College Swimming Previews: Stellar Sophomores Lead Re-Retooled #7 Florida Men

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.

#7 Florida Gators

Key Losses: Maxime Rooney (transfer – 15 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Kacper Stokowski (transfer – 9 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Bayley Main (3 NCAA relays), Erge Gezmis (transfer – NCAA qualifier)

Key Additions: Brennan Gravley (NV – distance), Eric Friese (Germany – fly/free), Kevin Vargas (CA – free/IM), Tyler Watson (FL – distance/fly/IM), Lucas Kravchenko (FL – free), Nick Fox (CO – free/back), Ethan McCloud (FL – back/IM), Alfonso Mestre (PA – free), Advait Page (India – free), Hector Rodriguez (FL – breast)

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

It was a serious reloading year for the Gators, who graduated six huge NCAA contributors and all but 16 of their individual points from 2017. Things looked pretty bleak for Florida, especially with a coaching change and some major transitions for the program.

But the Gators overperformed in year 1 under head coach Anthony NestyA great recruiting class fought the trend in the NCAA of freshman scoring only a small percentage of the points, as Gator frosh scored 41 of the team’s 80 individual points. The young roster finished 6th – a very good result for a program projected to drop well outside of the top 10 based on graduations.

Freshmen Kieran Smith (25 points), Kacper Stokowski (9), Bobby Finke (5) and Trey Freeman (2) all scored at NCAAs individually, and Will Davis made some big relay contributions. In addition, junior Maxime Rooney had a breakthrough year in butterfly and both Clark Beach and Khader Baqlah scored in the double digits.

Unfortunately, Florida will be hit with some major losses again – this time not due to graduation (zero NCAA points and only three NCAA invitees were seniors last year), but to transfers. Rooney, Stokowski and NCAA qualifier Erge Gezmis are out the door, leaving a need for more young Gators to step up.

Sprint Free: ★★★

The loss of Rooney (19.4/41.7/1:33.5) hurts in a big way here, but Florida does still have some good scoring prospects, most of them in the 200 free. Khader Baqlah (42.4/1:32.1) won the 200 free B final last year, and with seniors factored out, projects to move into the top 16 in the 100 free as well. Meanwhile Trey Freeman (1:33.8) should also have a real scoring shot.

Will Davis had a great rookie year for the Gators. Even though he didn’t score individually, he went from 19.7 to 19.2 in the 50 free and 43.9 to 43.3. Based on that improvement curve, he has a great chance to be an impact 50 freestyler as a sophomore, maybe even a multi-event scorer if his endurance comes around more.

The rest of the depth, though, isn’t great. German freshman Eric Friese should be a solid addition: he projects to probably swim the 50 free, 100 free and 100 fly, and his long course free times of 23.1 and 51.1 convert roughly to 20.1 and 44.7. In the 50, Florida returns one more swimmer under 20: senior Jack Szaranek at 19.8.

In the 100, there are a bunch of guys in the 44s: sophomore Isaac Davis (44.3), senior Viktor Toth (44.4), sophomore Jorge Depassier (44.6), Szaranek (44.7), and junior Gerry Quinn (44.8), but they all need work to make an NCAA impact, since it took 42.5 just to make an NCAA invite last year.

The Irish junior Quinn is 1:35.0 in the 200, with backstrokers Dakota Mahaffey (1:35.2) and Clark Beach (1:36.0) in tow. The latter two, though, swam the event at SECs but probably couldn’t at NCAAs due to a conflict with the 100 back.

Florida high school prospect Lucas Kravchenko is decent across the board (20.7/45.8/1:39.0), but more on the developmental side. Fellow freshman Alfonso Mestre brings in some 200 free talent (1:38.7) too.

Distance Free: ★★★

Distance looks much deeper, though, with about the same number of projected returning points.

Bobby Finke had the nation’s best mile time all of last year at 14:23.01. That was from SECs. But Finke fell to 14:42.7 at NCAAs and was just 12th. If he can balance out his speed better with a year of experience at the NCAA meet, he could be a legitimate title contender in the 1650. He was also 4:14.8 in the 500 at SECs, which would have been almost good enough to score at NCAAs.

Trey Freeman should be another big sophomore scorer, but he also has to hope a year of experience improves his NCAA showing. He was 15th in the 500 last year, but his 4:12.80 from SECs would have gotten him 7th overall. His 14:48.6 is just a few seconds off of NCAA mile scoring, too.

The freshman class brings in a couple milers who could get into scoring range early. Brennan Gravley is an open water specialist who goes 15:06 in the mile, and Indian prospect Advait Page has been 15:29 in long course, converting roughly to 15:07. Both are 4:27s in the 500 (again on a rough conversion for Page), so it’ll take some speed development to make an impact in anything but the mile. Kevin Vargas (4:25/15:20) and Tyler Watson (4:25/15:24) are both a little better at the 500 but not as strong in the mile.

Backstroke: ★★★

Florida’s 200 back should carry the weight for its 100, especially with top 100 backstroker Kacper Stokowski transferring away. Both Clark Beach (1:39.3) and Kieran Smith (1:40.8) return as NCAA scorers in the 200 back. Meanwhile junior Ethan Beach (1:42.0) isn’t far off of an NCAA invite, and dropped about a second and a half last year.

Stokowski was 44.9 and graduated senior Bayley Main 45.5 last year, so the 100 is much thinner. Beach has been 46.2 and to his credit dropped about a second in the 100 last year. He might be the top backstroker for the medley relays. Dakota Mahaffey (46.9/1:43.1) is another two-distance guy.

Maybe the best hope for a big breakthrough is sophomore Michael Taylorwho sat out all of last year with a medical redshirt. An elite backstroke prospect out of high school, Taylor was 45.5/1:40.2 out of high school and went 46.1/1:41.0 as a freshman in college. But he hasn’t competed since March of 2018 and is it’s not totally clear if he’ll be back in action this year or not.

Breaststroke: ★★

Florida returns a few potential scorers in breaststroke, which was a relatively weak event for them in the Caeleb Dressel era. Last year, junior Marco Guarente dropped from 52.8/1:55.1 to 52.1/1:54.5, and is on the cusp of invite times. Meanwhile freshman Dillon Hillis had a massive year, going from 53.2/1:59.6 to 52.3/1:55.7. Now a senior/sophomore combo, those two should be in line to grab some points this year.

IMer Grant Sanders is also a pretty good 200 breaststroker. He went 1:53.3 at SECs last year, though he gained a second at NCAAs. Swimming a lifetime-best at NCAA should net points for Sanders, though.

Butterfly: ★

Butterfly is where the transfers will hit hardest. Three of the Gators top four 100 flyers (Rooney, Stokowski, Gezmis) have transferred away along with the top two (Rooney, Gezmis) in the 200 fly. Rooney was 4th at NCAAs last year in the 100 fly and held down the fly leg of the 400 medley. His 44.9 will be very hard to replace.

Luckily, their top recruit is a flyer. Germany’s Eric Friese has been 52.4 in long course meters, converting roughly to 45.9. He’s more of a sprinter, so he doesn’t solve the 200 fly, but should be a nice addition in the shorter fly race.

Will Davis returns as a sophomore: he went 45.9 last year, and while his freestyle drops were great, his fly drops were far better. He was 47.6 out of high school and just seems to be finding his footing in butterfly. Keep an eye on him to surge here in his sophomore campaign.

The 200 fly will probably be an issue. The Gators don’t return anyone under 1:44 from last year, and even the top 200 flyers from last year (Dillon Hillis, Miguel Cancel) will probably swim other events.

IM: ★★★★

Florida should have an outstanding IM group, led by its 400 IMers. (Believe it or not, this phrase has been copy/pasted from every Florida preview of the last decade). The Gators had two freshmen last year among the top 12 overall IMers in the nation, and both return.

Kieran Smith was  7th at NCAAs, and three of the six men ahead of him graduate (though title contender Hugo Gonzalez should return after a gap year). Smith dropped from 3:43.2 to 3:40.7 as a freshman, and did hit his lifetime-best in NCAA prelims. Smith is also 1:42.2 in the 200 IM and was an A finalist there. He’ll need to be a little better in the final this year (he fell to 3:43.1 and 1:44.2 in finals as a rookie), but should be huge scorer.

Meanwhile the miler Bobby Finke was 3:40.9 to win the SEC title, but fell off badly (3:45.4) at NCAAs. Much like his mile, he needs to be better in the spotlight, but it’s not entirely unexpected for a rookie to struggle with a double-taper in their first-ever NCAA experience.

Grant Sanders will be a senior. He blasted a 3:41.7 at NCAA prelims last year and was 10th coming into the final, but a bad B final swim slid him to 16th. He went backwards a tick in his 200 IM (1:44.0 in 2018, 1:44.2 in 2019) and needs a big drop to score there, but should give Florida three likely scorers in the 400.

A couple freshmen could also develop in this deep training group. The distance man Kevin Vargas is 3:47.5 in the 400 IM out of high school, and Tyler Watson 3:51.0. Last year’s freshman Miguel Cancel was 3:47.2 and cut almost four seconds in his rookie year. And the breaststroker Dillon Hillis went from 1:46.2 to 1:44.1 in the 200 IM last year and could be an NCAA invitee.

Diving: ★

Florida had no divers at NCAAs last year, though they did have three men compete at Zones. Lyle Hayes-Macaluso and Nicholas Lydon were both freshmen scorers at SECs last year and Alex Farrow a junior scorer. NCAA points aren’t likely, but Florida could see an invitee in the near future.

Relays

The relays are going to be tough to reload, because Rooney carried a very heavy load last year. We’ll start with the team’s best relay, the 4×200 free:

Baqlah led off in 1:32 last year, and the rookie Smith was a blazing 1:31.6. Fellow freshman Freeman split 1:33.5. Replacing Rooney’s 1:31.6 anchor is going to be a burden. Junior Gerry Quinn (1:35.0) is the next man up among returners, but the sneaky bets might be backstrokers Dakota Mahaffey (1:35.21) or Clark Beach (1:36.0). The real dream would be a return to form for returning redshirt Michael Taylor, who was 1:35.1 out of high school. As it stands right now, it’s hard to make the top 8 with any legs slower than 1:33 (the only team to do it last year was Harvard, and they needed a 1:29 leadoff just to be 7th), so Florida may move backwards some unless someone really steps up.

Rooney and Bayley Main drop off the shorter free relays. Smith (42.6 split) and Szaranek (43.7 split) return from the 400, and it seems likely the team will use Baqlah (42.5 split at SECs) here. The sophomore Will Davis (43.3 individually) looks like the logical fourth in what looks like a solid B final relay.

The 200 was actually better last year, but might struggle for a fourth leg this year. That’s probably the relay they leave Baqlah off of (he’s not nearly as good at the 50 as the 100/200), but Davis split 18.9 and Smith 19.0 in NCAA finals last year. Throw in Szaranek (19.8 individually) and perhaps someone like the freshman Friese or Isaac Davis (20.0 last year) and this team can probably score – they’re just going to need straight 19-lows.

Losing Stokwoski steals the backstroker from both medleys. Beach isn’t near the sprinter Stokowski was, so the back leg probably moves backwards, unless Michael Taylor comes back at full strength. Breaststroke should improve, with some combo of Guarente and Hillis. Kieran Smith split 20.6 on fly in the 200 last year and could be a factor there, freeing up Will Davis to anchor. The 400 might be better off with Davis on fly and Baqlah on free. The 400 looks like the better of the two, and could make a repeat A final appearance if Davis keeps improving his fly.

2019-2020 Outlook

In what should have been a rebuilding year for Florida, the Gators over-performed, with a highly-touted freshman class swimming extremely well in the first year for head coach Anthony Nesty.

Still, what’s crazy is how much better Florida could have been. A bit more focus on the SEC meet had Florida actually lose 81 points from seed at NCAAs – the third-most of any team. It’s hard to fault a brand-new head coach for going after the conference rounds early on, it feels like the focus shift is going to have to happen this year for Florida to stay inside the top 8.

A slew of transfers are going to hurt – mainly in the butterfly races and relays. But the rising sophomores should be ready to take yet another huge step forward, and there is some intriguing talent coming in with this big freshman class, too.

A lot of it is going to hinge on the relays. Right now, Florida seems a guy or two short on all the free relays. Developing one more standout 50/100/200 freestyler could be the difference between a repeat appearance in the top 10 and falling back into the 10-15 range.

The other wrinkle is the Olympic year. Florida typically has a lot of internationals, and even its top domestic talent are very good long course competitors. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a few key names (Finke, Smith, Freeman, Beach, Baqlah) focus in on long course meters and have less short course yards improvement. But it also wouldn’t be surprising to see huge drops in both courses, especially given how young most of that group is.

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JCo

I thought Florida got 6th at NCAAs last year and Alabama was 7th. Are the preseason swimswam rankings being used for this?

Superfan

Based on this year’s rankings

Hail

Would anyone mind pointing me in the direction of this year’s rankings?

MKW

Was really impressed with the Gators last year post Dressel/Troy. The sophomore class(Smith, Finke, and Freeman) was great. Add Baqlah, Beach, Sanders, and Davis and that’s a solid core even with the transfers. Interested to see how they do in SCY after a great summer in LCM for many of them. Hopefully Michael Taylor comes back, he’s a major talent.

volmenusa

Coach Nesty is one of the truly good guys in catching. Honest, hard working and committed to his team members and staff. Look for this group of well trained and disciplined guys to hang tough at NCAAs again! Great respecter this tradition even though I am a Vol for Life.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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