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Cal W Swim places 2nd as a team thanks to Kathleen Baker - NCAA Swimmer of the Year

Golden Bears have now placed in the top 3 as a team for 9 straight year. Stanford Cardinal breaks a 19 year team championship-less streak.

Golden Bears earned the 2nd place trophy at the 2017 NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving
Cal Women’s Swimming and Diving Twitter

INDIANAPOLIS — Although all it would take is very simple arithmetic to project team standings (and knowledge of who qualified), apparently most coaches (and consequently players) don’t think about the team standings until everything is over. They have blinders on to have the maximum motivation to push everybody to perform to their best until the end of the last event - the 400 Free relay (which became a coronation of sort for Stanford - creating atypical relay lineup to send their senior Lia Neal out on top).

Even though the team standings have been in very little doubt for basically two days, Day 4 of the 2017 NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships was not without its intrigues. Up for grabs were records (as time across the board continues to systematically fall - as a scientist I am not sure I really understand this phenomena - the more you measure something, like how fast one swims, the more things should average out) and individual glory (All-American status and a trophy for making the A-Final, honorable mentions for making the B-Final).

Cal sophomore Kathleen Baker closed her phenomenal meet with a 3rd NCAA individual national championship when she won the 200 Back with a time of 1:48.44 (recent Cal graduate Elizabeth Pelton’s NCAA record of 1:47.84 from 2013 is still safe), arguably her most expected win coming into the week. By winning the 200 IM, 100 Back, and now 200 Back, Baker joined a very exclusive company in Cal history along side Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin as the only trio to have won 3 individual events at a NCAA championship. That’s some incredibly great company (someone can start making Kathleen Baker’s CGB Hall of Fame page now!). Let’s also acknowledge how special Natalie Coughlin was as she accomplished this feat 3x in her career to inspire future generations like Franklin and Baker.

With a total of 60 points scored for her team - Baker was the highest point scoring individual. Stanford Katie Ledecky also won 3 individual events but shared the 200 Free title with Louisville’s Mallory Comerford so that Ledecky only scored 58.5 points. The coaches voted for Kathleen Baker to be the NCAA Swimmer of the Year (although it’s entirely based on the performance of this week). Congratulations to Kathleen! It’s been a remarkable year for her to go from B-Finals in the last NCAA to making the USA Olympic Team, then winning the two medals (Silver in 100m Back and Gold in 4x100m Medley Relay) in Rio, to dominating in the NCAA championship meet this week. She is poised to do more collegiately since she has got two more years of eligibility.

Also deserving a big shoutout for Saturday was a fellow sophomore classmate of Baker in Katie McLaughlin. McLaughlin placed 2nd in the 200 Fly behind Stanford’s Ella Eastin (who also deserved a shoutout for winning two events - 400 IM and 200 Fly while placing 2nd to Baker in the 200 IM to score 57 points). This was McLaughlin’s first individual A-Final in her first NCAA after breaking her neck in a freak accident last January. Cal fans can expect to see great things from Katie in her Cal career and beyond.

The pair spoke with the press after the meet about their experience at this meet; “fun” is a word that comes up a lot.

Baker said that she’s “proud of the team for coming back from the DQ and finishing strong”. McLaughlin credit the coaches and the senior leaders for the positive energy. Baker again singled out how much having Ian Walsh joining the program as the assistant coach has helped her. Interestingly, in a lot of way similar to Missy Franklin, both Kathleen Baker and Katie McLaughlin (and I would throw in their classmate Amy Bilquist as well) are better in the long course (twice the distance of these NCAA laps); all of them are better in the Olympic style events where there are less turns. If they can improve “the little things around the walls”, they are all capable of improving on already very very impressive times.

Several California Golden Bears scored points on Saturday night. Bears eventually finished with 366 points to Stanford’s 526.5. Bears still had a decent lead on Texas A&M (292.5) who was 3rd (their highest finish in history) and Georgia (last year’s defending champs with 252.5 to finish just ahead of Texas at 252).

In addition to Baker winning the 200 Back, sophomore Amy Bilquist placed 14th overall. In the 100 Free, senior Farida Osman and freshman Abbey Weitzeil placed 5th and 8th in the A-Final. Cal senior Kristen Vredeveld made the B-Final and placed 15th overall; the team co-captain earned All-American honorable mention honors in her final race. By the way, Vredeveld’s father was the main Cal cheer organizer at this meet; some other Cal swim parent would need to pick up that load next year. Senior Marina Garcia placed 12th in the 200 Breast. In addition to Katie McLaughlin’s 2nd place in the 200 Fly, junior Noemie Thomas placed 10th overall in that event. The Golden Bears quartet of Amy Bilquist, Kathleen Baker, Abbey Weitzeil, and Farida Osman closed the meet with a 3rd place finish in the 400 Free Relay (one of the three teams behind Stanford and Georgia to break the pool record in that swim).

Teri McKeever in the video above singled out freshman Chenoa Devine (distance swimmer who improved on her personal best even if her 19th place finish in the 1650 Free was just outside the scoring zone), Maddie Murphy (who made the A-Final in 50 Free and B-Finals in 100 Fly), as well as diver Phoebe LaMay (who also just missed out on scoring) as those that inspired their teammates by how well they performed at their first National Championships.

The future is obviously still quite bright for Cal Women’s Swimming and Diving. The opening of Legends Aquatic Complex and the hiring of diving coach Derek Stark will help to improve Cal Diving. Even with all the budgetary concerns surrounding Cal Athletics, you would figure that Cal Aquatics given the rich history and alumni support will be unaffected. Bears will graduate Egyptian Calympian (‘12 and ‘16 games) Farida Osman, Spanish Calympian (‘12 games) Marina Garcia, freestylist Kristin Vredeveld, and IMer Celina Li (kind of had a disappointing meet to end her great collegiate career) this year. Bears would need to find someone to replace Garcia on the longer breaststroke legs of the relay and a new reliable anchor in relays to replace Farida Osman.

The meet this year in Indianapolis is kind of a homecoming for Farida Osman, who was born in Indianapolis when her parents were student at IUPUI dental school. Osman did not grow up here (she moved to and grew up in Cairo at 3 month old), but it was still an interesting story for her to end her collegiate career here.

Golden Bears improved on last year’s 3rd place finish this year to continue the top 3 finish streak to 9 years. It will be interesting to see who will step up between now and next year. Will it be freshman backstroker Keaton Blovad who has had a quiet meet this week? Or Valerie Hull who has helped the Bears more in relays than individually thus far?

It was fun for me to see the Golden Bears in person (perhaps not quite as fun as my only other trip, thus far, in 2015 when I saw the Bears taking a swim in the pool at Greensboro). Kudos to the IUPUI people for running a nice championships, especially for keeping the media people well fed. Time for a quick hibernation before the Men’s Swimming and Diving kicks off on Wednesday night, also here in Indianapolis (my Spring Break continues for another week).


Day 4 Quick Recap:

1650 Free - Stanford’s Katie Ledecky with her almost no kick, minimum effort style leapt the entire field fairly early. She was on pace to break her own record and possibly the 15 minute mark but then fell short of her own record by 4 seconds. I was personally expecting a better showing from her. Virginia’s Leah Smith is the only person in Ledecky’s zip code. Stanford also managed to get two other Cardinal to the top 4 in Megan Byrnes and Leah Stevens; Stanford had 0 scorer in this event last year.

Cal’s freshman Chenoa Devine had a personal record with a time of 16:04.34, good for 19th best and about 2 seconds behind the top 16.

200 Back - 3 Kentucky Wildcats were trying to chase down Kathleen Baker but Baker essentially won the race wire-to-wire.

100 Free - Stanford’s Simone Manuel had an incredible swim to break the record by half a second (which is particularly amazing for how short this race is). 45.56 is now the new NCAA standard to the Stanford sophomore who returned to school after taking last year off to train for the Olympics. Cal’s Osman (5th) and Weitzeil (8th) never got that close to Manuel, although Osman joined Manuel, Gerogia’s Smoliga, Louisville’s Comerford, and Stanford’s Neal in breaking the old pool record.

200 Breast - Indiana’s Lilly King, another USA Olympic swimming hero from Rio 2016 at this meet, won this event with a new NCAA record of 2:03.18. She was actually pushed by Minnesota’s Kierra Smith who also broke King’s old record of 2:03.59.

200 Fly - Cal’s McLaughlin came out strong and was still leading at the 34 mark 1:22.38 to 1:22.65 but Stanford’s sophomore Ella Eastin caught her at the end for the win.

Platform Diving - After the announcer prematurely announced the end of the diving session, Northwestern’s Olivia Rosendahl calmly made her 70 some point dive to become the first Wildcat to win a diving event in history.

400 Free Relay - Stanford head coach Greg Meehan emotionally told everyone on his team to win this race for outgoing senior Lia Neal (the first to commit to Meehan at Stanford). Meehan puts Simone Manuel and Katie Ledecky on the front along with Janet Hu. Stanford gave Neal an one second lead on the Bears that not even the superhuman Farida Osman (nor Georgia’s Chantal Van Langham) can overcome.

Stanford Women’s Swimming - the beginning of a dynasty or is this a crossroad?

Congratulations (somewhat reluctantly from this Cal fan) to Stanford for winning the 2017 team championship. A large contingent of Stanford swimming friends and family (100+ people...the entire crowd at a Stanford football game?) came out to support them this year. Recent graduate like Maya DiRado (who had a great Rio 2016 Olympics before retiring to a consulting job) was on hand to be a total fan.

Asked on the deck about the future of the program after receiving the team trophy, Stanford head coach Greg Meehan was reluctant to speculate on the future. 5 years after convincing then Olympian Lia Neal to join his program at Stanford, Meehan has done a great job recruiting top talent to Stanford and their well funded facilities. Neal, who roomed with Ledecky on an old meet, then convinced talent like Manuel and Ledecky to The Farm.

The Stanford swimmers then talked about how long it has been since their last title - 19 years ago. Now, I know that 19 years is a long time for people who are only about 20 years old, but that’s nothing compares to what Cal Football and Men’s Basketball fans have waited for Cal to go to the Rose Bowl or win a national title in basketball. The Stanford women’s swimming program was never really in any state of suffering.

Reading between the lines though, Simone Manuel said that a big part of why she came back to Stanford after an year off was to help Neal win a championship. Ledecky basically said the same thing. Ledecky, who had considered turning pro after committing to Stanford and basically pull an Allyson Felix at USC, was obviously happy to win the team title, but may also appeared to be a bit bored (disclaimer: I am terrible at reading people). Now that it’s mission accomplished (and Neal will graduate and retire from swimming after this summer), will the two Rio 2016 Olympic Superstars turn pro so that they can collect cash prizes for breaking records on the international scenes while also do commercials? Both can still stay and train at The Farm while finishing their degrees.

Stanford has plenty of depth to be dangerous even without Manuel and Ledecky. Hu is only a junior and Eastin is just a sophomore. Cal Bears’ chance to win a 5th NCAA team championship obviously goes up without those two competing for Stanford. It’s something to keep track of down at The Farm.

California Golden Bears 2017 NCAA Titles:

6 NCAA titles is the 2nd best outcome in Cal women’s swimming and diving history. Golden Bears have won 7 events twice in history (2012 and 2017 - both resulted in NCAA titles).

200 Free Relay - Abbey Weitzeil, Maddie Murphy, Amy Bilquist, Farida Osman; 1:25.59 (NCAA Record)

200 IM - Kathleen Baker; 1:51.69 (Pool Record)

100 Fly - Farida Osman; 50.05 (Pool Record)

100 Back - Kathleen Baker; 49.84 (Just short of her pool record from the 400 Medley Relay leadoff)

200 Medley Relay - Kathleen Baker, Abbey Weitzeil, Noemie Thomas, Farida Osman; 1:34.10 (NCAA Record)

200 Back - Kathleen Baker; 1:48.44