After a one-year hiatus due to the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-2021 season, our college previews back! We’ll be previewing the 2021-2022 seasons for the top 12 men’s and women’s programs from the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24.
#2 NC State Wolfpack
Key Losses: Sirena Rowe (free/fly/back), Danika Huizinga (back/fly/IM), Anna Shumate (breast/free) Olivia Calegan (breast), Victoria Fonville (free), Olivia Fisher (breast)
Two years ago, we unveiled a new, more data-based grading criteria based on ‘projected returning points’, a stat of our own making that involved a lot of manual calculations involving departing seniors, redshirts, freshmen, etc. We liked the objectiveness of that stat, but given that there’s still a lot of uncertainty for this year, we’re adopting a hybrid approach this year. The “stars” will rely heavily on what swimmers actually did last year, but we’ll also give credit to returning swimmers or freshmen who have times that would have scored last year.
Since we only profile the top 12 teams in this format, our grades are designed with that range in mind. In the grand scheme of college swimming and compared to all other college programs, top 12 NCAA programs would pretty much all grade well across the board. But in the interest of making these previews informative, our grading scale is tough – designed to show the tiers between the good stroke groups, the great ones, and the 2015 Texas fly group types.
5 star (★★★★★) – a rare, elite NCAA group projected to score 25+ points per event
4 star (★★★★) – a very, very good NCAA group projected to score 15-24 points per event
3 star (★★★) – a good NCAA group projected to score 5-14 points per event
2 star (★★) – a solid NCAA group projected to score 1-4 points per event
1 star (★) – an NCAA group that is projected to score no points per event, though that doesn’t mean it’s without potential scorers – they’ll just need to leapfrog some swimmers ahead of them to do it
We’ll grade each event discipline: sprint free (which we define to include all the relay-distance freestyle events, so 50, 100 and 200), distance free, IM, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and diving. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.
The NC State Wolfpack finished the 2020-2021 season with 2nd-place finishes at both the NCAA Championships and the ACC Championships, finishing behind the University of Virginia in both. UVA remains our top-ranked women’s program for the 2021-2022 season and it will take a herculean effort to topple them at either the conference or national levels.
NC State, however, returns two reigning NCAA Champions, Katharine Berkoff (100 backstroke) and Sophie Hansson (100 & 200 breaststroke). In fact, NC State returns nearly all of its 2021 NCAA scoring team. The Wolfpack also won the 400 medley relay at NCAAs in 2021 and returns all four members of that team: Berkoff, Hansson, Kylee Alons, and Julia Poole. Alons notably blasted a 49.29 butterfly split at NCAAs in 2021, the fastest in the field by more than a second (not counting for Cal’s Izzy Ivy who put up a 49.95 on their relay which was disqualified for an early takeoff by the freestyler).
The NC State women set the NCAA and U.S. Open Records in the 400 freestyle relay to boot. It’s too early to call them a favorite to defend their title, but we can comfortably say the women’s 400 medley relay will be one of the best races to watch at NCAAs in 2022.
Similarly, the Wolfpack women won the 200 medley relay and finished just 0.07 off the NCAA and U.S. Open Records in that event. However, unlike the longer version of the race, NC State does lose one of its key swimmers from the 2021 squad: Sirena Rowe, who blasted a 22.73 on the butterfly leg, the 2nd-fastest in the field.
Despite their medley relay dominance at NCAAs, NC State did not win any relay titles at the 2021 ACC Championships. Instead, all relays at ACCs were won by the University of Virginia. The Wolfpack did, however, produce 5 individual event victories at ACCs in 2021, including 1-2 finishes in both the 200 backstroke and 200 breaststroke. The 200 breaststroke was an especially good event for NC State who placed 4 women in the ‘A’ final and 3 more in the ‘B’ final.
At the conference level, both NC State and Virginia can allow for some experimentation with their top athletes’ lineups. In 2021, this resulted in Alons capturing the ACC title in the 50 freestyle, an event that would be won by UVA’s Kate Douglass at the NCAA Championships. Douglass, meanwhile, swam the 200 IM in place of the 50 free at ACCs in 2021, placing 2nd to teammate Alex Walsh who would go on to win the NCAA title in that race. Every team at ACCs will be playing for keeps, though if any program were to focus more on NCAAs than conference it will be UVA, and considering their loss of Paige Madden, it is possible NC State could claim the ACC title in 2022, though it would still be considered an upset. The NCAA team title, however, still seems out of reach, though another top-3 finish could be in the cards.
Sprint Free: ★★★★
The NC State Wolfpack brings a strong if not somewhat diminished sprint freestyle group into the 2021-2022 NCAA season. Kylee Alons is the team’s top-returning sprinter with NCAA-scoring capabilities in the 50 and 100 freestyles, as well as the 100 butterfly. Alons is the reigning ACC Champion in the 50 freestyle and also last season’s runner-up in the 100 freestyle.
Alons also placed 4th in the 50 and 6th in the 100 free at NCAAs. Auburn transfer Abbey Webb and freshman Annabel Crush both enter with ACC scoring potential. Based on their current lifetime bests in the 50 and 100 freestyles, both women could be on the bubble of making the ‘A’ final in either race at ACCs. Both Webb and Crush are also proficient 200 freestylers, a race NC State was very weak in during the 2020-2021 season.
One of the Wolfpack’s biggest issues with sprint freestyle is that some of its best sprint freestylers also specialize in other disciplines. Namely, Sophie Hansson, Heather MacCausland, and Katharine Berkoff, who are breaststroke and backstroke specialists, respectively, that are also utilized on the 200 and 400 freestyle relays and swim the 50 freestyle individual freestyle race as their “third event” at the conference level.
At the 2021 ACC Championships, Berkoff tied for 4th in the 50 freestyle, MacCausland tied for 6th, and Hansson placed 9th. Berkoff was the only one of the three to swim it at the NCAA Championships, placing 8th, a sharp turnaround for a swimmer that began her collegiate career swimming the 500 freestyle as her “third event.”
The 200 freestyle is a much weaker event for NC State, and at the 2021 ACC Championships, the Wolfpack produced only one scorer in the event: Julia Poole, who placed 3rd in 1:45.53. Even so, NC State mustered a 2nd-place finish in the 800 freestyle relay at the 2021 ACC Championships, though they placed 17th at NCAAs, failing to score any points. Therefore, the team does have swimmers capable of scoring in the 200 freestyle at both the conference and national levels, however, those swimmers, including Berkoff, Alons, and Kate Moore, are far more valuable in other disciplines. The addition of Webb and Crush, however, could elevate this event for NC State, as well as allow Berkoff, Alons, and Moore a reprieve from swimming the 800 freestyle relay at championship meets.
Distance Free: ★★★
Yara Hierath, Kay Foley, Kate Moore, and Kenna Smallegange comprise a small but formidable distance freestyle group for the Wolfpack, though they will need a major improvement upon last season’s results to reap any significant points at either the conference or national levels. Moore placed 2nd in the 500 at the 2021 ACC Championships as well as 6th at the 2021 NCAA Championships. Moore also swims IM and backstroke, though the 500 proved her most successful event in 2021.
Hierath placed 16th at the 2021 NCAAs and 5th at ACCs in the 1650, while Foley placed 12th in the 1650 and 18th in the 500 at ACCs. Smallegange, meanwhile, is a freshman from Canada who already boasts impressive international racing experience, including a gold-medal victory in the girl’s 14-17 7.5k open water race at the 2019 UANA Open Water Championships. Smallegange’s SCM times converted into yards puts her within what was required to score in the 500 and 1650 at the 2021 ACC Championships.
NC State boasts one of the strongest backstroke groups in the NCAA this season. Katharine Berkoff is the defending NCAA and ACC champion in the 100 backstroke and upped her long course game over the summer with 4th- and 8th-place finishes in the 100 and 200 backstrokes, respectively, at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials. Berkoff was also selected to represent the United States at the upcoming 2021 FINA World Championships (25m) in Doha, Qatar, where she will swim the 100 backstroke. Emma Muzzy is the three-time defending ACC Champion in the 200 backstroke and 7th-place finisher in the 200 backstroke at NCAAs in 2021. Berkoff, meanwhile, placed 6th in the 200 back at NCAAs in 2021.
Berkoff and Muzzy are complimented by Kylee Alons, Annabel Crush, Kate Moore, Katey Lewicki, and Shannon Kearney who add depth in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes. While we probably won’t see Alons swimming backstroke at the conference or national levels since her focus has shifted to sprint fly and free, she could if needed, having best times of 51.81 and 1:52.34 in the 100 and 200 backstrokes, respectively. Crush, meanwhile, boasts lifetime bests of 52.31 and 1:55.42 in the 100 and 200 yard backstrokes, respectively, each of which would have scored at the 2021 ACC Championships. Lewicki finished 12th and 13th in the 200 and 100 backstrokes, respectively, at the 2021 ACC Championships. Kearney, meanwhile, has best times capable of scoring at ACCs though she did not compete in the meet in 2021.
Moore won the ‘B’ final in the 200 back at NCAAs in a lifetime best of 1:51.61, giving the team 34 points in that event alone.
Breaststroke is perhaps NC State’s best discipline, especially at the conference level. The Wolfpack return Sophie Hansson, the NCAA Champion in both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes, as well as the European Champion and 2020 Olympci finalist in the 100 breaststroke. Hansson is complimented by Andrea Podmanikova, who placed 2nd to her at the 2021 ACC Championships and 4th at the NCAA Championships. Furthermore, Abby Arens and Julia Poole were also ‘A’ finalists at ACCs in the 200 breast while Heather MacCausland won the ‘B’ final. Incoming freshman Kaylee Hamblin enters with lifetime bests capable of scoring in the ‘B’ final at the ACC Championships, and is within striking distance of making the ‘A’ final in either race.
The Wolfpack are not quite as stacked in the 100 breaststroke as they are in the 200, but still stand to rake in some major points in that race. Again, Hansson is the defending champion while Podmanikova placed 3rd at ACCs and 7th at NCAAs. MacCausland was also the winner of the ‘B’ final at ACCs in the 100 breaststroke, though Arens would swim the event at the 2021 NCAA Championships, placing 29th as a freshman. Overall, NC State is one of the top programs for female breaststroke swimmers in the NCAA at this time and is especially dangerous at the conference level where they can score massive points, particularly in the 200 breaststroke.
NC State brings in a strong butterfly crew led by Kylee Alons, the 100 fly bronze medalist from the 2021 NCAA Championships. Alons is a top-tier sprinter in freestyle as well having competed in the ‘A’ final in the 50 free, 100 free, and 100 fly at the 2021 NCAA Championships. Alons may also be capable of cracking the 50-second barrier in the 100 fly after producing a 49.29 split on the 400 medley relay in 2021. Alons will also likely serve as the fly leg on the 200 medley relay, a position formerly occupied by Sirena Rowe, but more on that later. Alons seems capable of scoring at NCAAs in the 200 fly as well considering that her best time is a 1:55.16 from a tri-meet with Texas and Arizona in early 2019, though it is unlikely to happen given her proficiency in sprint freestyle.
Freshman sisters Grace Sheble and Caroline Sheble add depth to the Wolfpack’s fly roster and enter the program with lifetime bests capable of scoring at the ACC Championships in both the 100 and 200 butterfly. Grace’s best time of 1:54.43 would have even scored at the 2021 NCAA Championships and represents a huge upside for the Wolfpack. Sister Caroline is not too far behind with a 1:55.52 lifetime best in the 2-fly, a time that would also fit solidly into the ‘B’ final at the 2021 NCAA Championships. Sophomore Megan Pulley rounds out the NC State fly roster with best times that could score in both the 100 and 200 fly races at ACCs, though she was left off the championship roster in 2021.
Julia Poole is perhaps the most versatile swimmer on NC State’s women’s roster. At the 2021 NCAA Championships, Poole competed in the 200 IM, 200 freestyle, and 200 breaststroke, and also swam the freestyle leg on the champion 400 medley relay. Though Poole failed to score any points in the 200 freestyle and 200 breaststroke, she did manage a 6th-place finish in the 200 IM. At ACCs in 2021, Poole placed 3rd in both the 200 free and 200 IM, as well as 6th in the 200 breast.
Kate Moore and Emma Muzzy were the team’s top performers in the 400 IM last season, placing second and fourth, respectively, at ACCs. Muzzy also placed 6th in the 200 IM and won the 200 backstroke. Moore, on the other hand, placed 2nd in the 500 freestyle and 7th in the 200 back at ACCs. Moore swam all three races again at NCAAs, placing 12th in the 400 IM, while Muzzy added eight seconds and failed to score.
Abby Arens is another highly-versatile swimmer NC State will utilize in the 200 IM. At ACCs in 2021, Arens placed 5th in the 200 IM—she also placed 7th in the 200 breast and 10th in the 100 fly. Andrea Podmanikova, who is a breaststroke specialist, placed 13th in the 200 IM at ACCs in 2021, though her true strength is in breaststroke.
Freshman Annabel Crush is a welcome addition to the IM crew and could help the Wolfpack get points on the board at ACCs in both the 200 and 400 IMs. Crush’s lifetime best of 1:57.57 in the 200 IM would have received an invite to the 2021 NCAA Championships.
Helene Synnott was NC State’s most successful diver of the 2021 ACC Championships, placing 7th on the 3-meter board. Synnott did not make any other finals for diving at ACCs in 2021, however. In fact, no other divers from NC State advanced beyond diving preliminaries at ACCs in 2021. The Wolfpack was also diver-less at the 2021 NCAA Championships. Rachel Burston, who has since graduated, and Mary O’Neill, now a sophomore, joined Synnott in the diving competition at ACCs in 2021, though neither put points on the board. NC State has 6 divers on their roster so it seems likely that at least 3 of them will get the chance to dive at ACCs, though they’ll need to make more than one appearance in the finals in order to contribute any significant points.
As we covered in the season lookback, NC State had some extremely successful relay performances at the 2021 NCAA Championships, including two title-winning performances via the 200 and 400 medley relays. The 200 medley relay did take a hit with the graduation of Sirena Rowe, the butterflyer, though Kylee Alons is probably capable of producing a 22-high or 22-mid in the 50 fly split to match what Rowe did. However, that would require someone else to swim the freestyle leg of the medley relay and replicate Alons’ 21.26 split.
Rowe’s absence will also impact the 200 freestyle relay which placed 3rd at NCAAs in 2021. While it seems probable that the Wolfpack will find another woman within their roster capable of getting under 22 in the 50 free with a rolling start, Rowe split a 21.47 on the 200 free relay in 2021, which will might prove difficult to replace this season.
The 400 medley relay is just as strong as it was in 2021 as all four swimmers, Berkoff, Hansson, Alons and Poole have returned. Even so, victory is never guaranteed at the NCAA Championships, though as the current NCAA and U.S. Open Record holders, NC State is, for now, the team to beat.
The Wolfpack also boast a very strong 400 freestyle relay that placed 4th at NCAAs in 2021. Once again, all four members of that squad have returned for this season.
Finally, the 800 freestyle relay is NC State’s only relative weakness as far as the relays are concerned. The Wolfpack finished in last (17th) in the 800 free relay in 2021, though they managed a 2nd-place finish at ACCs.
As we discussed earlier, Auburn-transfer Abbey Webb and freshman Annabel Crush both have ACC scoring potential in the 50, 100, and 200 freestyles. The 200 freestyle was a relatively weak event for NC State in 2021 and the 800 free relay was comprised of swimmers who largely specialize in other disciplines. Webb and Crush therefore could take the pressure off of Berkoff and Alons by allowing them to (potentially) pass on swimming the race at conference and utilize them instead on the other four relays.
The NC State Wolfpack are primed for another season as one of the best in the NCAA. Swimmers including Berkoff and Hansson had breakout performances in the 50-meter pool in the summer and gained crucial experience racing on some of the biggest stages in the world. While NC State did lose a handful of incredibly talented individuals it has also gained some swimmers with enormous upside. While we don’t expect NC State to top the podium as a team at the 2022 NCAA Championships, another top-4 finish seems like a very real possibility.
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