With star junior out, Bears head to Georgia for their toughest bout of 2017

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No. 6 Cal women’s swim hasn’t lost all year, but its midseason checkpoint will be its toughest challenge up to this point. The team will head to Athens, Georgia to take on No. 4 Michigan, No. 5 Georgia and No. 16 Virginia at the Georgia Invitational.

The three-day meet will be a 2017 NCAA Championship reunion, but the circumstances will be noticeably different. Not only are the Bears no longer the definitive front-runners, but they find themselves as an underdog down their biggest star.

Junior Kathleen Baker, who had three event wins at last year’s championships, will not compete in Georgia. Baker has not been feeling great in the time leading up to the meet and will stay in Berkeley while her teammates head to Athens.

This is a huge hit for the Bears and is guaranteed to affect how the team places — they are simply going to war without their strongest solider. Although Baker will be absent in the most pivotal meet of the season up to this point, going forward, her experience should allow her to bounce back from her time off with relative ease.

Baker was a key factor in the 2017 National Championships, in which the Bears (second place) bested the Bulldogs (fourth), Wolverines (11th) and Cavaliers (12th). Cal was a force to be reckoned with — and largely still is today. Having demolished all the schools on the biggest platform in collegiate swim, Cal is likely to have a target on its back fueled by a craving for revenge.

“They are teams that we are going to be fighting with in the end, and they have been swimming really fast,” said Cal assistant coach Sarah Dunleavy. “So just seeing where they are at and where we are at will be really helpful.”

The rest of the squad, who will be well-rested after two weeks to recuperate since their last competition, will need to step up to replace the veteran. Dunleavy noted that the Bears are feeling confident and came back from break looking sharp and up to speed in terms of training.

Confidence alone will not be enough, however, as Cal needs to be perfect if it wants to come away with a title in Athens — there is simply too much competition under one roof for error.

Winning is always the goal, especially with such a decorated program as women’s swim. And while Cal hasn’t prioritized improving its national rankings just yet, the time to catapult itself back to the two-spot is dwindling down.The team still has some growing to do and will use this meet as much more than simply an opportunity to extend its four-meet win streak.

“This meet is really about strategy and technique,” Dunleavy said. “We’ll see what can do and what we are doing well and also what we’re doing not so well — and then work on that and get ready for March.”

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