Cal men’s swimming and diving seeks to uphold its No.1 rank going into NCAA Championships

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Phillip Downey/File

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There is a lot to consider in a fight between a California Golden Bear and a Texas Longhorn. Surely if the showdown took place in forested and hilly home territory, the bear has the advantage, but the answer to that question becomes a lot more convoluted if both the colossal animals are in the water.

For the past three years, No. 1 Cal men’s swimming and diving and No. 2 Texas have battled it out at the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships, swapping in and out of first and second place. After finishing runner-up in the past two, the Bears are now gunning to overcome their Lone Star state rival in Indianapolis starting Wednesday.

After partaking in the Bears’ last national win in 2014 and coming so close in the past two years, Cal’s seniors are particularly invested in the goal. Senior Ryan Murphy, who is planning to go pro after this season, will be swimming in three events: the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes, as well as the 200-yard IM.

Texas and Cal both have 18 athletes traveling to Indianapolis to partake in the four-day competition, but the spread is slightly different. The Bears boast the overall highest number of selected swimmers, with at least one participant in every event, while the Longhorns flaunt the most Olympic gold medalists: senior Jack Conger, senior Clark Smith and sophomore Townley Haas were all members of the 4×200-meter freestyle gold medal relay team in Rio this summer, and junior Joseph Schooling posted an Olympic record in the 100-meter butterfly.

“They can cover a lot of ground with those four guys and then you add … (senior) Will Licon, who was a double event winner last year at the NCAA meet, and combine that with some of their younger guys that have some talent,” said Cal men’s swimming head coach David Durden. “Anytime you go up against that level of depth and talent, that is a big thing for us to overcome as a group.”

While the Bears are sending only one diver, freshman Connor Callahan (who secured berths in the 1-meter, 3-meter and platform dives), three Longhorn divers qualified. Senior Texas diver Mark Anderson will be in his fourth bout at NCAA Championships. If Anderson continues his trend of improving his rankings across all three diving events each year, he will be the Longhorns’ greatest weapon against Cal’s young diving program. But Callahan is an asset and not a liability for Cal — he brings a particular strength that the team has not enjoyed in years.

Between Cal and Texas, individual dominance varies from event to event. Sophomore Andrew Seliskar holds the best time in the 400-yard IM at 3:39.53, but Licon trumps Cal with his 1:49.89 200-yard breaststroke.

The 50-yard freestyle will be a particularly intense battle. Texas’ Schooling holds the best time of the group at 18.76, but Cal freshman Pawel Sendyk follows closely behind with his seed time of 19.10.

“I do think we are going to be a better version of ourselves as compared to last year’s meet,” Durden said. “We have a little more depth and a little more spread. There are some things that play to our benefit, and hopefully we can exploit those over the next couple days.”

In an individualized sport such as swimming, it is all too easy to forget that it is team effort that wins meets. The Bears, who have been focusing on team development this semester, will need to play to their strengths in order to conquer the Longhorns once and for all.

Lucy Schaefer covers men’s swimming. Contact her at [email protected]