Driven by their three-word mantra “Make the meet,” Georgia swimmers and divers entered 2020 seeking to clarify uncertainty surrounding their postseason prospects.
According to NCAA rules, only athletes who swim faster than an event’s “A” time standard — an annually shrinking number that marks the slowest time to automatically qualify for an NCAA championships event — have a guaranteed spot in the postseason finale. “B” time standards are considered for NCAAs, but only a select number of “B” qualifying times will make the cut for NCAA competition.
Less than two months remain until the end of the 2019-20 qualifying period, which culminates with the aptly-named “Bulldog Last Chance Meet” from Feb. 29 to March 1. With this in mind, Georgia’s slate of three home dual meets leading up to the SEC championship meet in mid-February highlights a dichotomy confronted by collegiate swimming programs.
While regular season competition functions both as a record of the team’s capabilities and as an opportunity for athletes to prove their consistency, team victories have no bearing on which Bulldogs will qualify for the NCAAs.
“[Regular season meets] are not must-wins, but they’re must-performances,” head coach Jack Bauerle said. “You want 100% efforts.”
Matt Boyer, the sport administration liaison for SEC swimming and diving, said the current format of two mandated SEC matchups each season serves to standardize the year for member schools and promote conference camaraderie. But perhaps its greater role is to gin up tournament rivalry.
“The buildup is for the conference championship much more than it is the dual meets,” Boyer said. “[It’s] unique to swimming and diving compared to more regular-season focused sports.”
Coaches have told Boyer they prepare especially for the SECs, given that the high level of competition and the two weeks of uninterrupted preparation tend to yield strong swims. At SECs in 2019, four Bulldogs hit A-cut times along with a slew of other SEC swimmers.
Junior Camden Murphy, who swam an A-cut 200-yard butterfly at the 2019 SECs, said he tries to block out individual demands during dual meets, instead focusing on scoring for the team.
Although Murphy’s B-cut times in the 100 (45.36) and 200 butterfly (1:42.39) at the Nov. 21-24 Tennessee Invitational meant he could let off the gas during spring dual meets, Murphy still swept the butterfly events against Texas A&M. He personally contributed 18 points to the winning effort, despite swimming slower than he did in November.
This season, freshman Zoie Hartman is the lone Georgia swimmer to have notched an A-cut performance and officially guaranteed her ticket to the 2020 NCAAs. Her 100-yard breaststroke time of 58.27 seconds at the Tennessee Invitational was .33 seconds faster than the 58.60 second “A” standard, enough to both make the meet and set the Georgia record for the event.
Of the 30 Georgia swimmers with a B-cut qualifying time, most hit their benchmarks at the Tennessee Invitational. But in every case, qualifying for NCAAs boils down to trimming time.
“For most people, when they get a B-cut [time], it’s probably somewhere on the bubble between making the meet and not making it,” senior Walker Higgins said.
While Higgins’ B-cut time in the 500 freestyle (4:13.05) back in November was sixth-fastest in the NCAA this season and likely ensured him a tournament berth, the in-betweeners must wait for results from conference championships and subsequent last chance meets across the country to learn if their times made the cut.
“It just gets anxious,” Higgins said. “It gets tense.”
Without A-cuts, swimmers like freshmen Zach Hils and Ian Grum and seniors Sofia Carnevale and Meryn McCann, whose times are on the slower side of the “B” standard, will lie in limbo until early March, just a couple weeks before NCAAs. With qualifying standards and a maximum of 18 championship slots per team, most Georgia swimmers and divers won’t compete nationally.
“It’s so competitive to make that meet,” Higgins said. “There’s probably more contention on our team as to who’s going to qualify for SECs.”
On the diving side, seniors McKensi Austin and Frieda Lim and junior Zachary Allen have all surpassed the 1-meter and 3-meter qualifying standard at least once this year, earning them a chance to compete in those events at the Zone B qualifying tournament March 9-11. Allen and Lim have also bested the standard for the zone platform dive.
At least the top five women and top four men from each zone event will advance to the NCAAs, with more spots allocated to zone events that sent top-16 national finishers in 2019.
Coming down the stretch, the Bulldogs will compete against teammates and athletes across the country for coveted spots in both postseason tournaments. But that doesn’t mean sacrificing the team mentality with two dual meets to go.
“We still pat each other on the back and keep the team moving forward,” Higgins said. “NCAA cuts and SEC spots are going to take care of themselves.”