The 2017 NCAA Swimming & Diving season officially got underway last weekend with the annual Alabama-Delta State dual, which has become a ceremonial opener for the competition schedule. Below, see the top 10 storylines for men’s teams coming into the year.
- See Also: Top 10 Men’s Storylines
10. Kathleen Baker Reaching Legendary Status
She doesn’t get the same hype as Katie Ledecky or Simone Manuel, but Cal junior-to-be Kathleen Baker was the CSCAA National Swimmer of the Year last season – ahead of both of them. She won 3 events at NCAA Championships, and already holds the school record in the 100 back (cc: Coughlin, Franklin, Pelton, Bootsma, etc.).
In Cal’s illustrious history, only Natalie Coughlin (11) has won more than 7 individual NCAA event titles. Baker could get to 6 this year and set herself up for history in 2019.
9. The Women’s 400 IM Field is The Best Since the Hosszu/Smit/DiRado/Leverenz
This one might only appeal to true swim nerds, but this year’s 400 IM field might be the best since the event took a major evolution in 2011 when Katinka Hosszu opened the sub-4:00 swim (and then continued to hack away at it). That 2011 field was one of the great races in NCAA history (and if Julia Smit were a year younger, it could have been even better). Katinka Hosszu, a junior, took the mantle and broke the barrier, while a young trio of Elizabeth Beisel, Maya DiRado, and Caitlin Leverenz chased. A future NCAA Champion Sarah Henry was just 6th as a freshman in that field; National Teamer Teresa Crippen was 7th; 2016 Olympian Melanie Margalis was another freshman that year and took just 9th. Cammile Adams, Claire Crippen, and Haley Anderson also were in that field. That was a legendary race.
This year’s event doesn’t have quite that hype (yet), but should still be the best field since then.
A DQ cost Ella Eastin a spot on the Worlds team, so she’ll be hungry. Sydney Pickrem won Worlds bronze in the 400 IM for Canada even after earlier disappointment in the 200 IM where she had to leave the pool before finishing her race. Stanford freshman Brooke Forde has already been 4:02.5 as a high school student, and has shown no signs of slowing down through the long course season. It should take sub-4 to medal at NCAAs, and if Katie Ledecky joins the fun (she swam the race at Pac-12s last year), then it moves toward that same 2011 legendary status.
8. Battle for Big Ten Supremacy
The Big Ten battle between Indiana and Michigan should be a lot of fun to watch this season. The Hoosiers have the superstar Lilly King, but Michigan is a very deep team that won last year’s title and has some legit relays. The Wolverines’ entire 3rd-place 800 free relay returns in-tact.
Conference battles are fun, and yes, they do matter. With Minnesota and Wisconsin hanging around as spoilers, the Big Ten Championship will be a deep and interesting meet.
7. Florida State Swimming Studdly
The ACC is in a weird spot. The NC State women continue to perform (7th at NCAAs), but graduated a lot of swimmers (in addition to losing sprint coach Todd DeSorbo to Virginia). Virginia slipped to 12th at NCAAs and also lost their head coach…but picked up DeSorbo (reminder – whose team beat Virginia at NCAAs last year). UNC is holding steady in the bottom quadrant of the top 20, but lost their best swimmer Hellen Moffitt to graduation.
All of the conference’s top teams have hills to climb this season, except one: the Florida State women are rolling down the other side, and fast. After not scoring at NCAAs in 2016, the Seminoles picked up 24 points last year (28th place) after just one season under new head coach Neal Studd. Over the summer, Natalie Pierce became the first Seminole woman ever to qualify for a championship final at a long course U.S. Summer Nationals.
Studd came from FGCU, where he coached only women (including at least one relay making an NCAA Championship A-final with a mid-major school and less-than-full scholarship load). He proved he could get the job down with limited resources at FGCU. Now, a few hundred miles up the coast, with deeper pockets provided by Power 5 football, things are already trending upward in Tallahassee.
6. Down Year for Freshmen (On Paper)
This year’s freshman class has far less hype than most in recent memory. Hear me out: there’s still a few stars, like Taylor Ruck, but not the depth of prior years. Take the 2015 class, for example, where Ella Eastin was only the #6 recruit, and she, along with everyone ahead of her, has lived up to that ranking.
This year’s #1 recruit, Courtney Harnish, is crazy-versatile, but will still need some decent drops to place top 3 in any events at NCAAs. That’s the same story for most of the class of 2017 – they’re very good, but there’s no Missy Franklins or Katie Ledeckys or Abbey Weitzeils or Kathleen Bakers in the class who are going to be Swimmer of the Year candidates the second they step foot on campus.
There’s some good names, but fewer-than-usual whose coaches are circling for top 3 finishes as freshmen at NCAAs. On some level, new and exciting freshmen bring fun to the NCAA. On the other hand, having to develop to contend can be fun too. Look for the veterans to dominate the NCAA Championship meet this year more than usual – with tons of wins by juniors and seniors (and redshirt sophomores like Katie Ledecky, who will be around the same age as a junior). Forcing swimmers to develop to contribute helps keep things from being so…predictable (see #1).
5. Could Two Traditional Powers Go 0-For in the Same Season?
The Florida women, 2010 NCAA Champions, didn’t score at last year’s NCAA Championship meet. after a run of transfers on either side of the arrival of new head coach Augie Busch (here, here, here, etc.), it’s not inconceivable that Arizona could join them. Both teams have some promising young talent, but few sure things (especially as former Youth Olympic Champion Lilly Szilagyi left Florida after initially being on their roster).
But both teams have long proud legacies and tons of talent. We generally try to avoid having a rooting interest, but in this case, we’re pulling for both to get over the hump and pick up some points. We don’t like writing stories like this one any more than Florida fans liked reading it.
4. Abbey Weitzeil Looks To Build Off Freshman Year At Cal
In March of 2015, in just her senior year of high school, Abbey Weitzeil swam the fastest 50 yard free in history by a woman. She clocked 21.12 at the American Short Course Championships, knocking a full 0.15 off of the previous record. Already committed to swim for Cal the following season, she announced later that month that she had decided to defer her freshman year in order to prepare for the Olympics.
That moved ended up to be a smart one. She won both the 50 and 100 free at the Olympic Trials, and went on to make the Olympic final in the 100 and pick up a pair of relay medals.
However, her first season with the Golden Bears was a rough one by her own admission. She still had some decent swims at her first NCAAs, finishing 5th in the 50 and putting together some key relay legs, but overall it wasn’t up to her lofty standards.
Now with freshman year behind her, what does this season have in store for the Canyons Aquatic Club alum? For one, she has a legitimate shot at Simone Manuel in the 50 free. Manuel did go 21.17 to win last season, but Weitzeil has been faster. She wasn’t bad last year, going 21.5 for 5th, but should be able to get back in the 21-low range in 2018.
We should also see a big improvement in her 100 free. She finished 8th in a time of 47.79 in March, but was able to uncork a 45.96 relay leg the night prior in the 400 medley (albeit with a -0.13 reaction, which got the team disqualified and stripped of the title). She’s been as fast as 46.29 flat start, and while Manuel may be too far ahead in this event, she should be able to challenge Mallory Comerford for the runner-up slot.
Though she still wasn’t on top form this summer, getting herself on the World Championship team was a definite confidence booster heading into this season.
3. Comerford Leads Rising Louisville Squad
After a massive breakout last year, Louisville junior Mallory Comerford won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season. She was sensational at the NCAA Championships, leading a young group to top-8 finishes in all four relays she swam, and had arguably the performance of the meet when she tied Katie Ledecky for the 200 free title. She followed that up with five gold medals at the 2017 World Championships (all relays), establishing herself on the international stage for the first time.
While Comerford won’t fly under the radar, this Louisville team very well could. All three of their free relays featured three freshman and Comerford, who was a sophomore. With the same team intact and the majority of teams who finished ahead of them losing a key piece or two, they have a legitimate shot to finish in the top three or maybe even win a relay if the stars align.
With Comerford at the helm, this team has sky-high potential over the next few years. The majority of the hype has been out west recently with Cal and Stanford, and rightly so, but Louisville could steal some of that thunder back this season. The Bears and Cardinal were the only two teams to win a relay last year, but the Cardinals will be the right there this year.
2. Women’s Field Stacked With Defending Champions
One of the most exciting things to look forward to in an NCAA season is who’s gone, who’s new, and which national titles will be up for grabs once March rolls around. However, the women’s side could lack that type of drama this year.
Out of 13 individual swimming events, only one won’t feature the defending champion. And out of the remaining 12, ten of the events have a defending champ who is an individual Olympic medalist. The only events that don’t have a defending champ with an Olympic medal is the 200 fly and 400 IM, both won by Stanford’s Ella Eastin in dominant fashion last year (Mallory Comerford is another defending champ without an Olympic medal, sharing the 200 free title with six-time Olympic medalist Katie Ledecky).
The women’s 100 fly is the lone event which won’t feature the defending champion, as Cal’s Farida Osman has graduated, but other than that it doesn’t look like there will be a lot of turnover at the top.
For freestyle, Simone Manuel has a handle on the sprints, Katie Ledecky on distance, and those two will battle Mallory Comerford for the 200 crown. Kathleen Baker has a stranglehold on back, as does Lilly King on breast, and Eastin has the 200 fly and 400 IM under control. And then there’s the 200 IM, where Baker and Eastin will throw down for the second straight year.
There were plenty of big names who graduated last year, including Olivia Smoliga, Leah Smith, Kierra Smith and Madisyn Cox, but the names at the top don’t appear to be changing. Chances are that will be the case again next year, as Eastin, Manuel, Comerford, Baker and King all head into their junior years. Ledecky still has three more years.
1. Stanford Women
After winning the NCAA title by a whopping 160.5 points last season, the Stanford Cardinal women project to be dominant once again. They’ve lost Lia Neal, who was an integral piece to their puzzle, but bringing in the #1 ranked recruit class in the nation certainly softens the blow.
Joining the likes of Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel and Ella Eastin will be Brooke Forde, who is capable of coming in and finishing top three in the 400 IM. Along with that, she’s in-line to go top-8 in the 200 IM and top-16 in the 200 breast, and can contribute on relays if needed.
Along with Forde, who was ranked as the #4 recruit by us last summer but could easily be seen as #1 now, Stanford has four more swimmers who are ranked in the top-12, all of whom have the potential to score individually, contribute on relays, or both at NCAAs.
Adding that class to Ledecky, Manuel and Eastin, along with individual scorers Ally Howe, Megan Byrnes, Leah Stevens, Allie Szekely, Janet Hu, Katie Drabot and Kim Williams, there will be no stopping the Cardinal this year.
They should win back-to-back NCAA titles for the first time since 1995-96, and could improve on their 160.5 point margin of victory, which was the largest since Auburn defeated Georgia by 163 in 2003.