Last year, as the Cal women’s swim team entered the Pac-12 part of the season, the Bears looked like the team to beat at the NCAA Championships. But surprising losses to USC and Stanford showcased the Bears’ lack of depth in certain events such as distance and sprints, and Cal finished third at the championships.
But with the addition of a talented freshman class and some of the best returning swimmers in the nation, depth doesn’t appear to be a problem for this Cal team. Now, the No. 1 Bears will look to show off that depth and test it as they head to the Grand Canyon state for the first meets of the Pac-12 season, competing against Arizona State on Friday before heading to take on No. 14 Arizona on Saturday.
The Bears currently have 26 swims in the top-eight times in the nation — eight in freestyle, six in backstroke, one in breaststroke, two in butterfly, four in individual medley, three freestyle relay teams and two medley relay teams — and are at or near the top in several events.
The combination of sophomore Missy Franklin and junior Elizabeth Pelton — the Pac-12 December Swimmer of the Month — has been absolutely lethal for Cal, as those two make up nine of the top-eight swims, not including their performance on the relays. Franklin’s 200-yard free time of 1:41:23 is the fastest in the country — Pelton’s time is good enough for third — and Franklin’s time in the 100-yard free, 47.63, is the second-fastest time so far this season. In the 200-yard back, Pelton and Franklin have the two best times, 1:49.00 and 1:49.23, respectively, as is the case in the 200-yard IM, where Pelton’s time is six-hundredths of a second faster than Franklin’s.
“Having Missy and Liz together on a roster is like having two great chess pieces we can move around,” said associate head coach Kristen Cunnane. “They push each other; they feed on each other.”
But perhaps most important are the other names that appear on the list. Junior Rachel Bootsma looks to be back in Olympic form and has swum the second-fastest 100 back this year. Senior Camille Cheng has been a huge part of the freestyle relays, and her time is eighth nationally in the 200 free. Freshman Cierra Runge has been a superstar, with her times in the 500 free and 1650 free, good enough for second and eighth, respectively, which has been key, because both are distances the Bears were lacking in last year. Sophomore Farida Osman and freshman Noemie Thomas have given Cal a serious threat in the butterfly.
In other words, the Bears are absolutely stacked.
Cal hasn’t competed since early December — the team took its annual trip to Hawaii over winter break — but the Sun Devils are coming into the meet on a high, winning four straight dual meets after losing their first five.
But the real test for the Bears will be Arizona. Junior backstroker Bonnie Brandon can pose a threat and break up Cal’s formidable backstroke corps, junior Taylor Schick, a freestyle sprinter, has the speed and ability to pick up some key points for the Wildcats, and junior Emma Schoettmer, a breaststroker, has been good all season.
And while the Bears still seem to be the more talented team, with faster times from top swimmers, Cal learned two years ago not to count anyone out when the Wildcats pulled a surprise upset.
“It doesn’t matter what a team looks like on paper,” Cunnane said. “They have talent down there. … We have to bring our best because they’re going to bring their best.”
Cunnane also said the Pac-12 season really marks the start of the NCAA countdown and is one of the best parts of the year.
“This is what we work so hard for,” Cunnane said. “This is one thing after the next — this is what gives you the butterflies.”