Oct. 21, 2005
BERKELEY, Calif. - The 2005-06 California Golden Bears will have a slightly different look than the team that took fourth place at the NCAA Championships last March. Gone are tremendous talents on both the swimming and diving sides. Nort Thornton, in his 32nd year as head swimming coach, has a young, diverse team that will improve the Bears in their non-traditional strengths while keeping them among the top relay teams in the nation. On the diving side, second-year head coach Ron Kontura brings in a freshman phenom to bolster his emerging squad.
Along with co-head coach Mike Bottom and Kontura, Thornton coached Cal to a highly successful 2004-05. After Cal's seventh-place NCAA finish in 2002-03, Thornton, the two-time national Coach of the Year and four-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year, brought Cal back to the NCAA's top five. The Bears were undefeated in the 2004-05 dual-meet season (9-0 overall, 4-0 in the Pac-10 Conference) for the first time under Thornton, including 1979 and 1980 when Cal won the NCAA Championships team titles. Also last season, Cal upset rival Stanford, 129-114, for the Bears' first win in the series since 1991. The victory gave the Bears a No. 1 national ranking entering the postseason and gave Thornton a 220-81 (.73) all-time dual-meet record.
From that team, Cal loses swimmers Duje Draganja, Rolandas Gimbutis, Caleb Rowe and John Dorr along with divers Louie Gagnet and Nathaniel Dean, who were major factors in a stellar 2004-05. Draganja, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the 50-meter freestyle, won five NCAA titles, including two individual crowns and three relays, while Gagnet, during his two years in Berkeley, gave Cal the strong diving presence it lacked in previous years.
"We lost some talented people," Thornton said. "You don't replace a Duje, a Rolandas, a Caleb Rowe or a John Dorr, either leadership-wise or swimming talent-wise. We've got a good group of kids. I think it's a really good class. As far as people, they're really good people, and I think it's really going to take time to get them to where their level of excellence is going to be. You can't replace the guys that we lost, so it's not going to be the same team. But we'll be good; just how good remains to be seen."
A crop of highly regarded newcomers combined with talented returnees will help ease Cal's losses. On the swimming side, David Russell and Matt Scanlan highlight a blue-chip recruiting class that includes Graeme Baldwin, Ryan Emanuel, Spencer Rodman and Nate Rogers. Sam Helvie, a raw but talented freshman whom Thornton noticed while recruiting Scanlan in Bakersfield, will give the divers the NCAA scoring threat it had the last few years with Gagnet.
Cal brings back its share of All-Americans, including Milorad Cavic, Henrique Barbosa, Dominik Meichtry, Miguel Molina, Jonas Tilly and Garrett Wagner, and honorable mention All-Americans, including Patrick O'Neil and Mark Eckert. Cavic is arguably Cal's top overall returning athlete. The senior from Tustin, Calif., who competes internationally for Serbia & Montenegro, swims a variety of strokes and is one of Cal's 2004 Olympic athletes, a group that includes Barbosa (Brazil), Meichtry (Switzerland), Molina (the Philippines) and Jernej Godec (Slovenia). In last year's NCAA Championships, Cavic earned All-America honors by swimming on four relays, including three winning ones.
"Cavic is a top 50 guy and top 100 guy in freestyle," Thornton said. "He's the top guy in the short butterfly and backstroke. Basically, he can do just about anything, and do it well."
Arguably the top sprint freestyle program in the nation, Cal, which has produced such 50 and 100 freestyle stars as Duje Draganja, Anthony Ervin and Matt Biondi, could be as strong or stronger in the 200 freestyle as in the shorter events this season. Thornton doesn't dispel that notion but also doesn't rule out continued success in the sprints.
"I'm hoping it's more of a reloading year instead of rebuilding," he said of the sprints, "because I think those guys are all good enough to put us back in the [NCAA] finals again. Are they good enough to win it? Maybe not at the times we had last year, but they still can be pretty good."
Last year's top two sprinters - Draganja, who set an NCAA record (41.49) in winning the 100 freestyle last March, and Rolandas Gimbutis, who was fifth in both the 50 and 100 freestyles at NCAAs - are gone. Milorad Cavic, Jonas Tilly, senior Evan Lane, sophomore Joe Whittington, Garrett Wagner, sophomore Jernej Godec and sophomore William Copeland enter the new season as Cal's top sprinters. Cavic (19.41) and Tilly (19.55) have Cal's top returning times in the 50 and in the 100 (Tilly 43.23 and Cavic 43.78). They also earned All-America honors as part of Cal's NCAA-winning 200- and 400-yard free relays. Wagner, an All-American as part of Cal's seventh-place 800 free relay team last year, is a good 200 free swimmer, but the sophomore has Cal's fourth-fastest 100 time (44.42) among the returning Bears. Godec also swims the 100 butterfly and backstroke, though "he's improved a lot" in the sprint frees, Thornton said. Whittington (12th in 23.48) and Lane (14th in 23.65) reached the consolation final in the 50-meter free at the U.S. National Championships last summer. Freshmen Nate Rogers, who earned high school All-America honors in the 100 and 200 frees, will add depth in the sprints.
Most of Cal's middle-distance swimmers return, as many of the top 200 and 500 free swimmers in these events are sophomores and juniors. That list includes Meichtry, who swam Cal's fastest 200 time (1:34.69) last season. Other 200 swimmers are sophomore John Foster, Wagner, Miguel Molina and Alexander Holdridge. Foster, who swam the Bears' fastest time in the 500 (4:19.77) last season, Meichtry, junior Daniel Lysaught, sophomore Louis Vayo and sophomore Michael Jafari are the main 500 swimmers, while Meichtry (team-best 15:14.11 in the 1650 last season), Jafari (team-best 9:09.92 in the 1000 last season), Lysaught, Vayo, Ryan Lean and Foster are Cal's returning distance swimmers. Spencer Rodman, who earned high school All-America honors in the 200 free last year, will swim everything from the 200 to the 1650 frees.
Most of the 2004-05 backstrokers return, led by Milorad Cavic, Jernej Godec, Louis Vayo, senior Chris Gibson, sophomore Mark Eckert, Patrick O'Neil and sophomore Dash Rothberg. Cavic swam 46.50, Cal's fastest 100 backstroke time last season, to take second place at the Pac-10 Championships and was 19th (48.19) in the 100 at the NCAA Championships. Look for the senior to contribute again this season, but Cavic may not compete in the 100 backstroke as often as he did last year so he can focus on his specialty, the 100 butterfly.
Vayo, Gibson and Eckert are expected to lead the way for this year's Bears, who also feature freshmen David Russell and Ryan Emanuel. Eckert took second place (1:44.46) in the 200 backstroke and 10th in the 100 (49.21) at the Pac-10 Championships, while Gibson took eighth place in the 100 (48.90) and 200 (1:46.64) events at Pac-10s. Vayo was sixth (1:45.20) at Pac-10s in the 200 and, last August, won the consolation final (2:01.79) of the 200-meter backstroke at the U.S. National Championships. Russell, meanwhile, was 16th (2:06.09) in the 200 back and 17th (56.72) in the 100 back at nationals.
Eckert, who has rebounded from an offseason foot injury, swam Cal's top 200 back time (1:44.00) as a freshman.
"Eckert could be our fastest in the backstroke," Thornton said. "He had a really great freshman year. He can swim sprints as well as the 200 IM. Of course, there's David Russell, who's been faster than our returning guys and could be faster than them here if he's comfortable at this level."
Godec, who like Cavic and Molina is one of Cal's most versatile swimmers, was 25th (48.87) in the 100 back at NCAAs after taking ninth (48.19) in the same event at Pac-10s. The Slovenian Olympian was also 12th (1:48.82) in the 200 back at Pac-10s.
Cal takes a big hit with the graduation of Caleb Rowe, who swam the Bears' fastest times in both breaststroke events last year, including a school record (53.31) in the 100. Also, John Dorr is gone after recording Cal's fifth-best time in the 200 breaststroke (2:06.78) last year. The Bears will remain strong in this stroke with the return of Henrique Barbosa, the senior who swam the second-fastest times to Rowe in the 100 (53.45) and 200 (1:56.34) in 2004-05, junior Graham Lentz, Miguel Molina and sophomore Richard Hunter.
"Barbosa and Molina swam really well last year in the breaststroke, but Caleb Rowe swam extremely well," Thornton said. "He rose to the occasion. He kind of stepped up at the Stanford dual meet and elevated his performance to the point where you couldn't ignore him anymore. He was very, very hot at the end of the year. He was a hard worker and he focused on what he was doing."
Molina also had a strong offseason in the breaststroke, winning the 200-meter breaststroke (2:21.36) in the Stanford Invitational Grand Prix last May and taking eighth (1:05.53) in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Santa Clara International Invitational in June.
Sophomores Dominic Cathey, who has the fifth-best 100 breaststroke time (59.59) among returning Bears, and Paul Hernandez provide depth in the breaststroke. Freshman Graeme Baldwin had previous success in the 100 breaststroke and 100 free, including placing third in the 100 breaststroke and sixth in the 100 free in California as a junior at Arroyo Grande High School in Arroyo Grande, Calif.
Milorad Cavic and Jernej Godec, in the 100, and Paul O'Neil and Justin Pollard, in the 200, are Cal's top butterfliers. Cavic's increased focus on the 100 butterfly and the addition of freshman Matt Scanlan, whom Thornton says is "between a 100 and 200 guy," will help offset the loss of Duje Draganja in the 100 butterfly.
Cavic is poised to have an All-American year in the 100 fly in his final campaign at Cal. Last season, Draganja won the 100 fly title at the NCAA Championships, while Cavic, who had finished second the year before ahead of third-place Draganja, did not reach the final eight. Instead, the junior posted the 11th-best time in the 100 fly prelim and then won the consolation final in a time of 46.56, which would have given him fourth place in the true final. His performance suffered in part because he also swam in the 200 medley relay and 100 back on the same day as the 100 fly.
"He wasn't as fresh for his best event and didn't swim as well as he's probably capable of," Thornton said, "because he chose to be a team player rather than go with his best event. We told him this year we're going to try and help him out and try to get him in his best event."
O'Neil is improving in the 100 fly but remains Cal's star 200 flyer. He helped Cal complete its historic dual-meet win over Stanford with a personal and Spieker Aquatic Complex record (1:44.22) in the 200 fly. He bettered that mark with a 1:44.00 in the 200 fly prelim at Pac-10s, where he eventually took third place in the final.
"He's an amazing kid," Thornton said of O'Neil. "He's a really good team person. He's always helping people. He's got only one B since he's been at Cal. He's an impressive young man. He's a good person, a leader."
Miguel Molina should replace John Dorr as Cal's top 200 IMer. The senior swam the Bears' second-fastest 200 IM time (1:45.61), to Dorr's 1:45.32, and was the only Bear besides Dorr to reach the 200 IM prelim at NCAAs, in which Molina placed 20th (1:47.13). Molina also spent part of his offseason winning the 200-meter IM (2:05.60) at the Stanford Grand Prix Invitational.
"Molina's right about where Dorr was last year," Thornton said. "He's by far our best one this year. He can probably beat most of our other IMers [in both the 200 and 400]. His 200 free is good, but his 200 breast is pretty darn good, too. Really the best event for him is the 200 IM. He puts the strokes together really well."
The multi-talented Louis Vayo is strong in both the 200 and 400 IMs. The sophomore took ninth place (4:25.70) in the 400-meter IM and 18th place (2:05.87) in the 200 IM at U.S. nationals last August. Other Bears who could compete in the IM include John Foster, Alexander Holdridge, Paul O'Neil and Daniel Lysaught.
Cal has typically dominated the nation in its 200 and 400 freestyle relays, as evidenced by its 2005 national titles in those events. But this year the 200 and 400 medley relays and its 800 freestyle relay could be Cal's stronger events, partly due to the loss of Duje Draganja and Rolandas Gimbutis and the presence of several strong 200 free swimmers. Of course, Cal also won the 200 medley relay at the 2005 NCAA Championships in a pool-record time of 1:25.30 at the University of Minnesota's Aquatic Center.
In the 200 and 400 free relays, look for some combination of Milorad Cavic, Jonas Tilly, Jernej Godec, Evan Lane, William Copeland and Garrett Wagner to compete for Cal at the Pac-10 and NCAA Championships. Dominik Meichtry and Miguel Molina could join most of the previous group in forming the 800 free relay.
As for the medley relays, the only swimmer even remotely locked into a stroke is Henrique Barbosa, Cal's top breaststroker. If a strong backstroker besides Cavic emerges for the Bears during the season, Cavic would be free to swim the fly leg. The freestyle then would be a choice between Tilly and Godec. But if Cavic swims the backstroke, Tilly and Godec would likely fill the fly and free spots.
"Godec and Tilly are pretty even at the fly and free," Thornton said. "It depends on who's doing well at the particular time. That's probably going to be what we end up with. I think we'll be very similar [to last year's medley relays]. These should end up being our best relays."
The future is bright for Coach Ron Kontura and his divers, who look to continue their rise that began when Louie Gagnet transferred to Cal from Florida State. The honorable mention All-American has since graduated, leaving a young but skilled group behind.
Top recruit Sam Helvie and sophomore Javier Rivas, the 2004-05 Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year, highlight one of the deepest Cal diving squads in recent years for the Bears. Along with freshman Kyle Ketter and sophomore Mark Wes, the diving corps is also one of the youngest in years for Cal. Gagnet, who took ninth place on the three-meter springboard and 10th place on the platform at the NCAA Championships, will be hard to replace, but the talented Helvie could someday rival Gagnet as the top diver in Cal history.
"Louie Gagnet set all the Cal diving records and was arguably the best male diver in Cal history," said Ron Kontura, Cal's second-year diving coach. "Replacing someone who finishes ninth and 10th at NCAAs is really difficult to do."
Helvie had a breakout summer season and has the ability to be a very special athlete for the Bears. The product of Bakersfield, Calif., took third on the one-meter (467.750 and on the three-meter (455.400) springboards at last summer's U.S. Junior Nationals. He also placed fourth on the one-meter board (583.40) at the Senior Zone D regional final, missing out on the U.S. Senior Nationals by one spot.
"Sam is very green, but in a short time of diving at the senior level, he's opened the eyes of a lot of coaches. He's an immense talent, and he should emerge as a great diver. He's going to be a leader in the pool and out of the pool this year. And he's going to contribute to the dual-meet success this year. The Pac-10 this year is by far the toughest diving conference in the country, so it's going to be a challenge for him. But he's going to rise to it. I'm excited to see how it happens."
Rivas was named the Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year after reaching the finals on the platform, and finishing eighth, at the conference meet last March in Federal Way, Wash. He is the first Cal diver to win a Pac-10 award of any kind.
"Javier has come back in shape," Kontura said. "I'm very impressed with him thus far. Kyle Ketter's a good athlete. He's a high school All-American, qualified for the West National Championships, a good kid. He's going to push the two sophomores on the team, too. Mark Wes trained here in the summer. His overall strength is growing. He's got a great attitude and work ethic. He's going to open some eyes this year.
"You've got two sophomores and two freshmen - you can't get much younger than that. I'm excited to work with them. They're good kids, and they're going to work hard."