After a near-perfect regular season, the USC men’s swim team heads into this year’s NCAA championships in Indianapolis with high expectations and an even stronger desire to improve on its past finishes.
The Trojans finished in seventh place in the 2012 NCAA championships and are coming off of a third-place showing in this year’s Pac-12 championships.
Though finishing third in the stacked Pac-12 and earning a bid to the NCAA championships would be a satisfying accomplishment for most swim teams in the nation, USC head coach Dave Salo is not content.
“USC has a long tradition of competing at the NCAA championships,” Salo said. “Our expectations are not to qualify but rather to compete for a top-five finish year-in and year-out.”
This season, the Trojans might just have the right pieces in place to make a run for the title. Led by senior Alex Lendrum, the squad features 11 swimmers who, as Salo suggests, have the capability to win every freestyle event and relay this year.
Along with Lendrum, USC features experienced swimmers in juniors Vladimir Morozov and Dimitri Colupaev along with sophomore Cristian Quintero, who has been especially impressive in his relay events this season.
Most recently, Quintero erased a huge deficit in the 800-yard relay in the Pac-12 championships and allowed the Trojans to win that race while posting a school record-time of 6:16.88.
Though the Trojan roster is smaller than most other schools competing in the NCAA championships, the talent found among the 11 swimmers might just be enough to make up for the lack of depth. One of the biggest and most decorated contributors to this pool of talent is Morozov, a bronze medalist for his native Russia in the 2012 London Olympics.
“I think everyone is anticipating the performance of Vlad Morozov, who has dominated the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle throughout the year,” Salo said of his star swimmer. “Everyone wants to know just how fast he can go. The NCAA records are in reach.”
Though the Trojans have one of the most dangerous squads in the nation, Salo, who also coaches the women’s swimming team, knows there are many stumbling blocks on the way to a championship.
“The biggest challenge is staying healthy and balancing the energy needed to get through the intensity of the meet,” Salo said. “We can’t have any mistakes — the competition is too tough.”
The women’s team realized just how costly a mistake could be last week, when a disqualification in the 400-yard freestyle relay cost the team a top-four finish in Indianapolis. The key for the men, especially with such a small roster, certainly seems to be mental focus and preparation.
The Trojans, currently ranked No. 4 in the nation, will have some tough competition to contend with this weekend. Texas, Michigan and Pac-12 champion California stand between the Trojans and the top spot in the rankings, while No. 7 Stanford cannot be counted out after coming ahead of USC by an impressive 161.5 points at the Pac-12 championships.
“Michigan and Cal present the biggest team challenge with the depth of their teams,” Salo said. “Each have 18 swimmers competing against our 11. That depth can be used to rest some athletes against ours that will have to race hard more often.”
USC has had a history of dominance at the NCAA championships but, since 2007, this success has been elusive for the Trojans. From 2001 to 2007, the Trojans won at least one title in every NCAA championship, but no USC men’s swimmer or relay team has won any sort of title in the finals since then. And while the Trojans have won nine NCAA team titles, good for fourth in the nation, they haven’t won a team championship since 1977.
“We are on the verge of regaining the national prominence our teams enjoyed in the 1970s,” Salo said. “Our expectation is to challenge for a top spot this year.”
The road ahead for the Trojans in Indianapolis will not be easy by any means, but with a confident coach and energized swimmers, an NCAA title seems to be in reach. The Trojans begin their quest for the championship today, and the meet will run through Saturday. The finals events on Friday and Saturday will be streamed live online on ESPN3 beginning at 4 p.m. PST.