Cal women’s swimming and diving heads to NCAA Championships

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“Beware the Ides of March” has been a warning that many have heeded over the last few centuries. With this year’s NCAA Championship starting March 15, Stanford will need to watch its back while the Bears attempt to chase it down.

From Wednesday to Saturday, Cal women’s swimming and diving — tied for second in the nation — will take on the best at the IU Natatorium in Indianapolis. Perhaps the only team that the Bears will have their eyes on will be No. 1 Stanford — a team that dealt a convincing dual-meet win at Spieker Aquatics Complex and a dominating Pac-12 Championship performance over Cal last month.

After an arduous season, Cal will bring 13 swimmers and one diver to the NCAA Championship — one more swimmer and one fewer diver than last year’s third-place team. This 14-person roster is full of talent and stacked résumés, with multiple swimmers having participated in large international competitions such as the Olympics.

Bears sophomore Kathleen Baker, who is projected to be Cal’s highest individual scorer, will help pave Cal’s road to a title. In her first event, Baker needs to chase after Stanford sophomore Ella Eastin in the 200-yard individual medley, a repeat of last year’s NCAA Championship. Then, Baker will have to run down Cardinal junior Ally Howe in the 100-yard backstroke before she holds off another Stanford junior, Janet Hu, in the 200-yard backstroke. The Bears’ shaky quest to become champions will be contingent on Baker’s ability to seal victories as well as the team’s capacity to race past Stanford.

As much as Baker is integral to Cal’s success in the pool, sophomore diver Phoebe Lamay must limit the edge Stanford has on the diving board if the Bears want to remain competitive. That will be a tall task to handle, as Lamay will compete in the 1- and 3-meter diving events, and Stanford will put Olympian senior Kassidy Cook and highly talented freshman Haley Farnsworth in those two events as well.

With Cal being outnumbered in diving, it will need to make its move in the swimming events. Stanford holds the top seed in 10 of the 13 individual events and four of the five relays, which is a daunting task for the Bears to overcome.

While the 13 swimmers will be equally important, the strength of Cal’s roster will be dependent upon freshmen Keaton Blovad, Maddie Murphy and Abbey Weitzeil, as well as sophomores Amy Bilquist and Katie McLaughlin. The juniors and seniors on the squad are already experienced in high-pressure collegiate competition situations, as they were members of the team’s 2015 NCAA Championship. Murphy, Weitzeil — one of the world’s fastest sprint freestyle specialists — and McLaughlin, an elite middle-distance freestyle swimmer before her injury, must be at their best to hold off the deep Stanford freestyle group filled with stars.

Despite the Bears’ relative weakness in breaststroke and distance freestyle, they should be able to keep pace with the Cardinal if Cal can perform to its potential. If not, it will fall closer to the tight battle among No. 2 Texas, No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 USC, No. 7 NC State and No. 9 Texas A&M for third place. Either way, the Bears are hoping that the third time will be the charm in their journey to knocking down Stanford.

Christopher Zheng covers women’s swim. Contact him at [email protected].