigger roles this season and are being groomed for leadership positions down the road when Bartholomew and others graduate in the spring.
Marrkand will look to replace the team’s biggest loss, graduated senior Ellen Williamson, who was the team’s butterflyer on the medley relay.
Cooper will be key to the sprint freestyles, where the team got zero NCAA points a year ago. Williams is a bit rangier and should look to fill in depth behind Smith in the 200 and 500.
Other Key Swimmers
- British junior Ellen Thomas (right) is the team’s top returning sprinter after making the ACCs A finals in the 50 and 100 free last year. Thomas swam on 4 of 5 relays at NCAAs, but will look to move into individual scoring range in her third season.
- Shannon Rauth is another important relay piece as a junior. She swam on the 200 free and 400 free relays at NCAAs last year and also scored at ACCs in the 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly. Rauth could also push Marrkand for the butterfly spots on the medley relays.
- Senior Hanne Borgesen is a returning NCAA relay scorer, a rangy ACC scorer who was second to Smith in the 1650 at the conference championships a year ago. Borgesen has impressive range, swimming best in the 1650 but coming all the way down to a 1:46 in the 200 free.
- The versatile Kaitlyn Jones was the ACC runner-up in the 200 and 400 IM last year, but struggled mightily at NCAAs, gaining two seconds in the 200 and six in the 400. When she’s on, though, Jones has A final potential in both races at NCAAs, and should help mitigate the loss of Williamson, who scored at NCAAs in the 200 IM as a senior.
If reading this preview makes you feel like the stars have aligned for Virginia this season, you wouldn’t be wrong. The field seems to really be breaking right for the Cavaliers, who could realistically boast up to 3 national champions in up to 6 events.
If there’s a rule about projecting the future in swimming, it should be this: the hardest place to project increases in NCAA points is in your truly elite swimmers.
That’s because the competition gets exponentially tougher at the top of the NCAA every season. Consider a swimmer who finishes 16th in an event. If that swimmer can better her times next year, odds are, she’ll move up and increase her point contribution to the team. There’s plenty of room in that top 15 for graduations, illnesses, poor seasons or event changes that clear out returning point-scorers.
Compare that to a 2nd-place finisher like Simon or Bartholomew. (Whoa… Suddenly Virginia’s roster sounds like it was named right out of the Gospel of Matthew). In order to better her point total in the next season, an NCAA runner-up has to catch and pass one of the NCAA’s elite swimmers – typically a top-tier talent with a wealth of international experience, like Rachel Bootsma, Missy Franklin or Kierra Smith, each of whom finished ahead of second-place Cavaliers last season.
That’s why it’s so huge that the top of the NCAA has suddenly cleared out in strategic events for the Cavaliers for reasons other than graduation. The leap from 2nd to 1st is a points gain of 3 individually, the biggest jump anywhere in the top 16.
It’s important to point out, of course, that NCAA titles are far from guaranteed, even in events Virginia swimmers return at the top of. There are elite swimmers all over the NCAA’s A finals, and incoming stud freshmen are always a major factor, especially on the women’s side. Simon and Bartholomew could each have great seasons and wind up second or lower.
But there’s no doubt the road to NCAA titles has gotten considerably easier with the Olympic redshirts to Kierra Smith and Cierra Runge, the deferral of Katie Ledecky and the turning pro of Missy Franklin.
High-level sports are all about the interplay of being good and being lucky. The 2015-2016 Virginia Cavaliers appear to be both.