Chasing championships: Cal looks to wrangle Longhorns at NCAA championships

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Hold your breath and flashback to the cancellation of all NCAA spring sports tournaments. Dive. The new season carries the heavy responsibility to make space for both 2020’s unrealized goals and 2021’s ambitious new aspirations. Stroke. Cal’s men’s swim and dive just dominated at the Pac-12 championships for the fourth time in a row. Breathe. The Bears now head to Greensboro, North Carolina for the NCAA Men’s Swimming and Diving Championships.

And it’s looking a lot like it’ll come down to No. 2 Cal versus No. 1 Texas.

For the past six years, the Bears and Longhorns have been locked in an unspoken rivalry at nationals, constantly trading off between first and second place. Cal’s score of 560 points in 2019 was enough to snap Texas’ four-year winning streak, and as the defending national champions, the Bears have every intention of starting a streak of their own. It won’t be easy, however. Since the competition’s inception in 1937, the Longhorns have secured a nation-high 14 team titles while Cal holds six.

The College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America, or CSCAA, recently reaffirmed its confidence in Texas in its March rankings — the No. 1 Longhorns have 299 points while the No. 2 Bears are hot on their tails with 289 points. Since last November, Texas has placed first in the CSCAA’s rankings, consistently notching a few points more than the blue and gold.

However, the Bears have a chip on their shoulder. Under head coach David Durden, Cal has always been in contention for titles, placing either first or second at the past 10 NCAA championships. This season has also boasted some historic performances, and the Bears will undoubtedly carry the momentum of their conference championship to Greensboro.

Cal will see 15 swimmers and all five relays head to North Carolina. Of the 41 schools and 235 swimmers invited to the NCAA championships, only the Longhorns qualified more individuals. Though Texas saw an unprecedented 26 members receive invitations to compete, team rosters have a hard cap at 18, so head coach Eddie Reese was forced to make some tough cuts. Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Louisville and North Carolina State will also have strong numbers this week.

In comparing the racing times of all 235 competitors, the Bears hold the top seed in two of 21 events – junior Reece Whitley leads the 200 breaststroke with a time of 1:48.53, more than a second faster than Minnesota’s Max McHugh’s 1:50.93, and senior Trenton Julian narrowly leads the 200 butterfly with a time of 1:38.53. A plethora of Cal swimmers chase the coveted No. 1 seed in other events: Junior Hugo González holds second place in both the 200 and 400 individual medley while senior Ryan Hoffer’s performance in the 50 and 100-yard freestyle both trail the nation’s best by less than half a second. In the 200 backstroke, the Bears’ swimmers boast the second, third and fourth fastest times in the country.

Given the decreased number of meets this season, the sample size is small, and there is reason to believe these times will change. The national stage does often bring out the best in people, after all.

So fans will hold their breath and watch as the blue and gold dive and stroke again and again. And perhaps, when the week ends and the trophy is presented, they will finally be able to breathe.

Cynthia Ge covers men’s swim and dive. Contact her at [email protected].