With the entire bleachers filled by family, fans and friends, the No. 6 Cal women’s swimming and diving team’s dual meet against No. 4 USC was a dramatic show. Through 11 of the 16 overall events, the Bears and the Trojans traded leads before the Bears swept the top spot in the final four races to win 165-135. It was only fitting that Cal’s “Go Bears” chant before every race was alternated with USC’s “Go Trojans” cheer.
As the two Pac-12 foes faced off last Friday in its first of three meetings over the next two months, both Cal and USC were ready to prove its worth. The Bears struck first with a dominating show in the 200-yard medley relay. Sophomore Amy Bilquist started with a 50-yard backstroke before giving way to freshman phenom Abbey Weitzeil, who swam the breaststroke leg. With Olympians Noemie Thomas and Farida Osman finishing the quartet, they registered a time of 1:36.83 — an incredibly quick time at this point in the season.
Despite USC’s loss in the first event, it relied heavily on its stars to fight its way to within two points at the halfway mark. Freshman Louise Hansson was one of those elite Trojans as she knocked off Weitzeil in the 100- and 200-yard freestyle. Sophomore Riley Scott was another double-event winner for USC as she exploited Cal’s seemingly eternal weakness in breaststroke.
In the 100-yard butterfly, Hansson was unable to hold off fellow Olympic sprint butterfly specialists Thomas and Osman, which likely sealed the loss for the Trojans. Bears freshman Maddie Murphy squeezed past Hansson by .01 seconds to clinch a Cal trifecta.
The Bears were able to counteract Hansson’s and Scott’s strong days by providing a double-event winner of its own in sophomore Kathleen Baker. Although she lost the 100-yard backstroke to Bilquist by .41 seconds, Baker claimed the 200-yard backstroke with a time of 1:53.66 — a swim that eclipsed Elizabeth Pelton’s pool record from three years ago by .28 seconds. Her second win came in the 200-yard individual medley, where Baker used her crushing backstroke ability to build a sizable unrelinquished lead against Scott.
While Baker was Cal’s only double-event winner, others such as freshman Chenoa Devine and sophomore Katie McLaughlin came close. McLaughlin’s strong 200-yard butterfly, her specialty, and 500-yard freestyle are exceptionally promising because she sustained a neck injury over a year ago that potentially cost her NCAA Championship and 2016 Olympic Team berths. She masterfully crafted times of 1:55.62 in the 200-yard butterfly, which is her best time since setting her personal record in 2013, and 4:47.50 in the 500-yard freestyle — indicating her strength and endurance is back to pre-injury form.
The Bears’ encore was a dominating presentation against No. 19 UCLA on Saturday — a meet Cal won 165-128 after electing to exhibition multiple swims. While the team continued to perform well, senior Celina Li led a sleuth of Bears that shined as its elite swimmers got the opportunity to swim off-events in order to even out their racing over a long season.
Regardless, Cal will take its 7-1 (6-0 Pac-12) record with them — along with the tough challenge that the southern Californian rivals brought — as it focuses on the titans it will face in coming weeks.
Christopher Zheng covers women’s swim. Contact him at [email protected].