With fresh crop of talent, Bears set sights on repeating as national champs

Cal women’s swimming team didn’t win the last event at the 2011 NCAA Championships in Texas last March.

But a third place finish in the 400-yard freestyle relay was enough to clinch Cal’s second NCAA title in three years. The Bears collected a school-record 424 points to edge out second-place Georgia (394.5 points), USC (351) and Stanford (272).

With the Pac-12 season beginning this Friday against Oregon State, No. 1 Cal looks to defend its national title.

“As defending national champions, we have a lot of pressure on us to win, but we have to step away from that,” junior Caitlin Leverenz said. “This season is an opportunity to race against other great teams and see what our team can do.”

However, this year’s team is markedly different from the team that won the NCAAs. With nine new additions to the team, it is still unclear what the Bears are capable of.

“There’s a very different feel to the team,” assistant coach Kristen Cunnane said. “The majority of our team are freshmen and sophomores, so there’s more of a vibrant, youthful energy than before.”

Although 19 of the 31 swimmers are underclassmen, they are far from inexperienced. All of the freshmen joining Cal have previously competed in state and national championships, but the newcomers benefit from a strong veteran presence on the squad to help them transition into collegiate-level swimming.

Senior and team captain Liv Jensen, along with Leverenz, are expected to be key contributors this season.

The last leg of a relay is usually reserved for the fastest swimmer and Jensen anchored all five relays at the 2011 NCAA Championships. Her top time in the 50-yard freestyle (21.94) ranks second in Cal history.

Leverenz set American and NCAA records in the 200-yard medley at the championship meet (1:35.03). Her combined time in five 100-yard events has won her Cal Poly’s Queen of the Pool meet for the past three consecutive years.

Sophomore Melissa Bates and freshman Catherine Breed also show promise.

Bates posted the sixth fastest 100-yard breaststroke in school history at the 2011 Pac-10 Championships (1:01.06) and came in third place in last weekend’s meet against the Mustangs (4:51.31), behind Leverenz and Jensen. Breed swims alongside Leverenz on the 2011-12 U.S. national team and finished fourth in the Cal Poly meet (4:51.58).

“It’s not just one person or just a few people who carry the team,” Cunnane said. “We have a lot of contributing members.”

Despite winning all four relays in the season-opening meet at Cal Poly, the Bears will face many challenges in trying to repeat their champi0nship win. Newcomers and returning veterans alike look to improve upon their own personal best in order to swim competitively against other high-ranking college teams.

“It’s always harder to repeat than it is to win the first time,” Cunnane said. “We have our work cut out for us.

“So for now, we’re just staying in the moment. We’re trying to focus on doing our best every day instead of focusing on what happens at the end of the year.”