Cal women’s swim seeks vengeance in new season

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When Cal women’s swim took second in last year’s NCAA National Championships, it finished 160.5 points behind first-place Stanford — the largest margin between champ and follower since 2003. Stanford simply couldn’t be touched. By anybody. Leaving with the title of runner-up was a badge the Bears could wear with dignity, and going into 2017, they have their heads held high and are ready to get back into the water.

“We performed really the best that we could,” said Cal assistant coach Sarah Dunleavy.

Leading the Bear pack in the 2017-18 season will be Olympian junior Kathleen Baker, who earned the title of CSCAA National Swimmer of the Year after three national titles at the 2016 Championships. It has been typical of Cal swimming to have a signature national star — Farida Osman in 2016, Missy Franklin in 2015 — and now all eyes will be on Baker as she becomes the house name for the Bears.

“Kathleen has a lot of experience that maybe our team doesn’t,” Dunleavy said. “She’s a huge role model and … she’s not a captain this year, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not a leader.”

Baker is undoubtedly the most decorated and experienced swimmer on Cal’s roster, but she is also backed by extremely talented teammates. With the recent graduation of a cohort of strong seniors, it will be time for new faces to step into the spotlight.

Sophomores Abbey Weitzeil and Maddie Murphy are the youngest returning swimmers who participated at last year’s National Championship, and they both impressed with their times. Both swimmers had strong rookie outings highlighted by two respective top-10 finishes at nationals. In head-to-head competition in the national 50-meter free, Weitzeil took fifth, hitting the wall just under a quarter second before Murphy, who took sixth in the event.

Junior Katie McLaughlin was also a pivotal contributor last year, and her highest finish at the NCAA Championships came in the 200-meter fly, in which she took second. Fellow third-year Amy Bilquist did not have the same level of success, but she managed to take ninth in the 100-meter back.

The lone returning senior who competed in nationals last year is Noemie Thomas, whose highest finish came fifth in the 100 fly. Thomas will be only one of four seniors on the Bears’ 31-woman roster, and while her experience will be scarce, it will be a huge factor in making the Bears a cohesive unit.

Cal has also brought in 11 impressive swimmers in its freshman class. Two standouts in the class include Robin Neumann and Sarah Darcel, and the coaching staff has high expectations for the young Bears.

Neumann hails from the Netherlands and has competed with the Dutch National team since 2015. She also competed at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where she placed 26th in the 200-meter free and was a part of the Dutch squad that finished 13th in the 800-meter free relay. Darcel of Canada represented her country in the World University Games in Taipei in 2017, finishing fourth in the 400-meter IM.

“I think we are just as strong, if not stronger, and more experienced than a year ago,” Dunleavy said.

Christie Aguilar covers women’s swim. Contact her at [email protected].