The calendar has flipped to October, and the NCAA season is kicking off in earnest. Before we get too far into the season, we’re highlighting some of the major storylines that you should keep an eye on throughout the 2023-24 season, from now all the way through the 2024 NCAA Championships in March.
Texas Takes Aim at Virginia
The Virginia women are eyeing the 4-peat this season. They’ve put themselves in prime position to pull off the feat, and are more than capable of sweeping the five relays again.
However, Texas is capable of keeping them honest. It would be surprising if the Cavaliers did not win the meet, but especially with Kate Douglass turning pro, the meet be a lot closer than the blowout that it was last season.
It’s not just Douglass’ departure, though. The Longhorns have brought in a recruiting class that will make an immediate impact, largely because the class includes the sprint freestylers that have been missing from the Texas roster and are essential to building a national title team. With additions like Erin Gemmell, Emma Davidson, Alexa Fulton, and Emma Kern, Texas has added serious depth in the sprint freestyles. It gives them the possibility of more individual points, but also and given a ton of options to add to relays that have fifth-year Kelly Pash as a strong swimmer to build around.
Adding these pieces to one of the most complete rosters in the NCAA gives Texas a serious opportunity to take a run at the crown.
Can The Walsh Sisters Go 6-for-6?
That’s not to say that Virginia doesn’t have some serious firepower of their own. This season, they’ll be lead by the Walsh sisters, who return for their senior (Alex Walsh) and junior (Gretchen Walsh) campaigns. Heading into 2023 NCAAs, one of the main questions was about Virginia’s roster decisions. How often would Douglass and the Walsh sisters go head-to-head? Would Virginia purposefully spread the wealth and try to go 9-for9 with the three, or even sweep the day 2 events?
A. Walsh and Douglass both entered the 200 IM, meaning that the answer to the last two questions was a ‘no’. But the Walsh sisters themselves do not overlap in their events, meaning that this year, we’ll see each aim to sweep her three individual events.
G. Walsh has set the bar high already, dropping some sizzling times at the UVA Intrasquad meet and a 50.05 100 backstroke at the end of practice. Her lineup is likely set, but A. Walsh has some decisions to make: does she stick with the 200 fly or switch to the 200 breast on day 4?
The Rise of the Cardinals
At 2023 NCAAs, the Louisville Cardinals notched a program-best 4th place finish, scoring the most points at an NCAA championship in team history. Gabi Albiero and Christinia Regenauer both made the 50 free ‘A’ final, marking the first time the team landed two swimmers in an ‘A’ final. In addition to stellar individual performances, four of their five relays finished in the top 8.
Sprint freestyle once again powers the Cardinals as they look to take another step up the podium this year. Albiero, Regenauer, Abby Hay, Julia Dennis, and Ella Welch will be called on once again this season, as Louisville continues to rely on their relays to provide the bulk of their points.
Both Stanford and NC State have suffered losses that make this year a prime opportunity for Louisville to assert themselves as a top three program and once again make program history–if they can take advantage of it.
Stanford Women Try To Stay Afloat
This is perhaps the biggest storyline heading into the women’s NCAA season. Claire Curzan and Taylor Ruck have both departed, and Torri Huske is taking an Olympic redshirt year. With those three swimmers gone, Stanford loses the bulk of its individual points and the driving force behind all five relays. With their three biggest names gone, Stanford has found itself in a rebuilding year. Quite simply, they aren’t the team that the used to be, or were even last year when they finished 3rd at NCAAs.
In their stars absence, Stanford needs its depth swimmers to step up. They have potential scorers in almost every discipline, but it will take their swimmers being at their best at NCAAs–not at midseason, not at PAC-12s–for the Cardinal to keep themselves in the top 10 at NCAAs.
That’s not to say that they are now a bad team; 10th at NCAAs is a dream for plenty of programs. And, they can certainly be better than the 10th place we’ve got them at in our pre-season rankings, but it will be a battle that takes the entire team to pull off.
In the midst of this storyline, one more to keep an eye on is their freshman breaststrokers. Stanford has been missing a breaststroker for years, and its a cruel twist that two arrive on campus just as the rest of their medley relay stars depart. But how Lucy Thomas and Caroline Bricker develop will be crucial for the program’s future.
How High Can Florida Rise With Super-Freshman Bella Sims?
The Florida women had a big year last year. They won their first SEC conference title since 2009, and went on to place 9th at NCAAs, their best finish in nearly a decade. Yes, they had transfer Emma Weyant boosting their score with a pair of NCAA ‘A’ final appearances, but what really made the difference for the Gators–both at SECs and NCAAs–was their massively improved relays.
This year, they’ve lost some pieces to the transfer portal, but they return 10 of their 17 NCAA contributors, including six of their nine individual scorers. They get two valuable additions in Bella Sims and Izzy Ivey. And, they have our top ranked recruiting class on the women’s side.
So, with their retained talent plus two huge additions, it seems fair to expect that they’ll exceed last year’s 9th place finish. The question is by how much?
If you looked at our pre-season power rankings, SwimSwam writers’ answer to this question varies wildly. One writer put them 4th, another 8th, and eventually everything averaged out to put them 6th in the power rankings, up three spots from their 2023 finish.
Sims is such a versatile yards swimmer that there’s plenty of options for her in the NCAA format, but it’s possible that she could win three events as a freshman. Ivey will certainly factor in multiple ‘A’ finals, and both will be key additions to their already much improved relays.
They have momentum from last season and an influx of new swimmers that deepen the roster. How these two factors combine should be one of the most intriguing storylines for the 2023-24 season.
Other Storylines to Watch
- Is Wisconsin poised to become another Freestyle University? With the additions of sprinter Hailey Tierney and distance swimmer Maddie Waggoner, they could make a strong case.
- Michigan’s sophomores performed well last season, and the Wolverines have a stellar freshman class arriving on campus. Coupled with a new-look coaching staff led by Matt Bowe, could Michigan reverse their fortunes from the last couple seasons?
- Are the ASU women going to be nationally relevant this season? There’s been a big disparity between the development of the men’s and women’s teams so far, but is this the year the Sun Devil women begin to close that gap?
- Almost every event at women’s NCAAs this season has a clear favorite to win. As the season develops, keep an eye out for potential upsets that could play spoiler in March.
- Margo Geer got a contract extension and her freshmen are off to a good start at ‘Bama. Can the Crimson Tide bounce back and silence the critics?