A gift for the Texas Longhorns this season turned into a gift for the Cal Golden Bears when All-American Hugo Gonzalez was denied the right to swim for the latter at this year’s NCAA Championships. In what was projected to be a very competitive NCAA Championship meet, this looked like it might give the Longhorns the edge headed into March; as it turns out, the Golden Bears rallied and won the title anyway, which means that they essentially ‘saved’ a year of Gonzalez’s eligibility for the 2021-2022 season.
That helps fill out a relatively-weak class for the Golden Bears, which includes Reece Whitley but not much depth behind him.
Texas counter-punched on Tuesday when rising-senior Maxime Rooney announced that he would be transferring from Florida to Texas. The former National High School Record holder is coming off his best collegiate season yet, and an apparent event-shift to butterfly. He finished 4th in the 100 fly at NCAAs last season and was the SEC runner-up in the 200 fly.
So while much of the early talk is about what Texas’ legendary reputation in the 200 freestyle might do for an event that was previously Rooney’s bread-and-butter: don’t forget that Texas has recently produced an Olympic champion in the 100 fly (Joseph Schooling) and a 1-2-3-4-6-8 NCAA finish in the same event at NCAAs in 2015. This move provides as much of an avenue in the butterflies as it does in the freestyles.
So which team got the better transfer? Unless next year’s title comes down to the wire and Rooney does just-enough to put the Longhorns over the edge, it’s unequivocally the Cal Golden Bears. The reason is simple: Cal gets 3 seasons of Hugo Gonzalez, whereas Texas gets only 1 season of Rooney.
But that’s no fun, so let’s focus on the 2019-2020 season only. Who will make out better on their transfer next season: Texas, or Cal.
*Note: this is all banking on the fact that Rooney doesn’t use an “Olympic redshirt” season next year to prepare for the Olympic Trials. We’ve been unable to confirm if he will one way or the other.
Rooney’s projections: At NCAAs this year, Rooney scored 15 individual points (all in the 100 fly). If he’s able to perfect his taper for NCAAs – which on paper is easier at Texas given the lack of conference competition, but hasn’t been the case the last couple of years – he would get another 9 points from the 9th-best 200 fly in the country; and another 11 points from the 8th-best 100 free in the country. So let’s call it a 35-point guesstimate individually, plus whatever improvements he might make.
In relays, his event lineup gives him a much-higher impact potential than does Gonzalez’s – with a caveat – Texas is so good, that he might not have actually cracked many relay lineups. His best 100 free, adjusted for a potential rolling start, wouldn’t have improved Texas’ 400 free or medley relays; and his best 100 fly (44.99) wouldn’t project to have displaced John Shebat from the butterfly leg of the Texas medleys (43.8 on a rolling start).
But the Longhorns graduate Shebat and their best two flat-start 100 butterfliers from last season (Tate Jackson and Max Holter). Their best incoming butterflier besides Rooney is Christopher Staka, anther transfer, who swam 46.57 in his off year after leaving Alabama. So, it appears that this year Rooney will have every opportunity to take that spot on the Texas medleys. Based on the rest of the Texas lineup, we’ll value that at about a 4-point value per medley, or 8 total points (the gaps in the medleys after Texas are pretty big).
The big one is the 800 free relay. Texas had a young core of 200 freestylers last season, and combined with a monster 1:29.66 anchor from senior Townley Haas, they won the NCAA title by more than a second-and-a-half. After graduating 2 legs, Texas will come back to the field this season (depending on how their freshmen develop). The strongest current in their favor is that all of the top 800 free relay teams had big graduations, so Texas has as good of a shot as anyone to repeat in this relay. Ironically, Florida probably could have claimed favorite status if Rooney hadn’t transferred.
Rooney split a 1:31.60 on an anchor leg at NCAAs last season. While that won’t be enough to make up for the loss of Haas, it does give them the depth that they really need to pair with Drew Kibler and Austin Katz in that relay. We’ll value him at 8 points there.
So, a guesstimate puts Rooney’s potential impact at around 50 points.
Gonzalez’s Projection: Gonzalez’s impact is much harder to quantify, in part because he didn’t swim at NCAAs last season. The year prior, he did swim at NCAAs, but after entering the meet with maximum hype, he scored only 7 points, from the 200 IM, while adding 11 seconds to his 400 IM seed time and placing 30th.
His season best times ranked him 7th (200 IM – 1:40.67), 2nd (400 IM – 3:35.76), and 8th (200 back – 1:39.05) in the country that season. If he hits those ranks at NCAAs, that works out to about 40 points – 5 more than Rooney. Keep in mind that even though Rooney will be a senior in eligibility and Gonzalez just a sophomore, they’re about the same age.
Like Rooney, Gonzalez steps into a situation with a team that has been really good in his events. Dave Durden in recent years has developed Ryan Murphy and Jacob Pebley, two of the best 200 backstrokers in the country; and Andrew Seliskar, who might have been the best 400 IMer in the country last season if he had swum the race collegiately.
As far as relay potential, though, Gonzalez is much more limited than Rooney. It’s unlikely that he’s going to be able to unseat Daniel Carr (44.8) from the front of the Cal medley relays – Gonzalez’s best 100 yard backstroke time is 46.2.
As a freshman, Gonzalez was able to show some potential in the 200 free with a 1:34.79 at a pre-conference invite. We have to believe that he’s got a better swim than that in his bag somewhere, but does he have enough to make the 800 free relay?
On a good year: yes. Cal graduates the bookends from their 800 free relay: Andrew Seliskar (1:30.14) and Mike Thomas (1:32.86). Depending on how the freshmen do, it looks like anything in the 1:33-mid range could earn a spot on the Cal 800 free relay next season. We’ll call that a 4 point projection.
So, adding it all up, Gonzalez looks like about a 45-point impact swimmer, plus development. That’s about 5 points less than Rooney.
Gonzalez has another cross to bear, though: the Spanish Olympic Trials. This is the logical explanation for his performance at NCAAs in 2018, that he was preparing instead for Spain’s nationals, which came very shortly after NCAAs.
Spain has not revealed their qualifying criteria for the Tokyo Olympic Games, and while Gonzalez is the defending national champion in the 100 back, 200 back, and 200 IM, he’s not unchallenged in any of those races. While Dave Durden, the 2020 U.S. Olympic coach, has a line of success in holding tapers through 2 meets, we won’t know how Cal is going to approach this until we know.
Conclusion: In sum, on a one-season review makes the two swimmers very-nearly a ‘push.’ Both swimmers, as this is written, offer some uncertainty: Rooney as to whether he’ll take an Olympic redshirt, and Gonzalez as to how he’ll approach Spain’s Olympic Trials. Both swimmers have upside potential (Rooney is still relatively-new as a butterflier, and Gonzalez’s 2nd and 3rd events are not yet on par with his best event).
But, if both swim with a full effort at the 2020 NCAA Championships, it would be splitting hairs to project one as an advantage over the other, based on what we know now.
All of this adds up to what should be another very exciting NCAA Championship meet in 2020: a win for all of us.