If each and every Cal swimmer turns in the meet of his life this weekend, the Cal men’s swim team has a chance to leave Seattle with its second consecutive national championship.
And if the squad wins another national title, the city of Berkeley needs to throw a ticker-tape parade down Telegraph Avenue. Winning it all again would take a Herculean feat, if not an impossible one.
There’s no filling the goggles left by last year’s senior class. Of the six swimmers who scored points for Cal’s national championship, five of them were seniors. That class was one of the greatest to ever grace the water for Cal, perhaps even the best in college swimming history.
Nathan Adrian — a star who has already earned an Olympic gold medal — won five events at last year’s meet, but he’s only the best swimmer to have left the squad. Damir Dugonjic won three NCAA events last year. Guy Barnea and Graeme Moore took two apiece. Martti Aljand and Josh Daniels each won Pac-10 Championships.
Last year’s team won seven events at NCAAs. This year’s squad couldn’t even match that at Pac-12s.
But the surface stats don’t tell the whole story. This year’s team should contend for a championship in spite of those losses because of one major advantage:
No other team qualified as many swimmers for NCAAs as Cal. Of the 18 Bears to qualify for the meet, six are freshmen.
“It’s good to have a group that big,” said Cal coach David Durden. “It’s special for them as a group to move through this year, learn a lot about themselves and see success manifest itself.”
That’s not to say the squad will be leaning heavily on its greenest recruits. Junior Tom Shields, the lone current Cal swimmer to have won events at last year’s championships, is unquestionably the Bears’ most talented swimmer. Seniors Nolan Koon, Mathias Gydesen and Martin Liivamagi all have second- or third-place finishes at NCAAs to their credit. Several other returners scored points last year.
But an infusion of youth can’t hurt after the exodus of last year’s senior class.
“We’ll have to rely on our top-end talent,” Durden said. “But certainly we look at it differently than we have in years past, and that’s okay. We’re not coming in with the same expectations as last year. There’s a sense of comfort with that.”
Winning individual events may be the most efficient way for the Bears to earn points, but it’s not the only way. Two hundred of Cal’s 493 points in last year’s championship came from its seven first-place finishes, but this year the Bears will be more reliant on the performances of its lower-finishing swimmers.
Case in point: This year’s Pac-12 Championships. Cal managed only four first-place finishes, but the squad took second place in seven events and third in nine. Stanford won twice as many events as Cal but finished with just 16 percent more points. Arizona won five events, but they were split between just two people, and the Wildcats finished with two-thirds as many points as the Bears.
The onus on Cal isn’t to win more events than other teams. It’s on maximizing the performance of every one of their guys in the water. If they can do that, if they can scratch out enough second- and third- and fourth-place finishes, they might just work their way into contention.
The odds of a second consecutive championship are slim. Don’t expect the Bears to win a national championship this weekend.
Then again, they just might.