We continue our traditional spring recruiting coverage with our “Way Too Early” ranks of the current high school sophomore class. As top recruits continue to give verbal commitments earlier and earlier, we’re moving up our rankings to help give better context to big recruiting announcements. (Click here to see the “Way Too Early” list of boys for 2021.)
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? Maybe. 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. If you, your favorite swimmer or your son/daughter isn’t ranked, don’t get mad – see it as the starting point for your/their rise to stardom.
- 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.
- Not as good as last year’s – but that’s hardly a fair comparison
- A few outstanding sprinters at the top
- Much more thin in backstroke than last year
- A good class for distance free – particularly fast-rising talents
- Deep breaststroke class – but who will be the top one?
This class isn’t as dominant as last year’s group – but that’s to-be-expected, considering the class of 2020 is easily the best recruiting class we’ve seen since the high school crew of 2014, and might even be the best we’ve ever ranked. This 2021 group does offer some great value, though, as its strengths complement the 2020 class very well.
Where the 2020 class is built on fly/back types who can also sprint in free, the 2021 class has two elite true sprint recruits at the top: Gretchen Walsh and Torri Huske. Both are already sub-22 in the 50 free, and even considering we ranked most of these classes as juniors, we haven’t seen a 21-second sprint prospect out of high school (through their junior year) since Abbey Weitzeil in the class of 2015. Huske is probably best in the 100 fly and Walsh a more true 50/100 free sprinter, but both are excellent through the relay distance freestyles and strokes.
On the other hand, it seems like most of the great backstrokers in this age bracket congregated together in the class of 2020. Beyond Walsh (a 51.5 backstroker) the backstrokes are relatively thin in this class, especially for true two-distance backstrokers. That’s actually true of most strokes – there aren’t a lot of standouts in both the 100 and 200, but a lot of great times in one or the other, which suggests some ability to bring around either the speed or the endurance over the remaining two years of high school.
The 2020 class was also thin in distance free, and this class is the opposite. We’ve got two distance types in our top 5, and three more inside the top 20. A lot of the top distance talents are either relatively new to the mile, or have dropped significant time in the past year, so keep an eye on this class to potentially become historically good in the distances.
There’s no clarity in breaststroke – it’s a deep class without one true standout. The class in general is better at the 100 breast than the 200, but there are still no sub-minute nor sub-2:10 breaststrokers as of yet. The door is certainly open for one of the current top talents to break out and take charge of the top breaststroker mantle, and the resulting bump in recruiting value.
|Top Times in the Class of 2021|
|50 Free||Gretchen Walsh||21.82|
|100 Free||Gretchen Walsh||47.49|
|200 Free||Gretchen Walsh||1:44.91|
|500 Free||Paige McKenna||4:41.21|
|1000 Free**||Paige McKenna||9:35.99|
|1650 Free||Paige McKenna||15:48.07|
|100 Back||Gretchen Walsh||51.57|
|200 Back||Reilly Tiltmann||1:54.18|
|100 Breast||Asia Minnes||1:00.61|
|200 Breast||Brooke Zettel||2:12.00|
|100 Fly||Torri Huske||51.29|
|200 Fly||Grace Sheble||1:54.84|
|200 IM||Grace Sheble||1:57.00|
|400 IM||Grace Sheble||4:06.35|
**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 20 SWIMMERS FROM THE CLASS OF 2021
1. Gretchen Walsh – Nashville Aquatic Club – Harpeth Hall High School – Nashville, TN
Best Times: 50 free – 21.82, 100 free – 47.49, 200 free – 1:44.91, 100 back – 51.57, 100 fly – 52.23, 200 IM – 1:58.15
It’s the second straight year we’ve got a Walsh sister in our top two. Gretchen is the top value in this class, in part because she already has two times that would have made NCAA A finals this past year, and in part because of how valuable those two events – the 50 and 100 free – are in the NCAA format. Between her class-best 100 back and 200 free, Walsh is a three-event, four-relay powerhouse coming in the door, and should be a massive, massive recruiting pull for whichever program can sign her.
2. Torri Huske – Arlington Aquatic Club– Yorktown High School – Arlington, VA
Best Times: 100 fly – 51.29, 50 free – 21.95, 200 fly – 1:56.18, 100 free – 48.70, 200 free – 1:46.66, 200 IM – 1:58.13
Huske is another huge sprint talent in this class. She projects more as a two-distance flyer who could also cross over into freestyle – perhaps a Kelsi Dahlia type. She’s got the best 100 fly in the class by more than a full second, and her 50 free is only a tenth behind Walsh. As we noted above, 21-second freestylers are exceedingly rare out of high school, much less this early in their high school careers. Huske is also improving very fast – her freestyles have dropped from 22.3/50.3/1:49.1 over the past year, and her 200 fly from 2:01.1.
3. Grace Sheble – NOVA of Virginia – James River High School – North Chesterfield, VA **Verbally committed to NC State**
Best Times: 200 fly – 1:54.84, 400 IM – 4:06.35, 200 IM – 1:57.00, 200 free – 1:46.88, 100 free – 50.61, 500 free – 4:45.26, 200 breast – 2:15.32, 100 breast – 1:01.75
Where Walsh and Huske handle the sprintier events, Sheble is the class’s premiere mid-distance stroker and IMer. She’s got times that would’ve already scored at NCAAs in the 400 IM and 200 fly, and is only about a second off of A final level in the IM. Sheble has remarkable versatility – she should be an 800 free relay threat down the road, and could even fill in on medley relays as a breaststroker for a team really in a pinch. She’s got a very natural NCAA event combo: 200/400 IM and 200 fly, and she’s the best in her class in all three events.
The top four in our rankings cover the top times in the class in 11 of 14 events. The three distance free events come courtesy of McKenna, a rare sub-16:00 miler out of high school. We haven’t seen a junior go this fast in distance since Erica Sullivan in the class of 2018, and the sophomore McKenna is only seven tenths behind what Sullivan went when we ranked her junior class. She’s got the class’s best mile, 1000 and 500 frees, including a time in the mile that would’ve been 5th at NCAAs this year. She’s about two seconds out of scoring range in the 500 free, and even has the range to contribute, eventually, on an 800 free relay. She’s another very fast riser, dropping 48 seconds in her mile, 14 in her 500 and almost three in her 200 free over the past calendar year.
5. Ashley Strouse – Scottsdale Aquatic Club – Chaparral High School – Cave Creek, AZ **Verbally committed to Northwestern**
Best Times: 1650 free – 16:01.20, 1000 free – 9:40.58, 500 free – 4:41.41, 200 free – 1:45.44, 100 free – 49.24, 50 free – 23.32, 100 fly – 54.89
49.2 to 16:01 – that’s some otherworldly range. Strouse could easily develop as a 100/200/500 type in the mid-distances, or specialize as a miler/500 freestyler who can come down to 800 and even 400 free relays. Strouse is a bit behind the top four in this class after putting up only moderate drops in her sophomore year, but has the event range to be a monster in the NCAA with even small improvements across the board the next two years. It’s fair to say we haven’t seen a true distance swimmer who can sprint this well since the great Katie Ledecky in the Class of 2015.
6. Reilly Tiltmann – Elmbrook Swim Club– Brookfield East High School – Brookfield, WI **Verbally committed to Virginia**
Best Times: 200 back – 1:54.18, 100 back – 52.93, 100 fly – 53.55, 100 free – 49.54
The best true two-distance backstroker in the class, Tiltmann comes in within about a second of NCAA scoring level in both back events. She’s also got a great 100 fly for event coverage, and has proven she can handle a 100 fly/100 back double – she swam her lifetime-bests in both of those events on the same day of NCSA Juniors this spring. She’s also on a massive improvement curve. At this time last year, Tiltmann was 55/2:03 in backstroke and 55 in fly. A 9-second drop in the 200 back has to bode well for a swimmer who is still relatively new to that event.
7. Annabel Crush – Lakeside Swim Team – Sacred Heart Academy – Louisville, KY **Verbally committed to NC State**
Best Times: 100 back – 52.31, 200 back – 1:55.50, 50 free – 22.71, 100 free – 48.97, 200 free – 1:47.55, 200 IM – 1:58.89, 400 IM – 4:19.73, 100 fly – 54.21
A great name that will give sportswriters everywhere so many headline possibilities. Crush has a wide event range and a good improvement curve – pretty much exactly what you’re looking for in a sophomore prospect. Her backstrokes are probably her calling card at this point (her 100 back is four tenths out of NCAA scoring range), but her freestyles are improving faster. Crush was 23.4/50.1/1:49.3 at this point last year. She’s also got good IM speed and a nice butterfly, and no matter which way she develops event-wise, she’ll be an NCAA factor early in her career.
8. Brooke Zettel – TAC Titans – Apex Friendship High School – Holly Springs, NC **Verbally committed to Florida**
Best Times: 200 breast – 2:12.00, 100 breast – 1:01.89, 400 IM – 4:12.39, 200 IM – 1:57.93, 200 free – 1:47.73, 200 fly – 1:58.20, 100 fly – 54.81, 200 back – 1:57.43, 100 back – 54.40
The top 200 breaststroker in the class, Zettel maybe projects even better as an IMer. She definitely fits better in the 200/400 distances, but isn’t in any way bereft of speed, with 54s in fly and back and a 1:01 breaststroke. Zettel gets a real versatility bump, with lots of avenues to NCAA contribution. She needs to develop one or two of these events into NCAA scoring range to push the three recruits ahead of her, and her events don’t make it easy. (It took 59.5/2:08 to score in breaststroke last year and 1:56/4:08 in IM).
9. Letitia Sim – TNT Swimming – Spanish Fort High School – Montrose, AL
Best Times: 100 breast – 1:00.65, 200 breast – 2:13.34, 200 IM – 2:01.34, 100 fly – 54.50
Sim is a few hundredths out from being the best 100 breaststroker in the class, and she cracks the top 10 here despite having quite a ways to go to reach NCAA scoring levels. Why? Her improvement curve is off the charts. At this time last year, Sim was 1:03/2:18 in breaststroke. A year before that, she was 1:08/2:29. It’s not a stellar class of breaststrokers yet, but Sim looks primed to take over as the class’s top option in recruiting, especially if she can smash through a minute and 2:10 over the next year.
Waldrep is one of the better fly/back types in this class, taking a bit after the recruiting class before her. Her 52.4 backstroke is right in the mix with Tiltmann and Crush, even if she doesn’t yet have the 200 range to stick with them overall. Waldrep carries her speed out of the wall on breakouts very well, which makes her a tailor-made short course yards talent. She’s also on a nice track of time drops, including from 1:59.1 to 1:56.7 in the 200 back and 53.5 to 52.4 in the backstrokes over the past year. Maybe more impressive is a 56.1-to-53.8 drop in butterfly that suggests Waldrep is starting to figure out how to use her walls and underwaters outside of backstroke.
Minnes is a Canadian national, but has done most of her age group swimming in the U.S., between the Virginia Gators and Swim Neptune in Arizona. She’s the best 100 breaststroker in this class, with a shot to be under a minute in short order. Minnes has a lot of work to do in the 200 breast, but a good 200 IM (1:58.6) suggests she’s got the endurance to excel there. She’s made some massive time drops in short course, but that feels more a product of a focus on long course than overall improvements in her speed. Sprint freestyles are a nice bonus for Minnes, who could pull overtime with some free relay legs at the college level with a few years of improvements.
12. Ella Bathurst – Greater Tampa Swimming Association – H.B. Plant High School – Tampa, FL **Verbally committed to Virginia**
Best Times: 200 free – 1:46.82, 100 back – 53.72, 100 free – 49.81, 200 back – 1:58.09, 100 breast – 1:01.75, 200 breast – 2:14.67, 200 IM – 1:59.76
I have absolutely no idea where Bathurst projects as a college swimmer. But she catches our eye in these ranks through a combination of versatility and rapid improvement that would suggest a high ceiling, or at least plenty of scoring opportunities in the NCAA format. Right now, the 1:46.8 200 free is most eye-catching, and that’s dropped from 1:48.7 over the past year. Bathurst has also gone from 55.8/2:03.7 to 53.7/1:58.0 in backstroke and 2:07 to 1:59 in IM. Maybe 200 IM/200 free/200 back would be a good NCAA combo for a 200-yard specialist? She’s also just fine swimming crowded event lineups – she logged 16 swims at NCSA Juniors this spring across four days.
13. Amy Tang – Unattached – Lakeside High School – Bellevue, WA
Best Times: 100 back – 52.75, 200 back – 1:57.82, 200 free – 1:46.88, 100 free – 49.04, 50 free – 22.90, 100 fly – 54.18
Tang has a 100 back that would challenge a lot of the top 10 recruits, and she’s got outstanding range into the relay-distance freestyles. That makes her a prime relay recruit in any of the five relay races. The only slightly worrisome piece is that Tang went mostly backwards as a sophomore – her season-bests were 53.5/1:59.5 in back and 23.0/49.5 in free. She also put up that huge 1:46.8 in the 200 free in December of 2017, but hasn’t logged a swim in that event since March of 2018. At this age, it’s not worth putting too much stock into peaks and valleys, as there’s still a lot of time to overcome an off season, but the down year is why Tang is ranked 13th and not in the top 10. She’s still an outstanding prospect with massive relay value, and she’s good in long course, too, going 55.9 in the 100 free in-season this April.
14. Mackenzie McConagha – Nation’s Capital Swim Club – Briar Woods High School – Broadlands, VA **Verbally committed to Wisconsin**
Best Times: 100 back – 53.73, 200 back – 1:56.65, 100 fly – 53.50, 200 fly – 1:58.86, 200 IM – 2:02.44
Another good fly/back type with good range. McConagha hit her lifetime-best 100 fly and 100 back times in a high school state meet double with a 200 free relay in between, showing good toughness. Her backstroke has shown solid improvements from 54.4/1:59.0 a year ago. She doesn’t project as a free relay type yet, but could have good medley relay value if her 100 fly and 100 back keep improving. She’s also had a good spring in long course, moving to 1:01 in 100-meter fly.
15. Olivia McMurray – Swim Florida– Fort Myers High School – Fort Myers, FL **Verbally committed to Texas**
Best Times: 1650 free – 16:12.25, 1000 free – 9:38.72, 500 free – 4:44.60, 200 free – 1:47.35, 100 free – 50.81, 200 fly – 1:58.51, 100 fly – 54.60, 400 IM – 4:14.59, 200 IM – 1:59.99
This is a really good class of distance swimmers, and McMurray just adds to that depth. In fact, McMurray is roughly comparable to the best distance swimmer in the class of 2020 when we ranked them as sophomores. She’s not too far out of scoring in the mile, and is on a rocket ship of a trajectory there. A year ago, McMurray was 16:47 in the mile and 4:46 in the 500 – she’s cut more than 30 seconds in the mile, 13 in the 1000 and two in the 500 in a year. McMurray also has nice range down to the 200 free, and adds some intriguing times in the 200 fly and 400 IM for a program that wants to complement her free speed with some endurance training in other strokes.
Kragh makes this list after a massive sophomore year of time drops. Most impressive is her cut from 57.86 to 53.32 in the 100 fly. Kragh only broke a minute for the first time in early 2017, and has gone from there to one of the best flyers in this class in just over two years. Kragh doesn’t have a lot of supporting events – yet. But we expect that to change. She’s dropped from 1:54 to 1:48 in the 200 free over the past year, and from 51.9/23.9 to 50.0/23.1 in the sprint frees. Kragh just made most of her time drops in March, and has California’s high school postseason yet to come later this month.
Cronk is another relay-type talent who jumps onto the end of our list with an intriguing time and time drop or two. She went from 1:49.40 to 1:46.42 in the 200 free since last spring, finally bringing that swim more in line with her 49-speed in the 100 free. Her 50 still doesn’t seem quite on par, but there’s time for that to come around. Cronk is also 55 in the 100 back, with a chance to be a pretty good two-stroke sprinter.
18. Rachel Stege – Fox Valley Swim Team – Neuqua Valley High School – Naperville, IL **Verbally committed to Georgia**
Best Times: 1650 free – 16:21.50, 1000 free – 9:43.09, 500 free – 4:43.24, 200 free – 1:47.62, 100 free – 50.22
Yet another phenom of a miler rising fast. Prior to 2019, Stege had never swum a 1650 free. She went 17:08 in her first attempt (January 2019) and has cut it to 16:21 in the four months since then. Over the last year, she’s cut 43 seconds from her 1000 (from a 10:26), 16 from her 500 free (from a 4:59) and 6 from her 200 free (from a 1:53). She’s got nice range down into the 100/200 free for future relay value, too.
Morris is a great value through the relay-distance freestyles, and like Cronk and Bathurst, powers her way onto the list with a big 200 free drop. For Morris, it’s from 1:48.1 to 1:46.7, which puts her among the better in the class. Morris had a moderate drop of a tenth in the 50 free and pretty much matched her 100 free time during her sophomore year.
20. Mariah Denigan – Lakeside Swim Team – Barren Academy of Virtual and Expanded Learning – Erlanger, KY **Verbally committed to Indiana**
Best Times: 400 IM – 4:12.09, 1650 free – 16:26.45, 1000 free – 9:46.30, 500 free – 4:44.25, 200 free – 1:48.66, 200 IM – 2:01.63
Every year, there’s a swimmer in the mix who gets ranked way below what their name recognition should call for. Usually we see a lot of disagreement with their rank, and usually we can tell exactly who it’s going to be before we publish our ranks. This time around, it’s going to be Denigan, who had an awesome long course summer and actually made the U.S. senior travel team for Pan American Games. It’s hard to tell right now if Denigan, like many of the other “too-low!” swimmers over the years, is a swimmer whose talent doesn’t adequately transfer to the NCAA’s sprint-based, short course format, or if Denigan has just put her focus mainly on long course over the past few years. There’s no doubt that her 4:40 long course 400 IM time is one of the top few swims of this entire class, but her short course equivalent (put up in November) is still almost four seconds away from NCAA scoring. She’s 16:19, 8:28 and 4:12 in long course freestyle, but the corresponding yards events are still behind plenty of others in this class. For now, Denigan is an extremely high-ceiling swimmer, but it remains to be seen if she’ll make the leap in short course, or if she’ll remain a much better “swimmer” than an “NCAA recruit.”
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.
- Samantha Tadder (Tide Swimming / First Colonial High School / Virginia Beach, VA)
Oh, another fast-dropping miler? How many of these can we fit into our top 20? Tadder is 16:35/9:41/4:46/1:48 – still firmly behind the Steges and McMurrays of the world, but she’s also dropped from 17:24/9:58/4:55/1:50 over the past year. She’s also 4:11 in the 400 IM. Great value here for some distance-oriented program.
- Summer Smith (Bluefish Swim Club / Agawam, MA) **Verbally committed to Tennessee**
A little bit better than Tadder in the mile (16:21), but not as good in the 200 or 500. Smith projects better as a mile/400 IM combo, as she’s 4:13.6 in the latter. Has also dropped tons of time in the last year, including from 4:22 in the 400 IM and 17:08 in the mile.
- Meghan Lynch (Greenwich YWCA Dolphins / Greenwich High School / Greenwich, CT)
An age group standout in the breaststrokes, Lynch has one of the class’s best 200 breaststrokes (2:12.29) and also a good 4:12.0 400 IM. She doesn’t have enough breaststroke speed (she’s 1:02 in the 100) to crack the list yet, but could get there by improving her 1:59.0 200 IM.
- Annika McEnroe (Y-Spartaquatics Swim Club / Spartanburg High School / Spartanburg, SC)
Another distance breaststroker (2:12.43) and IMer (4:12.94) who also has pretty good fly times (1:58.2/53.9). Those don’t all fit together great in an NCAA lineup, but the versatility has to be intriguing to college coaches.
Feeling nostalgic? Here’s a look back at our recruiting class rankings since we started ranking classes in 2012:
|High School Class of 2020||Way Too Early Ranks As Sophomores||Ranks as Juniors|
|High School Class of 2019||Ranks as Juniors|
|High School Class of 2018||Ranks as Juniors||Re-Rank As Seniors|
|High School Class of 2017||Ranks as Juniors|
|High School Class of 2016||Ranks as Juniors|
|High School Class of 2015||Ranks as Juniors||Post-college retrospective|
|High School Class of 2014||Ranks as Juniors||Post-college retrospective|
|High School Class of 2013||Ranks as Juniors||Post-college retrospective|