With its dual meet season now wrapped up, the pace of competition picks up for the Cal women’s swimming and diving team as it braces itself for the beginning of championship season. The team begins by squaring off against rivals such as Stanford and USC as the Bears look to make waves in the Pac-12 Championships that will take place in Federal Way, Washington, from Feb. 24 to 27.
Of the nine Pac-12 teams, five rank among the nation’s top 25 programs: No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 Cal, No. 7 USC, No. 14 Arizona and No. 19 UCLA. The Bears have already taken on all of the aforementioned teams in a dual meet setting, but the championships pose a different challenge for the team as the races will feature only the best swimmers each team has to offer.
“We’re a better championship team than we are a dual meet team,” said Cal assistant head coach Kathie Wickstrand. “We’ve got a lot of really good swimmers, (but) in a dual meet, you have to have a wide variety of people.”
Cal has already faced several setbacks this season, the most recent coming with a blowout loss at Stanford in both teams’ final dual meet of the season. The Bears, who had put forth strong performances all season, laid a 172-128 egg against the Cardinal and will hope to rebound with a better effort in the championship meets. The team is well aware that Stanford has strong talent all across the board, especially with its breaststrokers, which is a hole for Cal.
The Bears also dropped a meet against USC, 153-147, on Jan. 29 in a match-up that came down to the wire. The team matched up more evenly against the Trojans than against Stanford, and the loss came down to the 200-yard freestyle relay squad, where the Trojans clocked in at 1:30.64 to the Bears’ 1:31.71 time. Cal actually believed it had the advantage in the event at the time and hopes that it will match up much better against the Trojans at the championships, now that they’ve faced off once.
“It came down to the last relay, and we have a really good relay so that was a very winnable meet for us,” Wickstrand said. “It didn’t quite turn out that way, but it was very winnable. … It was the first really hard competitive dual meet we’ve had.”
Cal has been buoyed by the performances of two freshmen this season, Amy Bilquist and Kathleen Baker, and they both figure to play huge roles in the team’s Pac-12 title bid. The talented pair has combined for several strong results over the course of the season and have been able to showcase their versatility. Baker took the 500-yard freestyle event against USC in 4:45.49 and the 100-yard backstroke with a 52.95 time. Bilquist, who has been especially strong in short-distance events, won the 100-yard and 200-yard backstroke events against Stanford with times of 52.59 and 1:53.80, respectively.
Throughout this season, the Bears have missed a talented piece of their roster with freshman Katie McLaughlin out because of an injury. It has been swimmers such as Bilquist and Baker, in addition to junior Farida Osman and seniors such as Rachel Boostma and Kelly Naze who’ve stepped up in her absence that have played a critical role in helping the team stay afloat this season.
The Bears’ victory in the Pac-12 Championships last season was a major stepping stone en route to becoming NCAA champions. If Cal hopes to come out on top again, the team must put forth some of its best work of the season as the championships are an entirely different beast than competition in dual meets. The Bears certainly have their work cut out for them as they’ve already encountered many difficulties this season in match-ups against their rivals to the south.
Shiktij Dave covers women’s swimming. Contact him at [email protected].