Key Additions: Kathleen Baker (NC – back/IM), Katie McLaughlin (CA – fly/free), Amy Bilquist (IN – free/back), Jennifer Campbell (CA – free/fly), Madi Hurst (NV – breast/IM), Phoebe LaMay (TX – diving), Valerie Hull (Auburn transfer – free)
Key Losses: Missy Franklin (60 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Cierra Runge (49 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relays), Melanie Klaren (20 NCAA points), Caroline Piehl (18 NCAA points), Camille Cheng (9 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Kaylin Bing (3 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay)
The 2015 postseason was a banner one for the Berkeley Bears after a somewhat disappointing 2014 run. Where key swimmers faltered in ’14, they dominated in the current year, winning 7 of 21 total events, including 3 of 5 relays.
Most notable was the 800 free relay, which won an NCAA title by an absurd 3.7 seconds and smashed NCAA, American and U.S. Open records.
That was capped by a 1:40.05 split from sophomore star Missy Franklin, who earlier in the same night obliterated the American record in the individual 200 free with a 1:39.10. It’s worth noting that those were her 3rd and 2nd, respectively, 200 frees of the day after swimming a smooth 1:41.9 in prelims.
Franklin won a trio of events, taking the 200 IM and 200 back as well, and Cal won the 200 medley and 200 free relays while never finishing lower than 3rd in a relay event.
Junior Rachel Bootsma regained her championship form, winning the 100 back while nearly breaking a Natalie Coughlin American record.
Though defending champs Georgia led through day 1, Cal fought back by placing 5 swimmers into finals of the 200 free, including three in the top eight. That points haul (57 points in a single event) vaulted the Bears into a lead they’d never give up.
Talent Out, Talent In
What’s truly impressive about this Cal roster, though, is the way it’s been able to accumulate talent year after year. The incredible wealth of speed in Berkeley means the Bears aren’t a significantly less-threatening team even after graduating some huge contributors.
For most teams, losing two underclassmen NCAA record-breakers would be a backbreaking loss. For Cal, it just seems like the cycle of life. Franklin is gone, turned pro as she had always planned to after two years in the NCAA. More unexpected was the loss of last year’s freshman distance star Cierra Runge, who will redshirt this season, then transfer to Wisconsin.
But Cal counters those two big losses with a 6-person recruiting class dense with talent. Ranked #1 in the country, this California freshman class features three of the top five swimmers in the nationwide recruiting class. With the top 2 recruits both deferring their enrollments until after the Olympics (Katie Ledecky for Stanford and Abbey Weitzeil for Cal), the Bears now boast arguably the three best freshmen in the nation.
There’s U.S. World Champs team member Kathleen Baker, yet another elite-tier backstroke to add to Cal’s stable. There’s in-state product Katie McLaughlin, another U.S. swimmer from the World Champs team who nearly pulled off a medal in the 200 fly. And there’s Carmel, Indiana standout Amy Bilquist, one of the best sprint freestylers in the class. Bilquist can also swim a mean backstroke, you know, if Cal’s three other All-America level backstrokers all miss the bus to the same meet.
Cal’s current roster really reflects the importance of recruiting in the NCAA’s top echelon of teams. Coaching talent up and assembling well-rounded lineups are certainly important aspects of building an NCAA program, but there’s really no replacement for assembling game-changing talent. Give Cal credit: they’ve done that in the extreme.
Free Relays reload
The biggest example of that “talent out, talent in” philosophy is in the free relays, where Cal graduated 7 of 12 relay legs and still find themselves among the NCAA favorites.
The 800 free relay is particularly jarring. Cal broke the American record in the event at Pac-12s, then switched out one leg of the relay at NCAAs and broke the NCAA Championship record. Of the 5 swimmers who combined for those two swims, only 1 returns: senior Elizabeth Pelton.
Franklin and her otherworldly 1:40.0 split is gone. Leadoff swimmer Runge is out the door. Camille Cheng and Caroline Piehl, who traded off the final slot between conference and nationals, are both gone.
But Cal may still be the favorites here, and they might even challenge their own American record. That’s because freshmen Baker (1:43.61) and McLaughlin (1:43.01) both bring in lifetime-bests that could make them upgrades to the two slowest legs from last year. Bilquist is a 1:45.0 and two more Bears (senior Rachael Acker at 1:44.33 and freshman Jennifer Campbell at 1:46.3) could put themselves in the hunt with big years.
There’s obviously no replacing Franklin’s split there (she’s the fastest 200 yard freestyler in history by a wide margin, after all), but with the NCAA expanding its event lineup to put the 800 free relay all by itself on Wednesday night, all of Cal’s swimmers should be much fresher for their NCAA relay swim. It’s certainly not out of the question that the extra freshness could help the Bears approach last year’s insane time of 6:50.18.
Last year’s second-place 400 free relay loses Franklin and Cheng, but returns big-time anchor Farida Osman as well as NCAA backstroke champ Bootsma. Osman and Bootsma are probably both better at the 50 free than the 100, which should make the defending NCAA champion 200 free relay more threatening. Bilquist and Auburn transfer Valerie Hull are both excellent sprinters who should help depth in both relay events. Helping matters even more: Pac-12 rivals Stanford have lost national 50 free champ Simone Manuel for the year to a redshirt. Stanford was the closest team to Cal at last year’s NCAA Championships.
A Regenerating Backstroke Juggernaut
While those free relays will rack up the points, Cal’s most loaded position group at the moment is backstroke, where the Bears are riding a recruiting streak that almost feels unfair.
Olympic champ and world record-holder Franklin is gone, but the Bears still have former NCAA champ and current American record-holder Elizabeth Pelton to hold down the fort in the 200. Specializing in the shorter backstroke distance is Rachel Bootsma, a 2012 U.S. Olympian and two-time NCAA champ in her three-year career in the 100 back.
Add Baker and Bilquist, the two best backstrokers in the nation’s freshman class, and you’ve got a wealth of talent that could load up the NCAA’s A finals in absurd ways. Maybe more likely, though, is that the freshmen will be able to use their versatility to help Cal fill holes elsewhere (Baker in IM and breaststroke and Bilquist in freestyle) while Pelton and Bootsma head up a still-menacing backstroke attack.
Bootsma is also an excellent butterflyer, and the butterfly events are Cal’s sneaky-good weapon. Egyptian national record-holder Osman is among the nation’s best, and Hawaiian freshman Jasmine Mau was a blue-chip pickup last year who scored twice at the NCAA Championships. Canadian Noemie Thomas isn’t far out of scoring range heading into her second season either.
Breaststroke Woes Solved?
The downside of that depth in fly and back is that Cal has consistently struggled in breaststroke for several seasons. Even last season, the team was far from dominant in the stroke, scoring just a single point between the two breaststroke events at NCAAs and earning just 1 A final appearance at Pac-12s.
Marina Garcia has proven to be a solid contributor, but hasn’t been nearly the kind of monster she is in the long course pool. Cal is so dominant in the other strokes that the biggest thing they need from their breaststroke group is a pair of medley relay splits good enough to stay afloat, and to Garcia’s credit, she did exactly that last year.
The Bears actually won the 200 medley with Bootsma and Osman obliterating the fields on either end of the relay order, and a third-place 400 medley was still a solid swim.
It might actually be the freshman Baker who winds up pulling some breaststroke duty. She’s been 59.3 in the 100 breast, which suggests she could be a solid relay leg whether she swims breaststroke individually or not. Cal would certainly prefer to let Baker swim her more natural backstroke and IM events, but she could take the Missy Franklin blueprint of filling in where needed as a freshman before moving into her more primary events later in her college career.
Other Key Swimmers
- We haven’t mentioned Celina Li at all, but she’s a major contributor. She had a rough NCAA meet in 2015, failing to score in the 400 IM, but her lifetime-best puts her just on the outside of NCAA title range. Li can also fill in in the 200 breaststroke or 200 butterfly as the team needs.
- Also in those IMs is senior Kelly Naze, who took 10th in the 400 IM last year and just missed scoring in the 200 IM.
- With Runge and Melanie Klaren gone, Cal will be pretty thin in the distance freestyles as well. Freshman Jennifer Campbell might wind up being their top threat there, as well as the breaststroker Garcia, who is a surprisingly-good 500 freestyler.
- Diving hasn’t been a big factor in Cal’s NCAA finishes the past few seasons, but they’ve got a couple divers who could contribute this year. Then-sophomore Eleanor Smart was just three spots out of scoring on platform last year, and the Bears bring in Texas product Phoebe LaMay with this year’s freshman class.
It’s not often a team can lose two swimmers the caliber of Franklin and Runge and still return at the top of the NCAA. But Cal’s dominant recruiting efforts are allowing them to reload in a hurry even when big names move away from Berkeley.
In the NCAA, relay points are king, and there shouldn’t be any reason Cal will be lacking in that department. The medleys return 7 of 8 legs and should arguably be better in 2016. Even the free relays (which went 1st, 2nd and 1st in the 200, 400 and 800, respectively) still have lots of firepower.
The weak areas in breaststroke, distance free and diving are somewhat worrisome, but Cal’s roster is built to absolutely dominate fly, back and sprint free enough that the holes are overshadowed. And the relative talent in those strong events appears enough to keep the Bears among the top teams in the NCAA even after some big points walking out the door last spring.