Jan. 29, 2005
BERKELEY, Calif. - An influx of talented newcomers combined with the return of an experienced group of swimmers and divers will give California every chance to improve on a seventh-place finish at the NCAA Championships last year. Now in his 31st year as head coach, Nort Thornton expects the 2004-05 team to retain its traditional dominance in the sprints and relays and have the usual balance exhibited by his Golden Bears teams of the past.
With a 211-81 (.722) all-time dual-meet record and 25 teams in 30 years that have finished ranked in the top 10, Thornton remains the dean of all Pac-10 conference coaches. The former two-time national Coach of the year and four-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year produced back-to-back NCAA team championships in 1979 and 1980.
Along with co-head coach Mike Bottom and volunteer assistant coach Bart Kizierowski, Thornton knows what it takes to put a program among the truly elite teams of the sport.
"You always like to think you could've done better," Thornton said. "Hopefully this year we can replace the lost points from graduation. If we can do that and keep our relays strong, we've got a good chance to be in the top five. With this group this year, we'd like to definitely be in the top 10 and we'd like to look at a top five finish."
Cal loses swimmers Alex Lim, Jeff Natalizio, Renato Gueraldi, Keith Vogelgesang and Steve Rehrmann along with divers Robbie Quinn and Charles Slender, from the 2003-04 squad. The large group of 14 incoming Bears - Louis Vayo, Mark Eckert, Dominic Cathey, William Copeland, John Foster, Jernej Godec, Richard Hunter, Michael Jafari, Zac Monsees, Justin Pollard, Dash Rothberg, Chris Talbott, Garrett Wagner and Joe Whittington - will help offset the losses.
"We have a pretty good size recruiting class," Thornton said. "There's a lot of talent there. Depending on how fast the freshman come along will help determine where we're at. Our upperclassmen are solid. Hopefully we'll be as good and maybe a little bit better than we were last year, if we get the right contributions from the freshmen.
"That's a pretty good group of incoming talent. We're really happy with the freshmen group. We have a really nice, by most standards, freshmen group. The future looks bright. We just have to see how fast we can mature."
All-American swimmers Duje Draganja and Milorad Cavic are Cal's two brightest returning stars. Each is a past NCAA and Pac-10 champion and has excelled at the international level, particularly in the sprint freestyle and butterfly events. Both Europeans were also on the three Cal relays that produced top five finishes at last season's NCAA Championships on Long Island, N.Y.
Internationally, Draganja captured the silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2004 Athens Olympics for his native Croatia. Cavic, swimming for his parents' native Serbia and Montenegro, also competed in Athens last summer. Cavic and Draganja continued their individual swimming careers during the fall, with Draganja winning the bronze medal in the 50-meter butterfly (23.26) at the 2004 World Championships in October in Indianapolis, Ind. Both are expected to rejoin the Bears for the 2005 spring semester.
"The break for those guys will be good in some ways, because they'll be a little relaxed and refocused when they return," Thornton said. "There are plusses and minuses."
The addition of a new coach, Ron Kontura, should invigorate the divers. Kontura, who joined Cal last August from Nadadores Diving in Mission Viejo, Calif., will oversee an emerging squad that includes Louie Gagnet. The latter earned honorable mention All-American honors after he finished 12th in the platform dive with 465.55 points, 13th in the 3-meter dive (517.65) and 25th in the 1-meter dive (266.10) at the NCAA Championships last March in Oklahoma City, Okla.
With Duje Draganja and Milorad Cavic in tow, and with the work of Mike Bottom, one of the world's top sprint coaches, Cal has one of the best sprint freestyle teams in the nation. At the 2004 Pac-10 Championships, Draganja won the 50-yard free in 19.17, the third-fastest time in Cal history, while Cavic was ninth in 19.49. Draganja also won the 100-yard free (41.96), which was also Cal's third-fastest time ever in the event, while Cavic was again ninth (43.00). Even without the duo until later in the season, Thornton's Bears boast one of the strongest contingents of sprinters around in sophomores Rolandas Gimbutis and Jonas Tilly, juniors Matt Lyon and Evan Lane and freshmen William Copeland, Garrett Wagner and Joe Whittington, who placed 26th in the 50m free (23.44) at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials.
Gimbutis, from Kaunas, Lithuania, is a top competitor in the sprint free events. He placed 12th in the 50 free (22.13) and ninth in the 100 free (winning the consolation final in 48.26) at the 2004 NCAA Championships. Tilly scored points at the 2004 Pac-10 Championships in the sprint free events, placing sixth in the 50 free (19.94) and fifth in the 100 free (43.69). Besides his trials experience, Whittington also ranked tops in the nation last year among boys independent high school swimmers in the 50-yard free, with a time of 20.17. Meanwhile fellow freshman Copeland had the 20th-best 50-yard free (20.92) and the 19th-best 100-yard free (45.91) among boys public high school swimmers.
A variety of Bears will man the middle-distance freestyle events, including Gimbutis, Wagner and the multi-talented Miguel Molina, who swam the 200-meter free for the Philippines at the Athens Olympics, and freshmen Wagner, Zac Monsees and Louis Vayo, each of whom competed in the 200-meter free at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials. Molina had Cal's best times in the 200-yard (1:37.89) and 200-meter (1:48.02) frees last season. Monsees, meanwhile, was the top-ranked 500-yard free swimmers (4:28.08) among boy's public high schools last year. Freshman Chris Talbott, Tilly, Wagner and Alexander Holdridge, who swam Cal's second-best 200-yard (1:38.11) and 200-meter (1:50.98) frees last season add to Cal's depth in the event. Talbott, a high school All-American from San Jose who also competes for Cal's water polo team, will join the swim team once water polo season ends.
Daniel Lysaught gave Cal a renewed presence in the distance free events as a freshman last season. Talented freshmen Wagner, Michael Jafari, John Foster and Justin Pollard, senior John Dorr and junior Ryan Lean will join Lysaught in the distance events.
Lysaught, from Queensland, Australia, was the first Bear this millennium to reach the 1500-meter free at the NCAAs when he took 23rd (15:22.51) in the event last summer. At Pac-10s, he finished third (15:11.16) in the 1650-yard free, Cal's best time in the event since 1994, and was also ninth (4:23.31) in the 500-yard free.
The breaststroke will again be one of the strongest events for the Golden Bears, who return their top swimmers in this event in junior Henrique Barbosa and senior Caleb Rowe. Both competed at the 2004 NCAA Championships in the 200-meter breaststroke, with Rowe taking eighth (2:10.53) and Barbosa winning the consolation final (2:10.65). Barbosa also placed fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke in 59.45, which was Cal's fastest time last year in the event. The native of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, also set school records in the 100-yard (53:59) and 200-yard (1:55.16) breaststroke last season.
Rowe had Cal's season-best time (2:1010) in the 200-meter breaststroke. Graham Lentz and Miguel Molina are two more key contributors for Cal in this stroke. Last year as a freshman, Lentz scored points at the 2004 Pac-10 Championships in the 100-yard (11th, 55.75) and 200-yard (11th, 1:59.92) breaststroke, respectively. Molina, a junior, swam Cal's fifth-best (2:01.02) 200-yard breaststroke.
Sophomore Paul Hernandez and freshman Richard Hunter add depth to the event. The latter, a high school All-American in the breaststroke, set the Trabuco Hills High School record (57.91) in the 100-yard breaststroke; that mark would have been the sixth-best time for Cal last season.
Freshmen Louis Vayo and Mark Eckert will help fill the void left by the loss of All-American Alex Lim. Fellow freshmen Jernej Godec, William Copeland and Dash Rothberg will also join junior Chris Gibson and Milorad Cavic in manning the event. Vayo will be a key contributor in the event, particularly in the 200 back. Last summer, he finished 11th in the 200-meter back (2:02.83) and 35th in the 100-meter back (58.61) at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
"Vayo was one of the top backstrokers, and actually breaststrokers and freestylers, in the nation last year," Thornton said.
Eckert, meanwhile, swam the eighth-fastest high school time (49.79) in the country and earned All-America honors in the 100-yard backstroke during the 2003-04 season. He swam the nation's second-best (49.79) 100-yard back, and Rothberg, from Lafayette, swam the nation's 15th-best 100-yard back (51.45), among boy's independent high schools.
Gibson is Cal's top returnee in the backstroke, having swum the Bears' third-best time (1:47.06) in the 200-yard backstroke and fourth-best time in the 100-yard back (49.70). Last year, Cavic swam Cal's third-best time (49.66) in the 100-yard back. Freestyle specialists Rolandas Gimbutis, a sophomore, and Matt Lyon, a junior, may also see time in the backstroke.
Cal, with national championship contenders and depth in the stroke, is again one of the nation's top teams in the butterfly. Senior Milorad Cavic and junior Duje Draganja are Cal's top returnees in the event. Senior John Dorr, junior Chris Gibson, sophomores Jonas Tilly and Patrick O'Neill and a host of freshmen, including Dominic Cathey, Jernej Godec and William Copeland, will also make an impact.
Last year, Cavic (50.81) and Draganja (51.56) finished 2-3 in the 100-meter butterfly at the NCAA Championships, beaten only by Ian Crocker's world record 49.07. Cavic won the Pac-10 title in a school, conference and meet record-setting time of 45.44 in the 100-yard fly, his second straight victory in that event. Also in that final, Draganja finished second (45.72) and O'Neil was seventh (48.53). O'Neil also scored points in the 200 fly at Pac-10s, taking sixth (1:47.22).
More recently, Draganja and Cavic competed in the 100-meter fly at the Athens Olympics, with Draganja taking seventh overall (52.46). Cavic was eighth (53.12) in his semifinal in the 100 fly, his best finish in the Olympics.
Cathey, an Oakland product who attended Berkeley High School, took second (50.22) in the 100-yard fly at the 2004 North Coast Section championships after winning the event (50.16) in 2003.
The IM will be another strong event for the Bears, who have depth and international experience here, despite the loss of graduated senior Jeff Natalizio, who swam the Bears' best 200-yard IM time (1:45.97) last season. Freshmen Louis Vayo, Zac Monsees and Mark Eckert will join John Dorr, Miguel Molina, Caleb Rowe, Henrique Barbosa, Alexander Holdridge, Graham Lentz and Paul Hernandez in manning the IM.
Four swimmers had Olympic or Olympic Trial experience in the IM earlier this year - Dorr, Vayo and Monsees all competed in the 200-meter IM at the U.S. Olympic Trials, while Molina competed for the Philippines in the 200- and 400-meter IM at the Athens Olympics.
Dorr and Molina are Cal's top returners in the IM, with Dorr swimming the fastest 400-yard IM (3:48.47) and second-best 200-yard IM (1:46.40) last season. Molina swam Cal's second-best 400 IM time, with a 3:49.13 he swam at the 2004 Pac-10 Championships preliminaries. He later took fifth-place (3:51.45) in the 400 final at Pac-10s. At NCAAs, Molina finished 20th (1:59.97) in the 200-meter IM.
Vayo and Monsees should help make up for the loss of Natalizio. Monsees, who is also a driver for the Cal water polo team, will join Thornton's Bears once the water polo season ends.
Cal proved it still ranked among the nation's top relay programs last season, taking three top-five relay finishes at the NCAA Championships. Thornton returns everyone (Duje Draganja, Milorad Cavic, Rolandas Gimbutis and Jonas Tilly) who took second-place in the 400-meter free relay, three of four swimmers (Henrique Barbosa, Cavic and Draganja) from the third-place 200-meter medley relay and three of four swimmers (Caleb Rowe, Milorad Cavic and Duje Draganja) from the fourth-place 400-meter medley relay team at the NCAA Championships. They look to regain their dominance in the 400 freestyle relay at NCAAs, as their two-year (2002-03) stranglehold on the title was snapped last season. The Bears also won four out of five relays at the Pac-10 Championships.
As in the backstroke, the absence of Alex Lim as well as Jeff Natalizio will have an impact in the medley relays. Besides the many returning backstrokers, Thornton could look to Jernej Godec or fellow freshmen Louis Vayo and Mark Eckert to lead off the medley relays.
"As our relays go, so goes our team," Thornton said. "Losing Alex, who we had leading off the medley relays, hurts. We're used to being in the top four in relays. We hope to stay there."
The medley and free relays will get a big boost from the return of Cavic and Draganja. In the meantime, there are plenty of strong alternatives to swim the butterfly and freestyle legs. In the medley relays, Cal will be strong in the breaststroke with, Barbosa, Cal's top returnee in that stroke. Tilly, who had Cal's fourth-best 100-yard fly (48.24) last season, could swim the fly leg and fellow sophomore Gimbutis could handle the free leg.
Freshman Joe Whittington and William Copeland and juniors Matt Lyon and Evan Lane could join Gimbutis and Tilly in the 200 and 400 free relays. Almost all of last year's top 800 free relay swimmers - including Tilly, Miguel Molina, John Dorr, Daniel Lysaught and Alexander Holdridge - all return. Molina, Steve Rehrmann, Holdridge and Dorr swam Cal's top time (an NCAA B qualifying time of 6:31:32) in the 800-yard free relay when they took fourth place at the Pac-10 Championships. Gimbutis and freshman John Foster and Garrett Wagner could also figure into the 800.
Head diving coach Ron Kontura, in his first season at the helm of the Golden Bears, will preside over a rapidly improving area for the Bears. Last year, senior Louie Gagnet continued the excellent form he displayed in his first two years at Florida State. Talented freshmen Javier Rivas and Mark Wes join Gagnet and senior Nathaniel Dean on one of the strongest men's diving teams in recent years for Cal.
Besides Gagnet's exploits at NCAAs, the honorable mention All-American also took fifth place in the 1-meter springboard (300.15 points) at the 2004 Pac-10 Championships, was named first-team All-Pac-10 and earned the Cal Most Valuable Diver Award. He also improved in his NCAA Regional performance from his sophomore year at Florida State, placing second in the platform (481.75), fifth in the 3-meter (485.45) and sixth in the 1-meter (597.15) last season at the NCAA Zone E Diving Regional.
Dean took 17th place in the 1-meter (477.65 points) and 20th in the 3-meter (246.40) at the NCAA Zone E Diving Championships last year. Rivas brings a strong pedigree, as the Southern Pacific Association) Diver of the Year (1998-2003), while Wes, a local product from Atherton, was the runner-up at the 2004 CCS Diving Finals with 378.40 points.