By Chris Harrell
As in most seasons, there are contests within the contest when it comes to determining who will finish where in the team standings. This year is no different. I envision a clear cut, and very familiar, top two teams, a second tier made up of four teams, then a third tier consisting of the remaining four teams. Let’s get started:
#10 – Virginia
Though they rank seventh in the psyche sheet scoring, in my mind the Cavaliers have the greatest amount of unknowns entering the Championships. A new coaching staff, a very young team and several athletes ranked very high in the national standings that we have not seen a whole out of on the collegiate scene. Freshman distance star Leah Smith and sophomore backstroke phenom Courtney Bartholomew rank in the top three nationally in multiple events but have many talented and more experienced swimmers behind them. It might be too much to ask for them to maintain those super-high slots at this point in their development. The Cavs are also one of four top 10 teams that must grin and bear it for three of the 21 events with no divers in the field. My placing them 10th is no knock on their squad; just a nod to their youth and potential adaptation to a new program. I expect Virginia to do nothing but get better from here.
Side note: I also give a nod to the Indiana and Minnesota programs which I have finishing right outside the top 10. Both teams always seem to dance around that top 10 line and often prove me wrong. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit to see either one, the Gophers in particular with being in their home pool, to jump up and surprise some folks.
#9 – Arizona
It feels strange putting this great program so far down the list but the reasons for doing so are definitely there. Their weaknesses in the distance free, the IM’s and the diving well have them likely out of the running for points in one-third of the meets’ events. That they can still manage a top 10 finish in spite of that is to their credit. This Wildcat team will go as far as sprint queen Margo Geer, distance talent Bonnie Brandon and their senior-laden relays will take them. Should Geer take her sprinting to the next level, it’s not out of the question that they could pass the next two teams in front of them, particularly if their relays are the beneficiary.
#8 -- Tennessee
It feels odd putting a team that was so incredible just a season ago this low but, like Arizona, the reasons for doing so are there as well. The Vols will likely struggle to score points in the distance frees, the backstrokes and the IM’s. They also came a hair away from not having a diver in the meet, something quite rare for this terrific diving program. Tennessee will lean heavily on breaststroke star Molly Hannis and their relays in hopes of trying to finish as close to that third slot as possible from a season ago. If Lindsay Gendron, Faith Johnson, and Tori Lamp can rediscover some of last year’s magic, Tennessee should be able to climb up at least one spot into seventh.
The Longhorns will go as far as their divers and relays take them and I anticipate those units landing them in the No. 7 hole. With a hat tip to The U and Purdue, Texas brings the best group of divers into this year’s NCAA meet. Fifth-year senior Maren Taylor is primed to perform at her peak on the springboards while freshman Murphy Bromberg will give defending platform champion Haley Ishimatsu all she wants on the tower. Emma Ivory-Ganja will be a more than sufficient support to the two on all three boards. I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that Texas could score 100 points in the diving well at this meet. That alone would have them at the cusp of the top 10. The Longhorns aren’t all diving though as their relays are quite balanced and effective. They sit on the inside or outside edge of the top eight in four of the five relays entering the meet. Assuming they did not rest much during their waylay of the field at Big 12’s, they could be in line for a noticeable jump in time. Lily Moldenhauer and Gretchen Jacques lead the way individually in the pool for Texas while a host of other Longhorns should nickel and dime points in a spectrum of races to get them in this spot.
#6 – Florida
I only have about 50 points separating teams #3-6. Should any team have a meet like Tennessee did a year ago, they could easily finish third. The Gators are a prime candidate based on recent NCAA meet history and indications that they may not have rested all that much at SEC’s. Take them for granted at your own peril. Florida will do big work in the relays – I expect them to ‘A’ final in all five. They are also very strong in the 1,650 and the 200 back and will put up double digit points in the both flys and the two sprint free races. One would expect that the amazing Eizabeth Beisel will go out with a bang in her three events as well. Florida’s lack of divers and lack of depth in the breaststroke and middle distance freestyles is the only thing keeping them from a higher finish in my opinion.
#5 USC – I have the Trojans within a couple of points of the fourth slot. Every single performance they put forth could either raise or lower their entire team’s fate at the end of the day. I also expect USC to hit big girl finals in every relay and wouldn’t be surprised to see defending platform champ Haley Ishimatsu make an appearance in all three diving finals. Sprinter Kasey Carlson has had a fabulous year and I expect it to culminate in a memorable meet this weekend. I also expect big points to be in the offing in both the flys and the IM’s, taking advantage of other top 10 teams weaknesses in the IM’s in particular. The Trojans definitely have the talent to push their way into the third if they can hit on all cylinders.
#4 Texas A&M – The Aggies, who finished in this position a year ago, are arguably the most experienced team in the meet and are one of only two teams with multiple swimmers looking to defend NCAA titles. They are also one of only two teams in this meet who I believe can score in every single swimming event. A&M’s relays are as strong as they’ve ever been and they will need to be if they want to push for a top three finish, a finish they are absolutely capable of. A&M has never placed all five relays in the big girl final before but this just might be the year they break through and do it. Repeat NCAA titles out of Cammile Adams and Breeja Larson wouldn’t hurt their cause either. A&M’s only weakness is in the diving well where they have no representation, a rarity for a program used to having ‘A’ finalists on the boards on a yearly basis. If A&M can get big meets from seniors Erica Dittmer, Caroline McElhany, and Paige Miller, the Aggies will be will on their way to a finish higher than where I have placed them here.
#3 Stanford – I see the Cardinal making a huge jump from their eighth place finish a season ago thanks to an impressive group of relays across the board. I anticipate Stanford finishing in the top four in all five relays and the top three in four of them. Senior Felicia Lee has been fantastic in her senior campaign and I expect her to be the straw that stirs the Cardinal drink in Minneapolis. Stanford’s one-two sprint punch of Lia Neal and Maddie Schaefer has the potential to finish higher than they are currently ranked entering the meet. The two will combine with Lee to make their relays oh-so-potent. And let’s not forget about senior Maya DiRado who has been among the most consistent performers of any swimmer in the country the past four years. She will contend for multiple individual titles, as she has every single year since her terrific freshman season. If Stanford can score in the mid to high 20’s in the sprint frees and the 200 IM, I like them to finish in the third slot.
#2 California – Were the roster sizes not as large as they are, I think Cal would be the favorite to win this meet. But they aren’t so, in my opinion, they are going to have a little trouble with the No. 1 team’s depth. They bring the unquestioned best swimmer in the country to Minnesota in freshman Missy Franklin. You know a swimmer is extra special when she doesn’t swim two of her best events and still is a favorite to sweep the three she does enter. It’s really quite difficult to even wrap your head around when you sit and think about it. Cal will be a terror in the relays as they always are, perhaps even more so with Magnificent Missy waiting to mow down whomever she is paired up next to. I see Cal finishing in the top two in every relay and winning three of the five. I wouldn’t bet against seeing 50-point eruptions in both the 100 back and 200 free. I’d expect to see them climb above 30 in the 200 back and IM as well. The Golden Bears undoing will likely come from no significant scoring threat in the breaststrokes and on the springboards. That said, I see no one even coming close to threating them for the No. 2 spot.
#1 Georgia – Appropriately, the only team in the meet with the likelihood of scoring in every single one of the 21 events is the one that is the odds-on favorite to walk away with the crown. Despite losing the likes of Megan Romano and Allison Schmitt, this newer version of Dawg Nation may be even more potent. I suspect Georgia will finish either first or second in every relay except perhaps the 400 medley. The 100 breast, 100 fly, and the diving boards appear to be the only places where there is even a chance of them not hitting double digits but the odds are that they will score at least something in each one of those contests too. The Dawgs will be deadly in every individual freestyle race; I don’t see them scoring less than 35 any of the five. That adds up to massive points in and of itself. The IM’s and 200 breast should prove to be solid point boons as well. The cherry on top is diver Laura Ryan who looks to be on her game at the right time of year. Ryan could easily ‘A’ final on all three boards, giving Georgia a big boost in an area they aren’t necessarily accustomed to getting significant production from. Even with a relay DQ and Cal hitting their taper perfectly, I think the Bulldogs simply have too much depth up and down their roster to keep from defending their national championship. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I see Georgia taking the title by somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 points.
That’s all she wrote for our pre-meet previews here at CollegeSwimming.com. The time for speculating is done and it’s time to watch these incredible athletes do their thing in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Please stay tuned in to our website and keep an eye on Twitter (@collegeswimnews) the rest of the week for real-time meet updates, reviews, interviews and much more from our team that’s on site in Minneapolis. We hope you all enjoy watching the week’s events transpire as much as we will. Good luck to everyone and swim fast!