National Championship Week an appropriate backdrop to Friday’s Utah meet

On both sides of Haas Pavilion’s towering main entryway, two identical banners have recently been unfurled. “Cal National Championship Week,” the signs proclaim in bold tri-colored font. Each sign shows 18 pictures — one for each team or individual that won an NCAA title for Cal sports last year.

Seven of those depict members of last year’s Cal men’s swim team.

The Bears’ squad that takes on Utah this Friday is not the team that won a national championship last year — junior Tom Shields is the only individual national champion to return from last year’s squad. But 10 All-Americans from last year are still on the team. With Oct. 17-22’s National Championship Week as a backdrop, the Bears (1-0) have a chance to forge a new identity as a team.

“It’s really a collective group,” assistant coach Greg Meehan said. “We obviously have some star power with someone like Tom Shields and (senior Nolan Koon), but it’s not similar to last year’s team.”

The 2011 National Champions will be honored after Friday’s meet at Spieker Aquatics Center, with the two banners hardly a stone’s throw away. After a reception with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau Friday evening, the celebration will culminate in a ceremony at halftime of Saturday’s Cal-Utah football game at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

“I think they’ve enjoyed getting a little bit of recognition,” Meehan said.

Though this year’s Cal team has yet to play an opponent of its caliber, the squad has impressed thus far. The Bears soundly defeated Hawaii in the season’s first dual meet on Oct. 13, swimming the fastest times in all 14 events en route to an easy 154-135 win. Friday will be Cal’s first Pac-12 meet of the year.

It will also be just the second meet Utah (0-1) has swum as a member of the Pac-12. The Utes made their conference debut Thursday afternoon at Stanford, losing 155-124. Utah switched from the Mountain West Conference, where they finished fifth out of six teams at the conference championships last year. None of their swimmers qualified for the 2011 NCAA Championships.

So the Bears’ real competition Friday will, once again, be themselves. Senior Mathias Gydesen predicts a victory, but his statement sounds obvious more than it does outlandish. Meenan wants to see his swimmers in a mix of their usual events and off-events in a test of Cal’s flexibility.

“Not to be disrespectful in any way, but we just focus on what we need to do,” Gydesen said. “It’s an opportunity to just get up and go and learn from your races.”

In other words, it’s a test of how this year’s team can set itself apart, even with last year’s national championship looming. National Championship Week isn’t just motivation for the freshmen who weren’t present on the team last year but a reminder of what the entire team can do.

“It’s really motivating,” Gydesen said of last year’s national championship. “We know that if we do the things we need to do, we can definitely do it again this year.”

And then, maybe the team will be responsible for another banner week next year.

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