We’ll be previewing the top 12 men’s and women’s programs from the 2017 NCAA Championships – 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 some inside looks at the life of a college swimmer as told by college swimmers themselves, plus full-length profiles of a few of college swimming’s biggest names, including our cover athlete, Simone Manuel.
Key Losses: Jack Conger (43 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Will Licon (58.5 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays), Clark Smith (40 NCAA points, 2 NCAA relays)
We’ve tightened up our criteria from last year, where our first stab at a letter grading system got hit by a little bit of classic grade inflation. Again, 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
After winning their second consecutive NCAA title in the spring of 2016, the Longhorns looked a little footsore early in the 2016-2017 season. Early season losses to the likes of Indiana and NC State and several injuries had some observers doubting the Longhorns’ ability to accomplish the three-peat. Those doubts continued a bit through the first night of NCAAs as NC State swam a US Open Record to break the mark Texas had set the year before, despite Townley Haas breaking his own mark for the fastest 200 yard relay split ever.
But, Texas put the doubts to rest by the end of the next night by winning four of the five events, two of them in US Open Record fashion, and they continued the stampede from there. The senior trio of Jack Conger, Will Licon and Clark Smith combined for six individual wins, four of those in the fastest times ever. John Shebat and Jonathan Roberts stepped up with multiple championship final appearances, and a total of 11 different Longhorn swimmers picked up individual points. Texas put a cherry on top of their triple-scoop sundae with a US Open Record in the 400 free relay to end the meet as they won their 13th team championship under Eddie Reese.
Sprint Free: A+
While it’s highly unlikely that any Longhorn is going to threaten Caeleb Dressel individually, the Longhorns’ sprint group has quietly been one of the top in nation over the past three years, including three-straight titles in the 200 free relay.
Senior Brett Ringgold has two straight A-final appearances in the 100 free and B-final appearances in the 50 free. With Conger gone, he’ll probably get the call to anchor the 400 medley relay. As a freshman, Joseph Schooling swam the 200 IM on day one, then swam all five relays as a sophomore, but last year he jumped into the 50 free and placed 3rd behind Dressel and Ryan Held. He already threw down a swift 19.32 at last week’s Orange White meet, and while it’s a tough call, it probably makes more sense points-wise to keep Schooling in the 50 free rather than have him swim the 800 free relay. Our grade here is based on that assumption.
Junior Tate Jackson snuck into the 50 free B final and finished 17th in the 100 free, although going his best time in that event would have secured him a spot. Classmates John Shebat and Jeremy Nichols are also capable sprinters who can help out on the relays at least.
After swimming the mile as a freshman, middle distance star Townley Haas apparently talked Eddie Reese into letting him swim the 100 free, and Haas won the consolation final with a 41.96. Haas’s evolution into a sprinter continued this summer, where he made the USA’s 4×100 relay team at World Championships, and threw down several sub-48s long course.
Distance Free: A-
Picking right back up with Haas, he’s the defending two-time champion and the US Open record holder in the 200 freestyle, and he has to be considered the favorite for that event again this year. He won the 500 as a freshman, and placed 2nd behind teammate Clark Smith last year, but the field is tighter there. Still, he’s a lock for an A-final appearance at the very least.
Despite a reputation as a 200 free factory, there’s actually less depth on the distance side than there is on the sprint side, at least in terms of NCAA scoring. Jeff Newkirk picked up a few points in the B final of the 200 free last year. Jonathan Roberts swam the 200 free as a freshman, but has scored in the 400 IM the past two years, so he’s likely to stick with that. There’s a ton of incoming freshmen with some promising 200 free times, but no one who can be considering a scoring lock yet.
The freshman most likely to pick up points in the 500 is probably JohnThomas Larson, who comes in with a personal best of 4:16.92. That’s still a ways off from the 4:14 it took score last year, but definitely within striking range.
It could be rough going in the mile for Texas a year after Clark Smith smashed the U.S. Open record. No other Longhorn even swam the event at NCAAs, so unless Haas finds himself back in this event, freshman Chris Yeager will probably be the Longhorns’ best scoring bet here, with a lifetime best of 14:55.04.
Despite losing Licon, the Longhorns should still pick up plenty of points here. Last year Jonathan Roberts broke out and made the A-final in both distances. Meanwhile, Ryan Harty returns from a year long layoff due to an injury, and assuming he’s healthy, should pick up points in both events too, having made both consolation finals as a freshman.
Other points could come from junior Sam Stewart, who made the consolation final in the 400 IM last year. The versatile Shebat has a solid 200 IM, although he’s probably likely to sit out that event in order to focus on the day two relays.
The Longhorns aren’t going to pull a repeat of 2015, but they’ve still got plenty of firepower remaining. Even if Schooling can’t reclaim his butterfly crown from Dressel, he’s still over a second faster than anyone else in the NCAA, and it’s hard to imagine anyone displacing him from 2nd, at worst. Other points in the shorter fly could come from Ringgold, who made the consolation final in the 100 fly last year.
One of the biggest shocks of last year’s meet was Schooling failing to make finals of the 200 fly, despite being the two-time defending champion. We’re assuming that Schooling will be back in fighting in shape and hungry to reclaim his crown this year, and his 1:41 from the Orange White meet last week supports our assumption. Freshman Sam Pomajevich lopped several seconds off his 200 fly as a high school year. He now sports a 1:41.88 lifetime best that’s faster than what it took to make the consolation final last year, and it wouldn’t take much more improvement for him to challenge for a spot in the championship final.
Jackson and Max Holter give the Longhorns some depth here, although neither has yet scored points in this stroke at NCAAs.
You could say that backstroke is the new butterfly, at least for the Longhorns. Okay, that might be a bit of an overstatement, and we’re probably not going to see six Texas swimmers in a championship final again, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see four Longhorns in the A final of the 200 back at NCAAs. Junior John Shebat broke out in March with 2nd place finishes in both bathstroke events, becoming the 3rd-fastest man ever in each with times of 44.35 and 1:37.24. With Ryan Murphy’s graduation, Shebat heads into the season as the prohibitive favorite in both events.
Roberts and Harty have both made the A-final at NCAAs in the 200 back, with best times of 1:39.05 and 1:39.17, respectively. Freshman Austin Katz is an Olympic Trials finalist in the 200 back and semifinalist in the 100 back. His official best short course times of 1:41.18 and 47.06 are quite solid, and he broke the 47-second mark at the Orange White meet over the weekend. Additionally, Josh Artmann may be the Texas sophomore most likely to make NCAAs, after no one in his class qualified last year. His season best time of 1:42.0 was just a few tenths off what it took to qualify for the 200 back last year.
With a race for team points that looks to be much closer than it was last year, the margin for victory could come down to the medley relays, where Licon’s departure leaves a big hole. No other Longhorn qualified in the breaststroke events last year, and it will probably come down to ether Austin Temple or Casey Melzer to try fill in the gap.
Temple, a senior, scored in the 100 breast at NCAAs as a freshman and sports a lifetime best of 52.34. He also split 23.88/51.99 on the medley relay at the Big 12 Championships that same year. Unfortunately, he hasn’t come within a second of that time since 2015. Melzer, a junior, has a lifetime best 53.6 flat start and has split 24.2/53.17 on medley relays.
While the Longhorns’ other three legs will still hang with anyone else in the pool, they’re going to need Temple to get back to where he was as a freshman, or Melzer or some other swimmer to drop a good chunk of time, if they want to defend their medley relay titles.
Texas definitely has the firepower to make the run for the fourth-consecutive championship, but on paper, the team race is going to be a lot closer than the last couple of years. They’ve won the past two years without everyone firing on all cylinders (e.g., Smith missing the 500 free final in 2016 and Schooling missing the 200 fly final last year). Given their losses, and other schools’ likely improvements, the Longhorns will not be able to do that again.
To win four straight, they’re going to need wins or top three finishes from Schooling, Haas, and Shebat, second-tier guys to step it up and score some points, and they desperately need a breaststroker to emerge to keep the medley relays dominant.