Oct. 8, 2012
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This week, AuburnTigers.com counts down the days until the first meet of the 2012-13 season with a four-part preview of the Auburn swimming & diving team. Today, part two: Auburn's world-renowned sprint freestyle and the up-and-coming distance freestyle group.
If there's one thing Auburn Swimming is known for, it's sprints.
With a combined 15 NCAA titles in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle and 27 national titles between the men and women in the 200 free relay, 400 free relay and 200 medley relay, the championship tradition is unquestioned.
And with fourth-year head coach Brett Hawke at the helm, that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. But a new breed of swimmer has made waves for the Tigers in the last couple of years as the mid-distance and long-distance freestylers have become a force that cannot be overlooked.
Heading into 2012-13, the Tigers have a couple of big holes to fill in the sprints. Three-time NCAA Champion Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace left Auburn last spring as the NCAA record-holder in the 100 free, and she holds the school records in the 50 free and four of five relays.
And on the men's side, Karl Krug and Drew Modrov were both All-Americans that were part of three winning relays at last year's SEC Championships.
But the cupboard is most definitely not bare. The Auburn men return the heart of their sprint corps - namely, a pair of 2012 Olympians in juniors Marcelo Chierighini (Sao Paulo, Brazil) and James Disney-May (Surrey, England).
"We feel like we've got good depth for both our men and women this year," Hawke said, "and we feel like we can be competitive at the national level."
Chierighini was the runner-up in the 100 free at the 2012 NCAA Championships, clocking a time of 42.31, and he claimed his first individual SEC title in the event as well. And Disney-May will be a force not only in the sprints - he was an SEC finalist in both the 50 and 100 - but he had Auburn's best time in the 200 freestyle as well, leading the Tigers to a rare SEC title in the 800 free relay.
"Part of any team each year is developing new athletes," Hawke said. "I think you're going to see the emergence of some younger athletes like Piankhi Gibson and TJ Leon - they've been progressing really well and I think they are going to have breakout years. There are definitely guys that are developing.
"And then you have our two Olympian leaders in James and Marcelo, some of the best swimmers in the nation, so they'll definitely be leading the sprint charge for us."
Gibson (Oakland, Calif.) enters his sophomore season after fighting his way through a freshman year plagued by injuries; his best times came at the Georgia Fall Invitational and the last-chance Bulldog Invite. And Leon (Mobile, Ala.), as a junior, is expected to build on a sophomore campaign that included his first two All-America honors in the 200 free relay and 400 medley relay.
For the women, while the drop-off from Vanderpool-Wallace's record times may be steep, there is plenty of depth returning for 2012-13. Five of the top six in the 50 free and six of the top eight in the 100 free are back, which should lead to more strong performances in the relays.
"Last year we had some depth in the high-48 (second) club for some of the 100 freestylers," Hawke said. "And while you can't replace 46, if you've got four or five girls in that low-48, high-47 club, then I think we can kind of combat the effect of losing Arianna."
Two of those in that high-48 club included senior Hannah Riordan (Cornwall, Ontario), who clocked a 48.85 at NCAA Championships, and junior Olivia Scott (Aurora, Ill.), who went 48.87. Both of them should drop some time this season, along with junior Haley Krakoski (Paradise Valley, Ariz.), who went 49.03 in the 100 free.
Hawke said that junior Emily Bos (Holland, Mich.), the Tigers' top backstroker for the last two years, would likely see an increased presence in the sprint events this season. She had the team's third-best time in the 50 free (22.44) last year, and she swam the anchor leg of the 200 free relay at NCAA Championships.
"Hannah, Haley and Olivia will be big for us," Hawke said. "And Emily Bos is going to come down into more of the sprint races. We feel really good about our sprint relays and even developing our 800 free relay."
The men's 800 free relay, which captured the SEC title in 2012 to help lead the Tigers to a sweep of the five relays, returns all four swimmers from last year's team. Senior Kyle Owens (Johnson City, Tenn.) - part of four of the winning relays - will be a big part of that as his leadoff leg of the race at SEC Championships was the Tigers' fourth-fastest 200 free swim of the year. Disney-May, sophomore Allen Browning (Alpharetta, Ga.) and junior Zane Grothe (Boulder City, Nev.) are the other retuning components of the 800 free relay that clocked a 6:20.63 to win the SEC title.
Grothe will be one of the most-watched distance swimmers in the country this year after reaching heights last season rarely seen at Auburn. Not only did he break all of his own school records in the 500 free (4:15.52), 1000 free (8:52.58) and 1650 free (14:37.59), he earned fourth-place finishes in the 500 and 1650, believed to be the best-ever at an NCAA Championship by an Auburn swimmer.
"Zane is going to continue to get better," Hawke said. "He's hungry for success, going into his third year, and I think he's very comfortable in the program. He pushes himself every day in practice to get better.
"We've put some people around him now, which is exciting. Antton Haramboure, from France, is very good. Steyn Funk (Windermere, Fla.) is an exciting freshman. Jordan Jones is a hard worker (Kingwood, Texas). There are people within the group who will really push Zane to get better this year. I think Zane can go lower than all his best times."
For the women, the mid-distance could also be a strength. Hawke said that junior Siena Devenuto (Pompano Beach, Fla.) will transition into concentrating on the 200 and 500 freestyle and away from the long-distance events; she will likely be a key component of the 800 free relay. Senior Becca Jones (Virginia Beach, Va.) is the team's top returner in the 200 free, posting a 1:45.67 at last year's NCAA meet, and senior Katie Gardocki (Suffield, Conn.) had the second-best 200 free time last season, a 1:46.77 to lead off the 800 free relay at SECs. In addition, sophomore Megan Fonteno (Jacksonville, Fla.), who earned All-America honors on that relay, will return with invaluable experience after competing at the 2012 London Olympics for American Samoa.
Gardocki also returns the team's best times in the 500 free (4:40.23), 1000 free (9:43.06) and 1650 free (16:06.14); the latter of which won her a bronze medal at the 2012 SEC Championships.
"Katie is definitely our leader in the distance free, and Siena is going to concentrate on the 500/200 range," Hawke said. "There are some other people kind of in that mid-distance range that will be able to push for spots on that relay. Megan Fonteno is an emerging athlete, and we've got some great freshmen who can really work in practice like Caitlyn Forman (Jacksonville, Fla.) and Jillian Vitarius (Kingwood, Texas). We're very balanced on both sides."
Coming Tuesday: We preview the backstroke and breaststroke groups - two of the strongest in the nation.