Georgia keeps NCAA swimming lead
INDIANAPOLIS -- Allison Schmitt and her Georgia teammates can almost taste that elusive national championship.
Eight months after winning five Olympic medals in London, the three-time gold medalist left the IUPUI Natatorium with her sixth and seventh individual NCAA titles and, yes, with her Bulldogs still hanging onto the lead.
Schmitt rebounded after turning in two uncharacteristic sixth-place finishes on Day 1 of the meet by winning the 200-yard freestyle and pulling away on the anchor leg of the 800 free relay to give the two-time defending runner-ups a 15-point lead over rival California.
"It's great," Schmitt said, beaming with the trademark smile that never seems to leave her face. "It's great to look at the score and see we're ahead after Day 2, and now I'm so excited to swim tomorrow."
The Bulldogs have plenty of motivation after finishing second to Cal each of the past two years and posting six second-place finishes since ending a three-year run of national championships in 1999.
Georgia coach Jack Bauerle sure didn't expect to atop the leaderboard heading into Saturday's final events. He even predicted Thursday night that Cal would "blow past" the Bulldogs on Friday night.
Whether that was intended to be a motivational ploy for his swimmers, Cal did make a move. After trailing Georgia by 60 points following Thursday's events, the Golden Bears cut the deficit to 300-285 on Friday.
The difference was Schmitt and the Bulldogs in the two freestyle events.
Georgia, which led most of Day 1, suddenly found itself trailing Tennessee heading into the 200 free -- with three swimmers from Georgia and two from California swimming side-by-side in five lanes.
Schmitt, not surprisingly, touched first in 1 minute, 41.85 seconds. Cal freshman Elizabeth Pelton was second in 1:42.13. But Schmitt's teammates, Megan Romano and Shannon Vreeland, finished third and fourth and sent the Bulldogs back to the top of the standings.
"We just loved it," Bauerle said. "When you get to this point, it's about getting the most points, so it's a little different than international swimming because when you touch the wall, you put points on the board."
Cal climbed back into contention when Olympian Rachel Bootsma posted the second-fastest time in NCAA history in the 100 backstroke, 50.13 seconds, just short of Natalie Coughlin's record-setting pace of 49.97 in 2002 and well ahead of second-place finishers Sinead Russell (51.46) of Florida. That finish coupled with Cindy Tran's fifth-place finish in the event and two middle-of-the-pack finishes in the consolation final suddenly put the Golden Bears within three points of Georgia.
That set up a thrilling finish to Day 2 with Cal, perennial powerhouse Stanford and Georgia swimming in lanes two, three and four of the night's last race -- the 800 free relay.
Olympic gold medalist Shannon Vreeland gave Georgia an early lead, Megan Romano, swimming the second leg, extended the margin and Schmitt pulled away to win the race in 6:54.43. Arizona was second in 6:57.26, while Cal wound up third in 6:57.44.
The difference in that race, American record-holder Caitlin Leverenz coming in third in the 400 IM in 4:02.98, prevented Cal from taking the lead.
"I think our goal more about keeping ourselves in the conversation this year," said Leverenz, who was coughing after the meet. "Right now, we continue to be in the conversation."
Texas A&M's Breeja Larson won her second straight title in the 100 breaststroke, breaking the meet record she set last year (53.71). Larson finished in 57.63, easily ahead of Southern California's Kasey Carlson, who was clocked in 58.36.
Olivia Scott picked up Auburn's first title by winning the 100 butterfly in the closest race of the night. She finished in 51.64, out touching Bootsma (51.68), Ellese Zalewski (51.69) and just ahead of Louisville's Kelsi Worrell (51.80).
Florida junior and Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Beisel easily won the 400 IM title, finishing in 4:00.49. Stanford's Maya Dirado was second in 4:01.02.
Purdue diver Casey Matthews won the 3-meter springboard with a score of 386.66, topping Arizona State's Hailey Casper, who had 377.7 points, and Tennessee opened the night by winning the medley relay -- its third straight relay win of the meet. The Volunteers finished in 1:34.95, and Cal was second at 1:35.53.
It all leads into a potentially epic Saturday in which Cal and Georgia could go head-to-head to the finish line for a third straight year.
"It just comes down to the last day and whoever swims faster wins the meet," Bauerle said.