While Berkeley is ready to weather the rain for the week, the No. 6 Cal women’s swim team will travel this weekend to the desert areas of Tucson, Arizona, and Tempe, Arizona, for dual meets against Arizona and Arizona State.
Arizona — the Bears’ opponent Friday afternoon — is a program ready to challenge the California hegemony in collegiate swimming. The Wildcats return an incredible freshman class that propelled them to fourth and 12th place finishes at the Pac-12 and NCAA Championships, respectively, last year. Sophomores Annie Ochitwa and Katrina Konopka have set the bar high. Konopka is best in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle, but she’s also a very capable 100-yard backstroke. Her stellar performance at the Texas Invitational, where she notched three NCAA B time standards in her individual events and was a critical leg in the four relays that earned the NCAA A time cut, earned her December’s Pac-12 Swimmer of the Month.
A story about Konopka and Arizona, however, would not be complete without Ochitwa. While her sprint freestyle is not quite at the same level as that of Konopka, Ochitwa makes up for it by being an elite sprint butterflyer and backstroker. At the Texas Invitational, she managed to put it all together for a very good 200-yard individual medley time. The dynamic duo is a very competitive unit across the collegiate swimming world.
Arizona has many other important athletes on its roster, such as freshmen Hannah Cox and Kirsten Jacobsen, who fulfill extremely important roles that Konopka and Ochitwa are unable to do. The squad is without significant weaknesses in any of the disciplines, but it lacks the depth needed to take a bigger swing at titans like Cal.
Arizona State, on the other hand, hasn’t fared as well against Pac-12 opponents, but it was among CollegeSwimming’s most improved Division I programs last year. Under the direction of head coach Bob Bowman, the Sun Devils are heading in the right direction. Bowman, best known for having coached Michael Phelps, has recruited and developed solid talents.
Sophomore Marlies Ross and senior Katarina Simonovic lead the way for Arizona State.
Ross represents the Sun Devil’s most lethal weapon against Cal. She specializes in the 200-yard breaststroke and the 200- and 400-yard individual medley events. While the Bears are capable of holding their own in the individual medley events, they lack an elite breaststroke specialist, which will make the breaststroke races at the dual meet interesting. At last year’s dual meet between Cal and Arizona State, Ross made an immediate impact as a spring entree, earning her a second-place finish in the 400-yard individual medley and 200-yard backstroke.
Simonovic represented Team Serbia at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the 200- and 400-meter freestyle events. As a sophomore, Simonovic qualified for the NCAA Championship in the short course yard’s version of those events.
The sixth-ranked Cal squad is certainly capable of kicking the competition out of the water in this weekend’s meet. So far, the Bears have logged 15 individual and five relay swims in the top 10 nationally, headed by sophomores Amy Bilquist and Kathleen Baker. Cal, which hasn’t competed since its dual meet against San Jose State almost four weeks ago, will certainly have some stiff competition in its first weekend back into conference meets.
Christopher Zheng covers women’s swim. Contact him at [email protected].