The recruiting world is changing. It’s time we changed too.
Top recruits are verbally committing earlier and earlier, and our old game plan of ranking high school recruits on July 1 after their junior years (when recruiting season used to officially open) is just too slow. So we’re adding a layer to our recruiting coverage this spring. After moving up our junior recruit ranks more than two months, we’re also producing early rankings for the current crop of sophomores – the ones who will likely start verbally committing over the next year or so.
Before we run over our traditional ranking methodology, we should head off a few counterarguments at the pass:
- Isn’t this too early to have a good read on talent? Aren’t 16-year-old kids still improving? Sure feels that way. On the other hand, coaches are clearly finding roster spots for kids who verbally commit this early. And if we and our readership want to have the most accurate picture of how the recruiting season is playing out, it’ll be useful to have some sort of ranking – even one still very much in flux – to refer to as big-name swimmers commit.
- But recruiting ranks don’t matter. It’s the fast-dropping swimmers and diamonds in the rough that really have the biggest NCAA impact. Not true. There are always fast-rising swimmers who quickly develop into NCAA stars. But there are far less of them than there are elite high school prospects that become high-impact NCAA swimmers. We all love the Cinderella stories, the unranked recruits who flourish into dominators. But even those rags-to-riches stories aren’t as fleshed out if they don’t have a clearly-defined “rags” setup. These ranks help show us who is most likely to become NCAA standouts… but also contextualize where the eventual breakout stars originally rated compared to peers.
- How accurate can these be with two plus years of development to go before any of these swimmers compete in the NCAA? Who knows? This is as new to us as it is to you. For these ranks, we’re a little less concerned with actual NCAA scoring times than we are in our junior/senior ranks, and probably marginally more interested in “ceilings” – wide event ranges, versatility, etc. But as with any ranking, these are ultimately nothing more than a snapshot in time: what the top of this recruiting class looks like in the moment, with full admission that a lot of these ranks can and will change by the time they finish their senior years.
Our goal in these rankings is to reflect what college coaches look for in recruits, based on many years of conversations and coverage.
We focus only on American-based athletes, simply because there is so much uncertainty with international recruits – if they’ll come to the states, when they’ll come to the states and with what graduating class they should be ranked. Projecting international recruits often becomes more a discussion of when they’ll first join a college program and not which program they’ll join.
A few other factors that weigh heavily in our rankings:
- Relay Value – Relay points count double in college swimming, and any program needs a strong stable of quality sprinters to fill out all 5 relays with studs. Obviously, a special distance swimmer can easily rank ahead of a very good 100 freestyler, but college swimming generally values a sprint freestyler over a distance swimmer, all other factors being equal.
- Improvements – Actual times are a the trump card, but any big improvements in quality can make a difference as well. For example, a swimmer who only took up year-round swimming as a junior in high school going the same time as a swimmer whose been swimming year-round since they were 8 will probably get the edge in our rankings. Think Breeja Larson.
- Short Course over Long Course – we recognize that some programs, many programs, put their focus with their high school aged swimmers on long course, especially depending on when the high school championships may fall. That said, college swimming is short course, so a swimmer who is great in short course but struggles in long course will have the advantage over the reverse.
- NCAA scoring ability – NCAAs are the big show for college teams, so we’ve weighted NCAA scoring potential very highly. Swimmers who already have NCAA scoring times wind up mostly filling out the top our of rankings. Since college athletic directors – and by extension coaches – also place high value on conference championships, scoring ability at conference meets is also a factor in our rankings.
- Relative depth in the NCAA and recruiting class – a wealth of elite depth nationwide in one stroke discipline makes a big difference in what times are considered more valuable in that event. Events rise at different rates in the NCAA, but when one event gets extremely deep and fast at the college level, it makes high school prospects in those events a little less valuable, relatively, with lots of other veteran options. In the same way, a recruiting class stacked with swimmers in butterfly, for example, would make each butterflyer a little less sought-after in the market, with lots of other recruiting options able to provide similar production.
Of course, there’s no way to predict the future, and the most concrete data we have to go on are cold, hard times. These rankings in no way mean that all of these 20 swimmers will be NCAA standouts, and they certainly don’t mean that no swimmer left off this list will make big contributions at the NCAA level.
- Best women’s class in years
- Major controversy for #1
- Very, very deep in butterfly
- Distance swimmers crowded out
This is an unbelievable recruiting class. It’s easily the best class we’ve ranked since the stellar 2015 crew that included Katie Ledecky, Abbey Weitzeil, Kathleen Baker, Katie McLaughlin, Amy Bilquist, Ella Eastin and Lilly King. And outside of Ledecky and Weitzeil, the times from the Class of 2020 are pretty much across the board faster as sophomores than that class’s were as juniors.
The big question will be what to do at #1, where we’ve got two swimmers who would have been the consensus #1 in our last four recruiting classes. It’s the age old question of what’s more valuable: a 1:48.3 backstroker or a 2:06.4 breaststroker? How about a 50.8 backstroker or a 58.1 breaststroker? Or a 1:53.5 flyer or a 1:54.0 IMer?
The answer, of course, is “yes.” There really isn’t a wrong way to rank these two, and any team would be thrilled with either of them. It’ll be interesting to see if our pick changes when we revisit these rankings down the road.
In terms of specifics, this class is loaded in every discipline. No kidding. Butterfly is particularly deep – we had at least 7 flyers pushing for spots in our rankings, and the latter four of them are currently so close it’s almost not worth trying to justify ranking one above another. Junior and senior years will go a long way in distinguishing that group from one another.
There are three elite backstrokers at the top but a fairly big dropoff after that. Outside of Walsh, there’s a crowd of about six breaststrokers who could all be in the hunt for top 20 ranks. The class isn’t super outstanding in the 100 and 200 frees, but has depth and should develop, as there’s a good amount of 22-second speed in the splash and dash.
The two spots that get crowded out a little bit in this stacked class are distance swimmers and IMers, particularly 400 IMers. It’s not so much that it’s a weak class, but that the class is so loaded with stroke specialists that there isn’t a lot of room for milers or developing IMers. Keep an eye on the IM field, though, where there are at least six swimmers not on our list between 4:11 and 4:15 who could develop into top-10 type swimmers.
|Top Times in the Class of 2020|
|50 Free||Alex Walsh||22.08|
|100 Free||Regan Smith||48.81|
|200 Free||Regan Smith||1:44.49|
|500 Free||Regan Smith||4:41.69|
|1000 Free**||Chase Travis||9:42.32|
|1650 Free||Chase Travis||16:06.01|
|100 Back||Regan Smith||50.84|
|200 Back||Regan Smith||1:48.30|
|100 Breast||Alex Walsh||58.19|
|200 Breast||Alex Walsh||2:06.45|
|100 Fly||Olivia Bray||51.48|
|200 Fly||Regan Smith||1:53.50|
|200 IM||Alex Walsh||1:54.02|
|400 IM||Kathryn Ackerman||4:10.20|
**The 1000 free isn’t an event at the Division I NCAA Championships, but is swum instead of the 1650 in many Division I dual meets and is part of the NCAA program in Division II.
With that out of the way, let’s get to our rankings.
Disclaimer: there are a lot of high school sophomores in the country, and no really good, complete, 100% accurate listing of them all. If you don’t see your favorite swimmer on the list, feel free to politely point them out in the comments. There’s a chance that we disagree with your assessment of their spot in the top 20, and so long as it’s done civilly, there’s no problem with differences of opinions. There’s also a chance that we’ve simply missed a no-brainer (we’ve taken every precaution to avoid that), and if that happens, we want to make sure we correct it.
TOP 10 SWIMMERS FROM THE CLASS OF 2020
1. Regan Smith – Riptide – Lakeville North High School – Lakeville, MN **Verbally committed to Stanford**
Best Times: 200 back – 1:48.30, 100 back – 50.84, 200 fly – 1:53.50, 100 fly – 51.63, 200 free – 1:44.49, 100 free – 48.81, 500 free – 4:41.69, 200 IM – 1:56.58, 400 IM – 4:14.03
Those backstroke times are too insane to rank anywhere but #1. We’ve never seen a recruit near that level in their junior years, even dating back to Missy Franklin (who was part of the first recruiting class we ranked and was 52.3/1:51.0 at that time). Missy was of course a little more slanted to long course (58.8/2:05.1 after her junior year), but Smith is still faster than Missy was coming out of her sophomore year in long course: Smith is 58.9/2:07.1 while Franklin was 59.5/2:07.9. Long course detour aside, Smith is the best swimmer in this class in six events, including two of the relay-distance freestyles (100/200) and could realistically swim back or fly on an elite tier medley relay. 500 free and 200 IM times are just bonus, if a college program wants to split her events up instead of doing a 100 back/100 fly double at NCAAs.
2. Alex Walsh – Nashville Aquatic Club – Harpeth Hall High School – Nashville, TN **Verbally committed to Virginia**
Best Times: 100 breast – 58.19, 200 breast – 2:06.45, 200 IM – 1:54.02, 50 free – 22.08, 100 free – 48.90, 200 free – 1:45.24, 100 back – 51.45, 200 back – 1:51.42
We know: how in the world could these times not rank #1? It’s a true 1A and 1B situation with this class at present. Walsh is the best breaststroker we’ve ever ranked, and has the fastest 200 IM in the history of our recruit rankings. All three times would have made NCAA A finals this past spring. Walsh also boasts the class’s best 50 free, and could be our first 21-second sprint recruit since Abbey Weitzeil. Walsh isn’t far behind Smith in the 100 or 200, and should be a 4-5-relay threat in the NCAA almost immediately.
3. Isabelle Stadden – Aquajets Swim Team – Blaine High School – Blaine, MN **Verbally committed to Cal**
Best Times: 100 back – 51.33, 200 back – 1:52.04, 200 IM – 1:59.56, 50 free – 22.96, 100 fly – 54.39
The second Minnesotan in our top 3, Stadden has been surging over the past year or so. Since November, she’s dropped her 100 back from 54.8 to 51.3 and her 200 from 1:58.7 to 1:52.0. She doesn’t have a stellar third event yet, but keeps dropping in everything seemingly every time she swims – she dropped time at Minnesota’s high school state meet in November, then added another round of lifetime-bests at Winter Juniors in December, and blew out even those times at NCSAs in March. Stadden is going to need massive drops to rise any higher in this class (she can Minnesota nice-ly thank her state-mate Smith for that), but is tremendous value at #3. She comes from the same club that produced Rachel Bootsma.
4. Olivia Bray – Virginia Gators – Lord Botetourt School – Roanoke, VA **Verbally committed to Texas**
Best Times: 100 fly – 51.48, 200 fly – 1:54.21, 100 back – 52.02, 200 back – 1:55.74, 200 free – 1:46.37
Currently the best sprint flyer in the class, Bray is also an impact backstroker for any team that doesn’t get one of the top two prospects. Her 100 fly would have made the NCAA’s A final last year. The downside with Bray is that her fly and back went pretty far backwards this spring, with her bests coming from March of 2017. There’s still plenty of time to turn that around over the next two years, but it is a red flag. On the other hand, Bray went lifetime-bests in her 50 (23.0) and 100 (51.1) frees this spring, so maybe she’s developing into a more rounded relay threat. Her 200 free (1:46.3) feels significantly better than those two, so there should be time to drop in the sprints.
5. Kaitlyn Dobler – The Dolphins Portland Swimming – Aloha High School – Aloha, OR **Verbally committed to USC**
Best Times: 100 breast – 59.17, 200 breast – 2:11.49, 50 free – 22.35, 100 free – 49.50
The theme for this second tier of recruits should be that they would be first-tier recruits in any other class, but are displaced by a generational-type talent in their best event. Dobler is a fast-rising 59.1 breaststroker with lots of upside. She was 1:01.1 a little over a year ago and pushed into the 1:00-mids at the end of 2017. Since then, she’s broken a minute four times, including that 59.1 from February. That came in high school competition, so Dobler hasn’t really had a chance yet to let her 200 catch up to that speed. Her sprint freesytles are also high-caliber and have dropped significantly (23.3 to 22.3, 51.4 to 49.5) in the past year.
Say hello to another rapidly-improving backstroke talent who has already surged into NCAA scoring territory. Bacon is sizzling (sorry, had to) in 2018, already hitting all four of the lifetime-bests listed between February and March. She’s also a 1:01 breaststroker, which makes her IM really intriguing as a prospect, probably better than 1:59.8 suggests. Bacon is also a very good long course swimmer, almost sub-minute in the 100 back.
7. Emma Sticklen – Katy Aquatic Team for Youth– Taylor High School – Katy, TX **Verbally committed to Texas**
Best Times: 200 fly – 1:54.88, 100 fly – 52.38, 100 back – 53.36, 50 free – 23.06, 100 free – 50.03
Sticklen is already around NCAA scoring time in the 200 fly with a very solid 100 to boot. She’s on a great improvement curve, especially in the 200, where she went from 2:01 to 1:57.8 between 2016 and 2017 and has already cut to 1:54.8 in early 2018. She’s also going to look a lot more imposing from a relay standpoint when her 50 and 100 times crack 23 and 50, respectively, which shouldn’t be a huge stretch in the near future.
An awesome relay pickup, and the only one inside our top 10 who projects as a pure mid-sprint freestyle type. Very good time progression: her 200 was 1:50.8 until late 2017 when she went 1:47.7. And the 1:46.0 came just two months go. The 100 is even more impressive – her lifetime-best was 51.5 last October before a whole slew of time drops. This one is a high-ceiling pick. Schaedler is currently a very good relay piece, but if she drops solid amounts over the next two years, she could be a major difference-maker in all five relays for the right program.
Another high-ceiling relay threat, Parker has a lot of avenues to contribute in the NCAA. Good improvement, especially in the 50, where she’s only two tenths from 2018 NCAA scoring level.
Travis is the best miler in the class by a good margin and looks to have just enough speed to project as a developmental option down to the 200. She had lifetime-bests in the 500 and 1000 in late 2017 and has only swum the mile twice in the past year. Time tends to drop off in big chunks in the mile, so Travis could be into NCAA scoring range (or even below 16) in a hurry if she continues to progress.
11. Kathryn Ackerman – Michigan Lakeshore Aquatics – Grand Haven High School – Grand Haven, MI **Verbally committed to Michigan**
Best Times: 400 IM – 4:10.20, 200 IM – 1:57.92, 100 fly – 54.76, 100 back – 54.71, 200 back – 1:56.36
It seems like the IMers in this class could use a little more development, and are good candidates to rise when we look back on these rankings next year. Ackerman dropped from 4:15 down to 4:10 in the 400 IM over the last year and has the top time in the class. Her third event is still fairly open. Good long course swimmer (2:17/4:49 in the IMs).
Maybe a better long course swimmer (1:00.2/2:13.6 fly) than she is in short course. Ulett has a great 200 fly that’s near NCAA scoring, plus good 100 speed and 100/200 free talent for relays. Two things hurt her value: Ulett hasn’t had a great sophomore year in her main events (though she did improve her 200 pretty significantly) and there are so many great butterflyers in this class, they all drag down each others’ value.
13. Gabi Albiero – Cardinal Aquatics – Christian Academy – Louisville, KY **Verbally committed to Louisville**
Best Times: 100 fly – 52.59, 200 fly – 1:57.72, 50 free – 22.64, 100 free – 49.91, 200 free – 1:48.92
A good sprint butterflyer who is improving well (54.3 to 52.5 in butterfly in December) and seems to be just figuring out the 200 after dropping from 2:01 to 1:57 last month. Her brother was an NCAA standout as a freshman. Solid times for eventual free relay consideration.
14. Paige Hetrick – Unattached – Bradford, PA **Verbally committed to Louisville**
Best Times: 200 free – 1:46.48, 100 free – 49.17, 50 free – 22.80, 500 free – 4:47.68, 100 back – 53.99, 100 fly – 54.76
These relay-distance free types can be hard to rank. On the one hand, Hetrick is a ways out of individual scoring range in all her events. But some marginal drops across the board and she’s a potential three-relay-or-more factor. Her improvements haven’t been mind-blowing but very solid over the past year. With her freestyle range and talent in fly and back, she’s got upside to be a relay monster. Let’s keep an eye on how she develops over the next two years.
15. Abby Arens – Marlins of Raleigh – Saint Mary’s College Prep School – Raleigh, NC **Verbally committed to NC State**
Best Times: 100 breast – 1:00.00, 200 breast – 2:10.04, 200 IM – 1:59.93, 400 IM – 4:15.90
This is a deep class of breaststrokers between 1:00-1:01 and 2:11-2:12, and Arens has risen to the front of that group with solid drops at NCSAs in March. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s had awesome IM drops in the past year (2:02 to 1:59 in the 200, 4:21 to 4:15 in the 400) to close in on the equally deep IM class.
Put Cooper in roughly the same boat as Hetrick – a couple steps away from leapfrogging “great” and going from a good recruit to a gamechanger. Her 50 free isn’t far off of NCAA scoring level and dropped more than half a second between last March and last December. She doesn’t have a ton of range or a great third event yet, but there’s still plenty of time for that to change. A high-ceiling relay pickup for the right program.
Very good breaststroker – only a half-second off of 2018 NCAA scoring level in the 200 – without much of a tertiary event. She’s got a huge improvement arc though, dropping from 2:13 to 2:09 and 1:01.8 to 1:00.5 over the last year, culminating in both lifetime-bests at NCSAs in March.
18. Lillie Nordmann– Magnolia Aquatic Club – The Woodlands High School – The Woodlands, TX **Verbally committed to Stanford**
Best Times: 200 fly – 1:56.28, 100 fly – 52.81, 200 free – 1:47.58, 200 IM – 1:59.58
Did we say yet that this class is thick with flyers? Nordmann is another fast riser (1:58.3 to 1:56.2 in the 200 in December) who might be in line for more, based on two stellar swims at the Atlanta Pro Swim Series in March (long course 59.6/2:12.6 in butterfly).
19. Anicka Delgado – Gators Swim Club – Santa Margarita Catholic High School – Laguna Hills, CA **Verbally committed to USC**
Best Times: 100 free – 49.43, 100 fly – 53.49, 50 free – 22.90, 200 free – 1:48.26
It’s hard to say if Delgado projects better as a freestyler or a flyer at this point. She’s had good improvements in both recently, and her relay value gives her an avenue to move up quickly on this list if the improvements continue.
Good butterfly improvements have put her in the thick of the class there – just needs a blowout swim to separate herself from the field. IMs went backwards a little as a sophomore, but she’s not far from being one of the better in the class there too.
Ones to Watch
We’re throwing in one more short list – a handful of swimmers who piqued our interest. They didn’t yet have the full complement of times to make our top 20, but seemed to have enough intrigue that we’ve earmarked them as names to keep an eye on over the next year, where they could develop into top threats for one reason or another.
- Ella Ristic (Irvine Novaquatics / Santa Margarita Catholic High School / Laguna Niguel, CA) – **Verbally committed to Indiana** – her 200 free (1:45.76) feels a lot better than any of her times in adjacent events (23.2/49.7//4:48.2), so it’s worth keeping an eye on whether she can bring any other events to that level. That 200 free also took place last May in California’s high school season when she was a freshman, so she could still improve her sophomore year standing with a drop next month.
- Jasmine Rumley (Ankeny Family YMCA / Ankeny Senior High School / Ankeny, IA) – **Verbally committed to Tennessee**
Rumley has one of the class’s best 50 frees (22.29) but hasn’t shown range to back it up (50.3 free, 56.1 fly). Why? Because she’s such a good athlete that as of last summer, she was still splitting her time between three sports. Rumley is a track and softball star, though a Des Moines Register story last fall seemed to imply swimming was her true passion. 22.2 is bordering on elite speed, so if a full-time focus on swimming in college could extend that speed, Rumley has some serious upside. She’s gone backwards as a sophomore, but was also coming off of stress fractures in both shins. At the very least, she’s a prospect to keep an eye on.