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.
#1 California Golden Bears
Key Losses: Andrew Seliskar (60 NCAA points, 4 NCAA relays), Mike Thomas (32 NCAA points, 1 NCAA relay), Nick Norman (16 NCAA points), Carson Sand (1 NCAA point)
Key Additions: #12 Jason Louser(NY – IM/breast),Hugo Gonzalez (Auburn transfer – IM/back), Jacques Lauffer (Switzerland – breast/IM), Nick Hart (IN – diving), Michael Petrides (HI – free), Calvin David (CA – distance), Colby Mefford (CA – free/back), Will Pelton (MD – fly/back), Sebastian Somerset (Canada – back), Preston Niayesh (CA – breast), Marcos Rico Peng (Spain – sprint free)
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.
After a spirited challenge to Texas at the 2018 NCAA Championships and the #1 recruiting class in the nation in both 2016 and 2017, the pieces finally fell together for the Cal men, who ended Texas’s four-year run atop the NCAA in emphatic fashion.
The Cal men had an outstanding season and a superb NCAA meet, coming through huge in the first couple of days to build a points lead Texas could never overcome. The win also gave Cal its fourth men’s NCAA title in the last nine seasons, matching Texas. (The only non-Cal-or-Texas team to win in that time frame was Michigan in 2013).
It was Cal’s sophomore class that came through the biggest, earning 178 of the team’s 388 individual points. Leading the way for that class were distance man/IMer Sean Grieshop (49 individual points), sprinter Ryan Hoffer (45), versatile mid-distance man Trenton Julian (36) and backstroker Daniel Carr (32).
In fact, the only upperclassmen to score 30+ points were senior Andrew Seliskar (a perfect 60), junior Pawel Sendyk (35) and senior Mike Thomas (32). Despite losing Seliskar, the CSCAA Swimmer of the Meet and winner of the 200 IM, 200 free and 200 breast, Cal still leads handily in both returning points (279) and “no senior” points (373), which score out the meet with all seniors removed and underclassmen moved up to fill their spots.
Cal was also top-3 in all five relays, including an NCAA title in the 200 free relay and a runner-up spot in both medleys.
Sprint Free: ★★★★★
When you go 1-2 in the 50 free at nationals, there’s a good chance you’ve got the nation’s best sprint corps. That’s the case for Cal, which returns both NCAA champ Ryan Hoffer (18.58) and runner-up Pawel Sendyk (18.66). They also bring back B final winner Michael Jensen (19.15).
All three are very solid through the 100 as well. Hoffer was 6th at NCAAs, with four of the five ahead of him not returning in 2020. A blazing 41.2 out of high school, Hoffer has yet to replicate that swim. But his 41.76 from last year was a breakthrough, his best college time and half a second better than he went as an NCAA rookie back in ’17-’18. He’s now a junior, and whether he’s 41-low or 41-high, he’s probably scoring 30-40 points in the sprint frees alone.
Sendyk was more of a pure speedster earlier in his career, but has made big strides in his 100 each season. He’s was 41.76 last year at NCAAs to make the A final, and finished 8th in 42.0. He’s a senior, as is Jensen, who was 42.1 four times last year: twice at mid-season, once at Pac-12s and once at NCAAs.
Cal does graduate their only scorer in the 200 free: Andrew Seliskar was 1:30.1 to win that event last year. However, Bryce Mefford was an A finalist there as a freshman (1:32.8) and was 17th last year despite only going two tenths slower (1:33.0). With the large number of graduations and redshirts in that event (8 of the top 16 don’t return in 2020), Mefford should be in line to return to scoring, especially if he doesn’t take on the 200 free/100 back double which last year left him in 17th and 20th, respectively.
The depth is still solid. Nate Biondi has come a long ways from a 20.2/44.3 high school senior. He dropped to 19.4 and 42.9 last year and looks like a rising impact sprinter in his junior year.
Most of the freshmen freestylers project into the 200. Hawaii’s top prospect Michael Petrides is a 1:35.2 in the 200 and comes down to 44.3 in the 100. His 200 dropped about a full second in his senior year. Meanwhile distance man Calvin David (1:36.2) and back/free type Colby Mefford (1:35.5) are solid depth prospects. Spain’s Marcos Rico Peng is more of a true speedster, with long course times of 23.3/51.5 that convert roughly to 20.2 and 45.1.
Cal has a couple options to bolster the 200, but they may swim elsewhere instead. Zheng Quah was 1:33.7 last year at Pac-12s, but swam the 200 IM instead at NCAAs. His status as a returning A finalist in the 100 fly probably keeps him in the IM instead of the 200 free. Similarly, Trenton Julian is an outstanding 500 freestyler and went 1:34.1 in the 200 at Pac-12s, but after taking 5th at NCAAs in the 400 IM, he’s probably sticking there for the forseeable future.
Distance Free: ★★★★
For a team built around sprinters, Cal’s distance group is surprisingly solid. Sean Grieshop returns after taking second in the 500 free and third in the 1650 at NCAAs. Grieshop had a massive breakout season as a sophomore, dropping from 4:12/14:42 as a freshman to 4:10.2/14:35 as a sophomore. With 500 free champ Townley Haas graduating, Grieshop is a title contender there, and moves up one spot in the mile with seniors factored out.
Cal’s other big distance scorer was Nick Norman, who graduates after a 3rd-place mile finish. They do return the junior Trenton Julian, though, who blasted from a career-best 4:28 (done way back in high school in 2015) to 4:11.3 last year. Julian seems to just be figuring out the 500 – he was 4:13 at both Pac-12s and NCAA prelims before chopping off two more seconds to win the B final. With more experience (and 3 of the top 8 graduating), Julian is a likely A finalist this season.
Last year, Cal got freshman Chris Jhong to go from 15:43 to 15:08 in the mile. He’s still got a ways to go, but could score down the road with another good year. His progress, though, is a good sign for incoming freshman Calvin David (4:19.4/15:12), who is probably a top-50 recruit despite not really swimming any relay-distance events.
More than any other discipline, Cal has really excelled in backstroke lately, from the Murphy-Pebley era through the current crop that scored 42 points last year and returns all of them.
Daniel Carr mostly made headlines last year via his re-swim and subsequent A final bid in the 100 back. (The backstroke starting wedge malfunctioned and didn’t retract, interfering with Carr’s prelims swim that ended in 17th place. His re-swim moved him up to 4th, and he was 7th in the final). But less-discussed has been Carr’s outstanding improvement curve since high school. 46.7/1:42.7 out of high school, Carr went 45.2/1:39.2 as a freshman and 44.8/1:38.5 as a sophomore. He returns 4th overall in both the 100 and 200 backs and is in line to be one of the nation’s top backstroke scorers.
Fellow sophomore Bryce Mefford was third in the 200 last year (1:38.5) and returns as the #2 swimmer from that field. He has a chance to make a big improvement on his 16 backstroke points from last year: his lifetime- and season-best from last year of 45.38 would have been .01 out of scoring in the 100 last year. But while swimming the 200 free/100 back double last year only left Mefford two tenths off his best in the 100 back, it was still enough to keep him out of scoring range. Cal will have to decide how to handle that double this season. For what it’s worth, we’d probably keep him in the 200, based on the huge number of scorers not returning from last year. He might be able to eke out a few points in the backstroke even with the double, but the 200 probably has the higher scoring ceiling.
If that duo isn’t enough, Cal also gets star transfer Hugo Gonzalez, who was 1:39.0 back in his freshman year in 2017-2018 for Auburn. That would have been enough for an A final appearance last year. Gonzalez sat out last year while completing his transfer, and didn’t have a great year in long course meters (he was 54.5/1:58.6, compared to lifetime-bests of 54.1/1:56.6). On the other hand, he did hit lifetime-bests in short course meters (51.4/1:52.4) in the fall and had to deal with several changes in training base, so there’s a decent chance he bounces back with some stability.
Senior Ethan Young was a great prospect (46.6/1:43.0 out of high school) who has been up and down in college: 46.9/1:45 as a freshman, 46.4/1:41.4 as a sophomore and 46.1/1:42.4 as a junior. It’s hard to say what Cal will get from him as a senior, but he’s a borderline point-scorer in both events if he’s at his best.
The freshman class adds some develomental depth. Canada’s Sebastian Somerset has long course times (55.9/2:00.1) that convert roughly to 47.5 and 1:42.9. He’s joined by a couple legacy recruits: Mefford’s younger brother Colby Mefford is 48.2/1:44.4 and Maryland’s Will Pelton 48.7/1:45.5. None of the three are likely to score as rookies, but have solid upside to develop in Cal’s system.
The breaststroke group remains solid even after graduating national 200 breast champ Seliskar. Reece Whitley was a star as a freshman last year, though he was upstaged a little by fellow rookie Max McHugh at nationals. Whitley went 51.1/1:50.6, scoring 29 individual points. With lots of breaststroke graduations at the top of the NCAA, Whitley moves up to the #2 returner in the 100 breast and #3 in the 200 breast.
Cal also graduates Carson Sand, who was a B final scorer in the 200 and the team’s second-fastest 100 breaststroker. Karl Arvidsson returns for his senior year after going 52.5/1:52.8 last year. Those were big drops from his 53.1/1:54.9 junior year, and he’s dropped consistently every year. If that keeps up, he’s a likely scorer in both, though he needs to be on top of his game at NCAAs after adding two seconds in his 200 to miss scoring last year.
Swiss breaststroker Jaques Läuffer is another good 200 swimmer, coming in for his freshman year with long course times of 1:01.6/2:11.4 – those yield rough conversions of 53.3 and 1:53.8. Meanwhile fellow freshman Jason Louser will probably focus on the IMs, but is 1:57.0 in the 200, his likely third event.
Senior Zheng Quah is the only true two-distance butterflyer returning from last year’s NCAA team, but Cal supplements him with a bunch of outstanding one-event scorers.
First, Quah: 45.0/1:39.2 last year, he’s been a consistent scorer over his three seasons, even if he took a little step backwards as a sophomore. (45.0/1:38.8 as a freshman; 45.4/1:40.2 as a sophomore).
In the 100, star sprinters Ryan Hoffer (45.0) and Pawel Sendyk (45.3) return as NCAA scorers, and both are among the top 8 returners. In the 200, it’s junior Trenton Julian who is back after two straight seasons in the top 8 at NCAAs. Julian was 1:40.6 as a freshman and 1:40.94 on the dot in both prelims and finals at NCAAs last year. That’s the kind of consistency you can count on to put up 10+ points again, especially with half the A final from last year graduating. In fact, Quah and Julian are two of the top three returners in what could be a huge day 4 haymaker for this Cal team.
Mike Thomas graduates after taking 10th in the 200 last year. The next upperclassman up would be Jack Xie, a highly-touted high school prospect has been consistent over three years (46.8/1:43.0 as a freshman; 1:43.0 as a sophomore; 46.2/1:43.1 as a junior) but needs a late-career breakthrough to score at NCAAs.
With all due respect to Cal’s excellent backstroke legacy, it’s the IMs that are becoming the Golden Bears’ new powerhouse. They receive the only five-star IM grade of any school in the nation, and project to score 20+ points more than the next-best team – and that’s not even factoring in their star transfer who could add 30-some more points.
Most of the damage comes in the 400 IM, where Cal went 2-3-5 at NCAAs last year, return the 1st- and 2nd-fastest swimmers from the final and add the #3 performer of all-time in a transfer. Sean Grieshop is the top returner nationally in the 400 IM. He went from an outstanding 3:44.3 out of high school to a 3:42.0 as a college freshman before exploding to a 3:37.0 last year in his sophomore campaign. Even without factoring in that improvement curve, Grieshop is the favorite to win the NCAA title – he was 2.8 seconds faster than the next-best returner from last year – his teammate Trenton Julian (3:39.83).
Julian is improving even faster. More of a fly/free type out of high school, Julian dropped from 3:52 to 3:39 in the 400 IM last year. He looks like an NCAA title contender himself, and has been clutch in both of his NCAA appearances.
Then there’s Hugo Gonzalez, the star transfer from Auburn. Gonzalez was 3:35.7 and 1:40.6 in the IMs as a freshman at Auburn in 2018. The Spanish national has potential to score massive IM points by being even close to his best, but has a couple question marks. First: his rookie year, he was outstanding at SECs but fell off the map at NCAAs. He’ll have to iron that out to be a contributor in 2020, but Cal’s system should set him up well there – the polar opposite of the highly-competitive SEC, where team pride and conference rivalries matter to coaching staffs and athletic departments almost as much as NCAA performances, the Pac-12 is a much more laid-back conference. Half the teams don’t seem to care one bit about the conference championships, and most of Cal’s stars will barely rest at conference, saving their best stuff for nationals.
The other concern with Gonzalez is that in his gap year, he wasn’t at his best in the IMs. After going 4:14.6 in the long course 400 IM at World Juniors in 2017, Gonzalez fell back to 4:18 the next summer, and didn’t swim the event much last year. On the other hand, Gonzalez dealt with at least three changes in training base last season: from Auburn to Virginia Tech, then back home to Spain, then out to California. He did hit lifetime-bests in both short course meter IMs last fall, and stability should help his 2019-2020 college season, even if his summer of 2019 was pretty lackluster.
That’s a lot of words on Gonzalez, so we’ll run through the remaining IMers briefly. Backstroker Daniel Carr was 11th in the 200 IM last year (1:42.35), coming up with a huge NCAAs drop. With six seniors in the A final last year, Carr moves all the way up to #3 among returners, though some freshmen will probably fill in some of those gaps. Zheng Quah, meanwhile, barely missed scoring in 17th last year, despite a career-best 1:43.1 in prelims. He would move all the way to 9th with seniors factored out.
Sophomore Reece Whitley was 1:43.5 out of high school, but struggled a little in his very first NCAA swim, going 1:44.1. He bounced back nicely in the breaststrokes and should be in line to improve his IM finish in his sophomore season.
Cal’s top two recruits are also good IMers. Jason Louser is 1:46.0/3:45.8 and dropping at an incredible rate (he was 1:48.2/3:47.7 as a high school junior and 1:51.1/3:57.6 as a sophomore). The 6-foot-7 freshman has a massive frame and a ton of raw talent. Joining a loaded IM group, he could be Cal’s next great one. Meanwhile Swiss breaststroker Jacques Lauffer will probably swim one or both IMs. His long course times (4:26.5/2:04) don’t put him in scoring range yet, but perhaps down the road.
Since building a new diving facility, Cal has been striving to break into the college diving realm after hemorrhaging points to teams like Texas and Indiana on the boards in years past. 2020 might just be the year they finally break through for points. Connor Callahan will be a senior – he was 18th on 1-meter last year and moves up into B final range with seniors removed. He was a three-event NCAA qualifier. Meanwhile Johnny Robinson will be a junior, and made NCAAs on platform last year.
The Golden Bears also bring in elite diving recruit Nick Hart. It’s hard to project exactly where freshmen divers will fit in, but Hart has been a finalist at Junior World Championship Trials (in 2018) and competed at senior nationals along with a bunch of major diving names. He should score at some point – for now, it’s just whether he can break in as a freshman or not. He did deal with some injuries in high school, so that’s something to keep an eye on as well.
The relays actually remain in very good shape, with one very notable graduation: Seliskar, who held down key legs of four relay teams.
The shortest relays are the best for the sprint-dominant Cal. Three of four legs return from the winning 200 free relay: Sendyk (18.8 leadoff), Hoffer (18.4 split) and Jensen (18.7 split). Seliskar’s 18.4 is a burden to replace. Biondi (19.4 flat start in a Pac-12 time trial) might be the top candidate. But you have to wonder if Cal could also take a versatile type like Seliskar to fill in. Backstroker Mefford was 19.9 out of high school and split 19.8 at mid-season last year. Quah split 19.2 mid-season.
In the 200 medley, Cal returns all four legs after taking second last year by two tenths. (And champion Alabama loses three of four legs). Carr, Whitley, Sendyk and Hoffer are the returners there. The only concern is that Whitley’s tall frame doesn’t lend itself to a great sprint breast split (he was 23.6 last year, 7th of 8 A final teams), so there’s a chance Cal experiments with someone like Arvidsson. Either way, both 200-yard relays are true NCAA title contenders, perhaps even favorites. (In fact, our staff picked them unanimously to win the 200 medley and 7 of 8 writers picked them in the 200 free).
Cal was also our unanimous pick in the 400 medley, where three of four legs return. Seliskar actually swam outside his wheelhouse there, holding down the fly leg in 44.3. One has to imagine Hoffer, Quah or Sendyk could be about as fast there. Hoffer was 41.00 anchoring and ran down Texas last year, so he’s the preferred anchor: it’s probably Quah/Hoffer or Sendyk/Hoffer, unless Hoffer’s fly really takes off, in which case Hoffer/Sendyk might be the call.
Cal was third in the 400 free relay last year and still return the dominant trio of Hoffer, Sendyk and Jensen, all three likely good for 41-second legs if they’re not too exhausted by day 4. Seliskar had a key 41.1 anchor leg, and that will again be the gouth leg to replace. Biondi (42.9 flat start last year) or Quah are probably the top options. There’s an outside chance for Gonzalez to contribute (he was 42.8 for Auburn as a freshman at SECs), or fellow backstrokers Mefford (43.3 flat start last year mid-season) or Carr (43.7 mid-season), or the freshman Petrides. In all, the toughest part for Cal coach Dave Durden will be picking the right fourth man out of his many options. It’d take a lot for this relay to win, but their strong three legs probably keep them locked into the top four.
The 800 free relay has the toughest job: replacing a stellar 1:30.1 leadoff from Seliskar, along with a 1:32.8 anchor from Thomas. The middle of the relay returns: Mefford (1:32.5) and Julian (1:31.9). Quah (1:33.7 individually) should be a lock for one spot. The other spot could be any of Gonzalez (1:34.7 back in his freshman year for Auburn), 1:35 freshmen Petrides or C. Mefford or distance man Grieshop, who was 1:36.5 out of high school and has made huge 500/mile drops since.
There are two fun wild cards in the mix, too. Who wouldn’t want to see 6-foot-9 sophomore breaststroker Whitley on this relay? He was 1:36.9 out of high school and oozes talent. The other is Hoffer, who was 1:35.2 as a high schooler, but is probably too busy with the other five relays to check back in here.
The fourth leg of the 800 is troubling, but this is definitely still a top 8 relay with top-3 upside.
Much like the Stanford women, the Cal men have absolutely dominated recruiting for a few cycles, and the insane talent they’ve accumulated makes them very tough for the rest of the nation to run down. Their junior class, in particular, is a legion of doom, and only getting better each year.
No doubt Seliskar and Thomas provided major leadership in Cal’s title run last year. That will be a key piece for Cal: who steps up to set the tone for the team.
The sprint group is so good for Cal. They’re primed to absolutely crush the 50 and 100 free along with the 200 free relay and both medleys, thanks to that punishing Hoffer/Sendyk combination. When your only real question mark is the 4th swimmer on any of your relays, you know you’ve got a strong lineup.
Cal is also very well-rounded. Every one of their swimming disciplines got 4 or 5 stars in our projected points. IM and fly appear to be the biggest strengths, but the back and free groups are excellent. Diving remains the lone weakness, but getting ~10 dive points this season would be awfully helpful in the slugfest with Texas, who are projected to earn an insane 106 diving points.
The NCAA team title this year may come down to the Olympic factor: how many top athletes will go full rest for NCAAs, and how many will split focus between long course and short course even through college season? Both Cal and Texas have a number of Olympic hopefuls, which should add some intrigue to this battle. But at this early stage, Cal remains the team to beat, based on a strong edge in returning points (279 to Texas’s 176; 373-288 when factoring out seniors) and very good performances at the past two NCAA Championships, compared to shaky ones by Texas. If Cal shows up for the first two days of NCAAs the way they did last year, there aren’t many rosters who can battle back.