College Swimming Previews: Underclassmen Powering #9 Virginia Men

After a one year-hiatus to the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-2021 season, our college previews are back! We’ll be previewing the 2021-2022 seasons for the top 12 men’s and women’s programs from the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24. 

#9 Virginia Cavaliers

Key Losses: Keefer Barnum (26 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Matt Otto (4 NCAA points), Sam Schilling (1 NCAA relay)

Key Additions: #3 Jack Aikins (GA – back), HM Max Iida (IL – breast/IM), Matt King (Alabama transfer – free), Connor Boyle (IL – free), Daniel Worth (MO – breast), Matthew Styczen (PA – IM), Tyler Sicignano (CT – fly), Colin Bitz (MD – back/fly), Peter Thompson (MT – free)

Returning Fifth Years: None

GRADING CRITERIA

Two years ago, we unveiled a new, more data-based grading criteria based on ‘projected returning points’, a stat of our own making that involved a lot of manual calculations involving departing seniors, redshirts, freshmen, etc. We liked the objectiveness of that stat, but given that there’s still a lot of uncertainty for this year, we’re adopting a hybrid approach this year. The “stars” will rely heavily on what swimmers actually did last year, but we’ll also give credit to returning swimmers or freshmen who have times that would have scored last year.

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. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.

2020-2021 LOOKBACK

The Cavaliers continued to rise in their fourth season under Todd DeSorbo and the rest of the coaching staff. For each of the previous four season, the team had stuck to a script of just steadily getting faster as the season continued, and this past season was no different. In the fall, they won the Tennessee Invite without doing anything too crazy time-wise, although they did set a school record in the 400 free relay.

Like much of the rest of the ACC, though, they came out swinging at the ACC Championships, notching school records in the 200 medley and 200 free relays, while freshman Matt Brownstead won ACC titles in the 50 and the 100 free, setting school records in the process.

Perhaps inspired by their women’s NCAA title the week before, the Cavalier men kept the momentum going into NCAAs. All five relays scored, with three of them finishing in the top 8. Senior breaststroker Keefer Barnum led the individual scoring with two A-final appearances, Brownstead and another four men scored, and the team totaled 152 points for a 9th-place finish.

Sprint Free:★★★★

UVA had traditionally been known more for its distance program, but that was expected to change when Todd DeSorbo was hired four years ago. While the team had been trending more towards sprinting in the first three years under the new regime, the program took a big leap forward last year.

Freshman Matt Brownstead arrived in Charlottesville as one of the top sprinters in high school history, and he followed through on that promise by capturing ACC titles in the 50 free (18.88) and the 100 free (41.87), setting school records in both events. He couldn’t quite match those times at NCAAs, settling for B-finals in both events. He did, however, blast a 1:33.1 leading off the Cavaliers’ 800 free relay, which would put him just outside scoring range individually.

Matt King joins the Cavaliers this year after spending his freshman season at Alabama, where he, like Brownstead, developed into one of the fastest freshmen in NCAA history. His season-best time of 18.96 would’ve made the 50 free A-final at NCAAs, but he was DQ’d in prelims. He did, however, finish 5th in the 100 free with a time of 41.76. His transfer to UVA gives the Hoos one of the best 1-2 sprint freestyle punches in the nation.

Brownstead was actually the only UVA swimmer to qualify for the 50 and 100 freestyles at NCAAs last year, but there’s a squad of swimmers who are able to contribute on relays. That group is led by August Lamb, who’s regularly split sub-19 and 42-low on relays. Jack Wright is more of a 200 specialist, and finished missed qualifying for NCAAs in that event, but adds relay help for that distance and on the 400 free relay.

Freshman Jack Aikins is primarily a backstroker, but bests of 19.6/43.2/1:36.1 mean he’s likely to end up on free relays as a freshman. Another freshman, Connor Boyle, comes in with bests of 19.7/43.5, which means he could contribute sooner rather than later.

Distance Free: ★★

Last season, Jack Walker was the Cavaliers’ only rep in the distance freestyles, with his highest finish being 19th in the 1650. However, his lifetime best of 4:11 in the 500 free from 2020 ACCs does put him in scoring range if he can match that.

Wright won the B-final at ACCs with a 4:17.87, although he didn’t qualify for NCAAs. Justin Grender made the C-final there, and he had a NCAA B-cut with a 4:22.91, but opted not to swim the event in order to focus on relays and the backstrokes. Daniel Gyenis placed 17th in the 1650 at ACCs, but was roughly 20 seconds away from NCAA qualifying.

Peter Thompson is the only distance-oriented freshman, coming in with lifetime bests of 4:25/9:05/15:17.

Backstroke: ★★★★

There’s some returning depth here, as three men qualified for backstroke at NCAAs. Justin Grender set the school record with a 1:40.20 in the 200 back, tying for 8th in prelims, before losing the swim-off for the A-final and finishing 14th overall. Will Cole  held down relay duties for most of the season and finished 31st and 35th in the 100/200, respectively, at NCAAs.

Sean Conway is primarily an IMer, but finished 18th in the 200 back with a 1:41.43. Also, it’s worth noting here that Brownstead jumped in on the backstroke leg in the 200 medley relay at NCAAs, going 21.3.

This already-solid group should take a quantum leap forward with the addition of Aikins. His lifetime best of  1:39.85 is faster that Grender’s school record, and should put him into the A-final as a freshman. His 100 back best time of 46.0 was faster than either Grender (46.33) or Cole (46.37) last season, and he’ll probably take over backstroke duties on both medley relays.

Breaststroke: ★★★

It’s always a blow when you lose your school record-holder, but that blow is softened quite a bit when you have a ready-made replacement. Keefer Barnum departs after setting school records in the 100 (51.09) and 200 (1:52.23) and a pair of A-final appearances at NCAAs.

But Noah Nichols seems primed to step into Barnum’s shoes after a very successful freshman campaign where he actually wrested the 100 breast school record from Barnum at ACCs before Barnum recaptured it at NCAAs. Nichols couldn’t quite match his ACC times of 51.36/1:52.98 at NCAAs, settling for a B-final appearance in the 100, but he looks ready to be a perennial NCAAs scorer.

Matt Otto also graduated after making the B-final in the 200 breast last season, but Casey Storch returns after finishing 23rd in that event.

Additionally, freshmen Max Iida (53.2/1:59.7) and Daniel Worth (53.0/1:57.5) are actually faster in the 100 than Nichols was coming out of high school (53.7) and Worth’s high school 200 breast is faster’s than Nichols’ was (1:58.0).

Butterfly: ★★

Max Edwards‘ value comes primarily as a relay swimmer, but he qualified for NCAAs in the 100 fly, finishing 24th with a 46.35. Additionally, his 45.15 split on the medley relay (albeit with a hair-raising 0.00 reaction time) bodes well for his ability to score individually at some point down the road.

This is probably the Cavaliers’ weakest discipline currently, but watch out for junior Josh Fong, who’s been on a nice trajectory, especially in the 200 fly. Freshman Tyler Sicignano comes in with lifetime bests of 48.2/1:46.7.

Brownstead and King have 100 fly bests of 46.64 and 47.21 respectively. Those times won’t score at NCAAs, but it’s close enough that you can’t completely ruling them out scoring eventually (if Brownstead doesn’t switch to the 200 free or swim all five relays), or even pushing Edwards for medley relay duties.

IM: ★★★

While the free sprints have come around over the last year or two, the Cavaliers have consistently had a strong IM core that dates back to the previous coaching staffs. Rising senior Casey Storch took 10th in the 400 IM at NCAAs and also placed 28th in the 200 IM. Rising junior Sean Conway finished 34th in the 200 IM and 19th in the 200 IM, missing scoring by less than three-tenths of a second.

The freshmen class brings in additional IM talent. Max Iida‘s 1:44.86 in the 200 IM is less than a second away from a NCAA cut, while Matthew Styczen (1:48.6/3:49.7) and Colin Bitz (1:48.1/3:50.2) both would have made the 400 IM B-final at ACCs with those times.

Diving: ★

Diving was Virginia’s Achilles’ Heel at ACCs, as the only diver they entered didn’t earn a single point. Unsurprisingly, the team didn’t have any divers qualify for NCAAs either.

However, Walker Creedon, who qualified for NCAAs in 2019 and 2020, returns, and assuming he actually competes this spring, he should have a good shot at qualifying once again.

Relays

We’ll start with the 800 free relay, which is the only relay in which UVA didn’t set a school record last season, the one with the lowest NCAA finish (13th), and the one with the most question marks. Brownstead had a breakout swim leading off the Cavaliers’ relay, lowering his personal best from 1:36.15 to 1:33.16. He and Wright, who just missed qualifying for the 200 free individually and anchor at NCAAs with a 1:33.74, seem to be the only locks. They’ll need to replace Sam Schilling, who split 1:34.11 and had split sub-1:34, while Justin Grender split 1:34.8 at ACCs and 1:35.43 at NCAAs. As a 1:39 backstroker, Aikins should be faster than his official best time of 1:36, while Walker should be on this relay if he can ever match his best time from high school (1:33.7), and Conway (1:35.1 split at ACCs) should also get consideration.

Brownstead, King, and Lamb should form the core of both sprint free relays, with some combination of Aikins, Boyle, Cole, Grender, and Wright in play as well. The 200 free relay went 1:16.01 last season. Add in King, and this projects to be a 1:15-mid relay that could challenge for a top 4 spot at NCAAs.

The 400 free relay could be primed for an even bigger improvement with the addition of King. His 41.6 flat start is essentially two seconds faster than the 43.0 split the Cavaliers got from Cole at NCAAs — that difference alone could make this a 2:48-low relay. Brownstead (42.20), Lamb (42.18), and Wright (42.30) all return from that relay, while Aikins could also end up on this.

The already-strong medley relays should get a boost from the additions of Aikins and King. Aikins is likely to immediately swap in on backstroke (although Brownstead put up a respectable 21.1 at NCAAs), and Brownstead and King should compete for the freestyle leg (although, again, it wouldn’t be a shock to see either one end up swimming fly at some point). At NCAAs, the 200 went 1:23.26 for 8th, and the 400 went 3:04.52 for 9th — and both could very well be faster and place better this season.

2021-2022 Outlook

While they’re in the usual spot of not returning any of last year’s seniors, this UVA team shouldn’t slip. The additions of King and Aikins should easily make up for the 30 individual points they’re losing, and those two should also help the relays be even better than last year.

We’ve seen schools like Louisville do quite well over the last few years by combining five scoring relays with a handful of strong individual scorers, and Virginia seems to be following that pattern. Barring disaster, it’s hard to imagine them finishing outside of the top ten, and if everything breaks right, they could end up as high as 6th or 7th.

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Nonrevhoofan
2 months ago

Shout out to Konnar Klinksiek who could provide some serious value in the sprints and particularly in the 100 Fly. And a few others from the 2nd year class, in particular, may have something further to say about the make-up of the ACC and NCAA teams.

SwimCoachSean
2 months ago

Top 5 at ncaa

Swimm
Reply to  SwimCoachSean
2 months ago

Not beating Texas, Cal, Florida, NC State, or Louisville sorry

All the hype
2 months ago

Sad to see such a storied distance program turn its back on distance. Totally get that sprints are what win NCAAs but isn’t Tyler Fenwick from Mission Viejo Nadadores and Tennessee supposed to be a distance coach???? Confused… 2 stars?

Swimfan
Reply to  All the hype
2 months ago

Spending too much time creating obnoxious Instagram posts.

Reality Check
Reply to  All the hype
2 months ago

Is this a joke? No one is telling stories about a program that hadn’t even been top 10 at NCAA’s until DeSorbo arrived. Let him and his staff do their thing, their way and enjoy the ride. Proof is in the pudding. UVA was nothing before DeSorbo.

Pack Mack
Reply to  Reality Check
1 month ago

Bernardino led UVA to 27 Atlantic Coast Conference Championships and coached 4 Olympic gold medalists. “UVA was nothing” may be an overstatement.

Greg
2 months ago

6th or 7th is realistic, but also a little low as an upper ceiling of their potential this year, “if everything breaks right.” Cal and Texas are locks for the top two, but after that, it’s pretty darn open.

Swimm
Reply to  Greg
2 months ago

Florida is pretty much a lock for 3rd

NC Fan
2 months ago

Relays at ACC Champs with NC State, Louisville, and UVA and with VaTech rising are going to be amazing. The sprint talent now in the ACC is absurd.

swimgeek
2 months ago

With Brownstead going 21.1 in backstroke, you could see him there and King on free. Or with his 1:33.1 4×200 leadoff swim, maybe you have B skip the 200 medley.