Five Storylines to Watch During Week One of NCAA Swimming Conference Champs

Photos Courtesy: Dan D’Addona & Peter H. Bick

Morning Splash by David Rieder.

Wednesday afternoon, the madness begins. Conference championships for Division I NCAA swimming and diving begin this week, and that means eyebrow-popping times will come from all corners of the country as the best set themselves up to make a run at NCAA titles next month.

College Station, Texas, plays host to the country’s largest conference title meet, the Southeastern Conference, while the ACC women are in Greensboro, N.C., and the Big Ten women in Columbus, Ohio. The Mountain West, American, Atlantic-10, Colonial and Ivy are among the other leagues with championship action beginning this weekend.

Among that which we will be watching out for this week…

1. Caeleb Dressel—obviously.

It’s dangerous not paying close attention whenever Mr. Dressel dons a tech suit at this time of year. As a sophomore at the SEC championships, he lowered his first two American records, posting times of 18.23 in the 50 free and 41.07 in the 100 free. (Ironically, while he’s only lowered that 50 free record by three hundredths since then, the 100 free mark is more than a full second quicker.)

During Dressel’s junior year championship meet in Knoxville, Tenn., he started things off anchoring Florida’s 200 medley relay to a come-from-behind win in 17.90, and he finished off the meet with a 40.20 split on the Gators’ 400 free relay, putting his team in front for good. (Dressel then credited Olympic teammate Ryan Held for help improving his relay starts.)

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Now, we come to his senior year, perhaps Dressel’s final short course yards championship season. He’s sure to drop a few particularly nasty relay splits over the course of the meet and maybe even challenge one of his own American records—18.20 in the 50 free, 43.58 in the 100 fly and the most notorious one, 40.00 in the 100 free.

Or what if he swims something else? It’s hard to imagine that won’t be his program for the NCAA championships, with the Gators chasing every point they can get in the national title race, but with the team heavily favored for a sixth straight conference title, why not mix it up a bit?

Dressel already owns the nation’s top time in the 200 IM at 1:40.61. How about the 200 free—is a 1:30 (or better) possible? The 100 breast? You never know what he and Gators head coach Gregg Troy might have planned.

2. Lilly King, too.

Like Dressel, you can count on Lilly King showing up and being the class of breaststroke at the NCAA level come March. And like Dressel, she tends to knock off some times at her conference championship that are likewise stunning.

Take last season: King took a half-second off her American record in the 100 breast at the Big Ten championships, posting a mark of 56.30, and she recorded what was then second-fastest time ever in the 200 breast (2:04.03). Her 50 breast split of 25.55 was the fastest in history.

But King always expects herself to go faster. Case in point: After winning the NCAA title in the 100 breast last year in 56.71 (faster than her freshman year winning time of 56.85), King announced that “it sucked” and added “I just know it was slow.”

That 55-second 100-yard breast? It’s coming, and it’ll happen either this weekend or next month at the NCAA championships—in Columbus either way.

3. What should we make of Georgia?

For all the success Jack Bauerle has had with the University of Georgia, here’s the stat of which he’s most proud: In the past 19 seasons, his women have finished either first or second at the NCAA championships a whopping 15 times. But after a fourth-place finish last year, the Bulldog women will be hard-pressed to come close to that in 2018.

Of the 252.5 points Georgia scored last year, 162.5 of those points have been lost to graduation—most of that total from Olympians Olivia Smoliga and Chantal Van Landeghem. So what’s left? Well, Meaghan Raab is one of the country’s most versatile swimmers, and Veronica Burchill could win an SEC title or two in the sprints, but no one will be predicting this team for a top-five finish nationally barring some big breakouts at the conference meet.

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Jay Litherland — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The Georgia men look to be in worse shape, with superstar Chase Kalisz graduated along with flyer Pace Clark and top sprinter Taylor Dale also gone. Yes, there is significant talent on the roster—Gunnar Bentz and Jay Litherland are U.S. Olympians, and Javier Acevedo swam in Rio for Canada—but it’s hard to see where relay points would come from given their roster.

So, yes, a lot to prove for both squads at SECs.

Speaking of teams looking to make an impact this weekend in College Station… how about the Kentucky women? The team with the best trio of 200 backstrokers in the country (Asia Seidt, Ali Galyer and Bridgette Alexander) beat Louisville in a dual meet last month, and now we will see if the Wildcats can translate their success into the championship meet format.

4. Check out the 200 free in the ACC.

The 200 free shapes up as one of the most intriguing races of the women’s ACC meet—and, of course, that has a lot to do with the woman who has won the conference title each of the last two years, Mallory Comerford.

Comerford upset Leah Smith to win for the first time her freshman year and then swam a 1:41.70 at the meet last year. That, of course, was just a precursor to what she pulled off at the NCAA championships, when she shocked the world and tied Katie Ledecky to win the national title in 1:40.36.

Comerford should be the comfortable favorite at the ACC meet in what should be her dress rehearsal for a rematch with Ledecky and Simone Manuel at the NCAA championships—where the 1:40 barrier and maybe even Missy Franklin’s American record of 1:39.10 could be threatened.

Okay, but we already know about Comerford. Also watch out for two swimmers who were solid in the event as freshmen last year but have individual NCAA scoring potential this year: Notre Dame’s Abbie Dolan and Virginia’s Morgan Hill.

Dolan finished fourth in the event at last year’s ACCs, posting a time of 1:44.87, but she later learned she had swum through the entire meet while dealing with mononucleosis. Her sophomore year has already brought some highlights, including a narrow win over Comerford at the Notre Dame-Louisville showdown back in October.

As for Hill, she finished sixth last season in 1:45.42, but she swam a lifetime-best time of 1:44.81 in last month’s dual meet win over North Carolina. Yes, a lifetime in a dual meet.

“Morgan Hill, I think, is capable of a 1:42 200 freestyle,” Virginia head coach Todd DeSorbo said last month. “I told her that at the beginning of the season. When I watch her train, she trains like nobody I’ve ever seen from the 200 down kind of perspective. She’s capable of being that good. I don’t think she believed me, but now I think she does.”

5. Expect some crazy moments.

There are certain people you just always expect to swim fast—the aforementioned Dressel, King and Ledecky among them. If they break records during a conference championship meet, well, who’s stunned?

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Photo Courtesy: Chuckarelei / Pac-12

But every year, there are a few of those moments that just are just stunning, and none from last year stand out more than Ally Howe breaking the American record in the 100 back. Even Howe was shocked, and how can you blame her? She swam a 49.69 in the 100 back, three tenths faster than a record held by the legendary Natalie Coughlin for 15 years.

2017 conference season also saw a pair of little-known freshmen lighting up their respective conference meets in the 200 free. First, there was Harvard’s Dean Farris, who swam a time of 1:31.56 at the men’s Ivy League Championships, and one week later, Arizona State’s Cameron Craig nearly matched that with a 1:31.71 at the men’s Pac-12 championships.

One year earlier, Comerford beating Smith in the ACC 200 free final was just as stunning, and now she’s one of the country’s top freestylers.

In summary, there will some surprising results over the next few weeks that will change the complexion of races heading into the NCAA championships. From where exactly? We don’t know yet—and that’s what makes conference season so exciting.

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