Cal feels no pressure to repeat after banner year

How does a defending national champion enter the season as an underdog?

The 2010-11 Cal men’s swim team capped one of the most spectacular seasons in the program’s history with a national championship, holding off Texas to win the Bears’ first team title since 1980. After finishing second to the Longhorns the year before, the win was especially sweet.

This year, however, coach David Durden’s squad doesn’t feel the pressure to repeat.

“As compared to last year, when everybody thought we were going to win for sure (and) put the pressure on us, this year’s a little different,” senior Martin Liivamagi said. “Because people think we lost all the big guns. So we’re going to go in as underdogs.”

Cal loses one of the most decorated classes in its history to graduation. The swimmers from the class of 2011 produced eight individual NCAA titles and seven relay championships in their four years at Berkeley. Damir Dugonjic won three straight titles in the 100 breaststroke. Nathan Adrian won not only five individual NCAA crowns but also a gold medal for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Yet the Bears aren’t fazed by the loss of talent.

“It’s exciting, more so than it is devastating, or nerve-wracking,” senior Nolan Koon said.

Exciting, perhaps, because even more talent is returning. Fifteen members of this year’s squad have qualified for nationals before, including junior Tom Shields, the highest individual point-scorer at last year’s championships. Durden cited Liivamagi and Koon among some of the many swimmers he expects to make big contributions to this year’s team.

Eight freshmen join the fold this year, including three of the top nine American swimmers in the class of 2011 as ranked by collegeswimming.com. Seth Stubblefield and Tyler Messerschmidt are ranked sixth and seventh, respectively, and Adam Hinshaw, brother of junior Ben Hinshaw, is ranked ninth. Including Will Hamilton at No. 16 and Christian Higgins at No. 24, no other school but Stanford has as many incoming swimmers ranked as high as Cal.

There’s no question the Bears have talent. But it’s important to remember nationals are still six months away.

“There’s no one meet that we look for in particular,” Durden said. “It’s kind of the whole journey that we’re looking forward to.”

There is one meet Cal swimmers always look forward to: the annual meet against Stanford. Despite Cal not having won in Durden’s four-year tenure as head coach, the Feb. 18 meet will be one of the biggest meets of the dual-meet season.

“The Stanford meet is always a special meet for us, even though we don’t take it as seriously as (NCAAs)” Liivamagi said. “But it shows you where we’re at at that point.”

The swim season is a long one, with meets spread out over seven months. Durden stresses the length of the season, saying it’s too early to pass judgement in October. Koon likens the season to building blocks, where each meet is a “stepping stone” to the next — the Stanford meet is a step up from regular season meets, the Pac-12 meet is a step up from the Stanford meet and the final “stepping stone” is NCAAs, the same meet the Bears won last season.

“The experience of going through and winning a national championship adds a tremendous amount of value and knowledge to their next pursuit of going after a national title,” Durden said. “And that, so many times, is undervalued — knowing how to win, how to close that meet out, how to finish those three days of racing is extremely, extremely valuable. And they have that experience under their belt this year.”

Still, the players are reluctant to make predictions about the coming season. Maybe it’s better that way.

“The future’s a mystery,” said Koon, smiling. “We’ll see.”

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