Defending national champions looking for seconds in Auburn

Winning three national championships in four years is no easy feat. This week, the No. 1 Cal women’s swimming team will attempt to do just that when it heads to Auburn, Ala., for the NCAA Championship.

The Bears, who finished the regular season with a heartbreaking loss at Stanford, recently regained momentum by claiming the Pac-12 championship behind the excellent swimming of junior Caitlin Leverenz.

“The NCAA Championship is going to be even tougher than the Pac-12 tournament,” Leverenz said. “There are some great teams, but here, anyone can win and we’ve seen that the SEC is a tough conference.”

The Bears have some experience facing top competition. They have seen and defeated the likes of USC and Arizona this season, but Cal could face trouble from schools such as No. 5  Georgia, No. 2 Florida and host No. 3 Auburn — all from the SEC.

“We can’t win this meet without a complete effort,” Leverenz said. “The teams are so tough that each race matters.”

The tournament kicks off at the James E. Martin Aquatics center Thursday, and runs through Saturday.

Cal, which already has the pressure of being the top-ranked team, also has a target on its back for being the defending national champions. The squad is the likely favorite at this point, but its road will not be easy. Plus, there is the question of Stanford — the same Cardinal team that throttled the Bears at the end of the season, the same Cardinal team that gave up their lead in the Pac-12 tournament and watched Cal celebrate.

No doubt Stanford will want revenge for its crushing loss. Right now, what the Bears need most is a burst of energy to keep their momentum going. In order to repeat as National Champions, the swimmers will all need to perform at their peak.

Cal has the balanced attack to win with seniors Liv Jensen and Shelley Harper and sophomore Cindy Tran, all of whom have proven to be able point scorers throughout the season.

“The wins that we have had definitely helped build our confidence,” Tran said. “But we know that what matters are the championships.”

Tran and many other swimmers have the championship experience, which will help them stay cool under pressure, but the Bears’ success will also be determined, in part, by the performance of the other teams in the championship. Georgia, which was ranked No. 1 earlier in the season, has key wins over Auburn and Florida and is coming off a victory in the SEC tournament. The Bulldogs will likely be the biggest threat facing Cal, as their winning streak could continue.

“I am very excited to race here,” Leverenz said. “The NCAA Championship always brings out the best in us, and we want to win very badly.”