Over the past three years, Cal and Texas swimming have separated themselves from the rest of the country. Last March, however, Florida and North Carolina State proved that the collegiate swimming field is no longer just two titans. With Cal enjoying seven consecutive top-two finishes, anything less feels pedestrian and like a disappointment.
The graduation of Josh Prenot, Jacob Pebley, Tyler Messerschmidt and Trent Williams hurts the program. But this year’s team can be described with one name: Ryan Murphy. The superstar senior is coming off an impressive summer in which he earned three Olympic gold medals in Rio de Janeiro and broke the world record in the 100-meter backstroke.
In a seemingly magical way, Murphy continues to improve and dominate the NCAA every year. There’s no one in the country who can touch Murphy in the backstroke races. He’s also a reliable weapon in the freestyle relays.
Even without Pebley, Cal’s backstroke group should continue business as usual. If junior Connor Green and sophomore Mike Thomas can lead the way behind Murphy, the loss of Pebley could be mitigated, especially if freshmen Ethan Young and Andy Song An are able to prove their value.
Perhaps, the biggest improvements for the Bears have come in the butterfly and sprint freestyle groups. The key behind the upgrade is the addition of junior transfer Matthew Josa, who specializes in the aforementioned areas. He’s almost .8 seconds faster than the next fastest 100-yard butterflyer on the roster, junior Justin Lynch.
In addition to Josa, Cal added freshman Michael Jensen, who has an elite 100-yard and 200-yard freestyle. His 50-yard freestyle isn’t quite there yet, but six more months of training could make Jensen a deadly asset in both the sprint freestyle events and relays.
A major weakness, however, for the Bears at the championship level will be the distance freestyle events. Cal has lost its top swimmer in both the 500-yard and 1,650-yard freestyle, and sophomore Nick Norman appeared to have a rough adjustment last year. His best times from high school are around the same as the last finals qualifier of 2016. Hitting personal bests at next spring’s NCAA Championship would be critical as the Bears try to catch up to Texas.
Because half of Cal’s diving program graduated last year, the Bears are left with junior Finn Scribbick, who definitely experienced a sophomore slump last year. Cal freshman Connor Callahan — a product of the highly touted Duke Diving program — joins Scribbick and could take a shot at Cal’s school records. With a new diving coach in Derek Starks and a new facility, the Bears’ diving duo should be the best Cal has seen in years. Adding Callahan won’t erase Texas’ diving advantage at the NCAA Championship, but he can help plug the hole.
Perhaps the most interesting Bear to watch will be sophomore Andrew Seliskar. Considering his incredible versatility and elite speed, Seliskar breaking records and winning titles isn’t out of the picture. The sophomore, however, will be expected to fill Prenot’s lane and to lead Cal’s individual medley group.
With the incoming and remaining talent on the roster, expectations for the Bears are still incredibly high. After losing its dual-meet winning streak last season, Cal will be looking to jump-start it again and finish with an NCAA Championship title.
Christopher Zheng covers men’s swim. Contact him at [email protected].