Watching from the bleachers as Stanford celebrated a third victory in two months must have been difficult for the Cal women’s swimming and diving team. Three times the Bear went up against the Cardinal in the back half of their season, and three times their rival came away on top. As well as the Bears closed their season in general, the third time was not the charm.
Finishing second to Stanford at the Pac-12 and NCAA championships would be a success for most programs, but Cal has had nine consecutive top-three finishes at the NCAA Championships, so it’s hard for silver to be construed as a victory. Similarly, for many schools, having a 7-2 record in dual meets is a triumph, but for Cal it may be indicative of an elite program starting to crumble.
But not all is doom and gloom for Cal. It finished the year with the CSCAA Swimmer of the Year, six national event titles and nine All-Americans on its roster.
It’s no surprise that Stanford dominated throughout the season, and Cal was the only team capable of challenging the Cardinal. That expectation was challenged quickly. In early November, the Bears lost a close home meet to Texas. They bounced back by dominating the Georgia Invitational a month later, which fielded high-quality teams such as Georgia, Michigan and Virginia.
Once the new year came about, Cal was plowing through its dual-meet opponents, which began to generate thoughts that the Bears could upset Stanford at the end of the season. It felt like all of its weapons were lining together for a gigantic frontal assault.
Just as easily, however, Stanford dismantled Cal with a thorough thrashing at Spieker Aquatics Complex on Feb. 11. About a week and a half later, freshman Abbey Weitzeil and sophomore Amy Bilquist — perhaps because of illness and injury that they competed through — struggled in the team’s quest for a conference title. Senior Celina Li, who has traditionally been a reliable contributor in the individual medley events, was far from her best.
With such vital elements of the roster not performing up to potential, it left opportunities for younger athletes such as freshman Maddie Murphy and sophomore Phoebe Lamay to take a bigger spotlight. Murphy kept dropping significant time with each competition. Lamay kept growing confidence with each dive. While it’s unlikely either will win postseason awards, their performance in the second half of the season will be crucial to the program’s success in the future.
Despite a fairly successful season, the future is murky. Seniors Farida Osman and Marina Garcia graduated among Cal’s all-time bests. Senior Kristen Vredeveld put together a solid career of consistent relay splits that helped the Bears win multiple relay titles at the Pac-12 and NCAA championships. Without the aforementioned seniors and diver Hayden Tavoda, Cal will be losing out on valuable contributors and leaders.
A strong recruiting class can minimize the impacts of graduating high-caliber swimmers such as Osman. Although the 10-member incoming class doesn’t have a swimmer that particularly stands out like Missy Franklin or Kathleen Baker, Cal has addressed the lack of depth in breaststroke and diving events with its recruiting class. Most of the incoming freshmen probably won’t contribute at the NCAA Championship as a freshman. But for Cal head coach Teri McKeever, turning them into bona fide stars is well within her powers.
Christopher Zheng covers women’s swim. Contact him at [email protected].