Young Bears aim high for NCAA threepeat

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Twelve freshmen in, eight seniors out, and all eyes on Cal men’s swimming team are back on another championship. But it’s a long way in between springs.

Cal enters the fall season off one of the program’s most illustrious years. Beginning in March, the Bears seized their second consecutive NCAA championship (535.5) in Federal Way, Wash. At the 2012 London Olympics this summer, Cal swimming won 11 medals and 7 gold medals.

Head coach David Durden turned the men’s program since being hired in 2008, which hadn’t won a national championship since 1980, into back-to-back NCAA champions in 2010 and 2011. If the Bears want to defend their NCAA title in the spring, they’ll have to start training in the fall.

The fall is more of a warm-up to the spring season. It still has challenges, but ones that are primarily internal. First, the team must integrate a new generation of Bears. The highly recruited prospects will spend all fall meshing with their new teams.

One of the top swimmers in the Bears’ No. 2 ranked recruiting class is three-time Wyoming Male Swimmer of the Year, Nick Dillinger. The No. 12 ranked prospect was Junior National Champion in the 50 free and a six-time high school All-American.

Michael Haney is another highlight of Cal’s impressive freshman group. The Rialto, Calif. freestyle specialist claimed CIF Division III titles in the 100 and 200 free. He also helped the USA take a gold medal in the 400 free relay at the 2011 Junior World Championships.

Even with their swimming merits, adjusting to the speed of college swimming with academic life will not be easy.

“We have a new freshman class and they all have to learn how to survive college — swim and do schoolwork at the same time,” senior Ben Hinshaw said. “It’s always difficult because they’re new and you have to assimilate them, so it takes a bit of time.”

The second challenge the Bears will be facing is replacing a talented senior class, which included Martin Liivamagi and Nolan Koon. Both contributed valuable points by reaching the finals in 200 breast during the NCAA Championships.

The new senior class, however, is already trying to fill that gap. Tom Shields, the Pac-10 Swimmer of the Year, highlighted the 2012 NCAA Championship with titles in the 100 fly and 100 back. Trevor Hoyt broke a school record in the 200 breast and took 2nd in the NCAA finals.

Perhaps more importantly, the veterans will provide a new voice of leadership.

“As seniors, we all share leadership and take full responsibility,” Hinshaw said. “People like Tom and Trevor are especially loud and they can get people going, but we’re all stepping up.”

That leadership should be well on display by the time Cal goes into its marquee home event on Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. against Wisconsin. Its other important event is the Georgia Invitational, running from Nov. 30 to Dec. 1, in Athens, Ga. The Invitational especially would provide an early opportunity for the coaches to see how the freshmen perform in a large championship-style meet.

Even with these events, the fall is still just a second off-season. Durden and the rest of the team know that spring is when the competition really starts heating up.

“It allows us to really move into the core of the NCAA season and identify some different events for our guys when we look at a three–individual event format at the end of the season,” Durden said. “It’ll give us a good chance to look at our championship team.”

Vincent Tzeng covers men’s swimming. Contact him at [email protected].