PASADENA, Calif. (Nov. 9, 2017) – A wildly successful first season under Head Coach Paul Hughes has generated buzz around the Caltech men's and women's swimming & diving teams heading into the 2017-18 season.
The men's team took major strides at the 2017 SCIAC Championships, placing sixth as a team with a total of 341 points for their highest finish in over a decade and a mere six points shy of fifth place. The last time Caltech finished as high as sixth came in 1999, though just seven teams competed in the SCIAC at the time. The Beavers also defeated the most teams (three) since 1985-86 and scored their highest point total since 1988-89.
All of this, combined with freshman Thomas Gallup (Houston, Texas / Phillips Exeter Acad.) winning the 100-200 Breast double en route to an 11th-place finish at the NCAA Championships, in addition to a combined 20 program records between the men's and women's teams, led to Hughes being named SCIAC Coach of the Year in just his first year in the conference.
Now a mesh of new and old faces have given the Beavers needed depth on both sides and perhaps enough to where they can continue to rise amongst the conference ranks.
"I think the biggest advantage we have this year is familiarity with both the returners and the freshman having been through the recruiting process with them," Hughes said. "We know what works for our returners, we know what they need to improve on and, with the freshmen, we can hit the ground running."
Swimming requires a balance of physical aptitude and mental toughness. The rigors of a day-to-day workload in the classroom have built a degree of mental toughness within all of the swimmers, assisting them when it comes to making the technical improvements necessary to shave seconds off of top times. Hughes attributes his staff's ability to prepare their swimmers on meet day to the team's propensity to consistently improve last season.
"We try and hammer in the technical improvements but on the mental side, a lot of our kids are mentally tough," Hughes said. "They're grinders in practice, which I appreciate, and I think that's a reflection on the students that come to Caltech. But we try to design practices and sets to put them in positions to mimic what they'll face in a meet so nothing is unfamiliar when they step up on the block. No two swimmers are the same. We have to approach the technical improvements and training a little bit differently with every athlete. I think that's a strength of our coaching staff as a whole."
While Gallup headlines an impressive group on the men's side, his greatest challenge is continuing to find ways to improve while fending off a field of conference swimmers who have seen him in action. According to Hughes, the high-bar comes with the territory of finding success so early.
"Tom had a great year last year," Hughes said. "He came out of the gate a double event winner and to do that as a freshman you sort of have everybody trying to catch you over the next three years. It is important that he remains diligent with his training and motivated. Our sights are also a little bit higher now. We want to improve his place at NCAA's. He was an All-America honorable mention last season. The goal this year is to get into the top eight at NCAA's so he can be an All-American."
Supporting Gallup will be returners Alex Moraru (Southlake, Texas / Carroll Senior), Jonathan Willett (Edina, Minn. / Edina), Adam Dai (Santa Barbara, Calif. / Dos Pueblos), Dylan Lu (Kingwood, Texas / Kingwood) and Henry Steiner (Petaluma, Calif. / Casa Grande), all of whom have had a taste of success at last year's SCIAC Championships. Moraru came in as a top-eight finisher both the 400 IM and 200 Fly but is looking to add a third event to his repetoire to become even more useful to the team. The remaining swimmers, all juniors, have their eyes set on the NCAA B-cut.
"They form the nucleus of the team right now and we're hoping they can take the next step," Hughes said. "They need to keep finding ways to improve."
The two seniors of the group are former high school teammates Avikar Periwal (Potomac, Md. / Montgomery Blair) and Alexander Bourzutschky (Potomac, Md. / Montgomery Blair). Periwal is traditionally a freestyle specialist, though he has swum other events in past years. Hughes is a big fan of Periwal's leadership qualities and believe he may have something to say in the 500 freestyle at the SCIAC Championships. He also believes Bourzutschky, a multi-sport athlete, could see drops across the board with a few technical adjustments.
"I am really excited to see what Avikar can do in his final season," Hughes said. "He had a lot of improvement since last year. He is such a hard worker and really a lead-by-example guy on our team and you just want to see those kids do well. We think he can make it back to the finals in the 500 freestyle and 1650."
Rounding out the men's team are a deep group of freshmen, all with something unique to offer. Speedster Alex Janosi (Ann Arbor, Mich. / Dexter) might be as intriguing as any. Janosi only started swimming in high school but has improved with each passing year and has carved out a role for himself on the Caltech men's water polo team as a scoring contributor and the team's top option on sprints. The NCAA B-cut could be in his future if he continues making strides as a swimmer. Hughes has praised the strength of Andy Rothstein (Potomac, Md. / Winston Churchill), who will contribute to several relay teams in addition to mid-distance backstroke events. Hughes favorably compared the work ethic of another freshman, Adam Kogan (Clifton Park, N.Y. / Shenendehowa East), to Periwal's. With freestyle as his main stroke, Kogan may work his way into the Beavers' distance picture.
John Wang (Louisville, Ky. / Phillips Exeter Academy), a teammate of Janosi's on the water polo squad, can swim several different strokes and should be well-equipped for IM events in addition to bringing with him a team-oriented mindset. Michael Yao (San Ramon, Calif. / Dougherty Valley) could make an impact in both the breaststroke and sprint freestyle events, while JD Walker (Grand Blanc, Mich. / Grand Blanc), like Janosi, joins Caltech swimming on the heels of another fall sport, men's soccer. As unusual of a combination as the two sports may appear to be, Walker competed at a high level as a defender in the fall and Hughes believes his team-oriented mindset will only serve to smooth the transition. Jethin Gowda (Orange, Conn. / Amity Regional) is another talented swimmer the Beavers will have at their disposal and could see drops steadily thoughout the season.
"We're really excited about adding continued depth," Hughes said. "We had a lot of people make the championship final but we didn't have certain events filled out or guys in certain heats, so with a talented freshman class we're really looking to fill those holes."
Junior Brittany Percin (Lake Tahoe, Calif. / Stanford Online) headlines a women's team that, like the men's, will benefit from added depth and an influx of new talent. Percin got to the SCIAC podium for the third time in two years last season with a third-place finish in the 200 Fly at the championship meet despite being under the weather. She recorded the second-quickest split of the race in order to make third-place a reality and returns this season focused once again on competing at the highest level in freestyle, butterfly and relay events.
"Brittany is in really good shape," Hughes said. "She's going to be really dangerous this year and she's training really well. The goal for her is getting back to the podium at SCIAC's and she's already training at that level."
Classmate Gemma Takahashi (San Jose, Calif. / Leland), has her sights set on another big season as well. Among the team's most consistent finishers, Takahashi will turn her focus more toward butterfly after swimming the 100 and 200 backstroke events last year. Percin and Takahashi have been key contributors for the Beavers since joining the team two years ago. They have combined for 11 program and also have collaborated on four of the five school relay records.
"Gemma has been really steady for us the last two years," Hughes said. "The goal in mind for her is to get the NCAA B-cut in the butterfly and I think she is very capable of that."
Returning sophomores Angelina Pan (Toronto, Canada / Havergal College) and Tzarina Shippee (San Diego, Calif. / La Jolla) bring a good deal of intrigue heading into the season. Both own relay records but also showed just a hint of what they can do, particularly in solo freestyle events. If the sophomore duo can take a step forward this season, it will make a big difference for the women's team come SCIAC Championship time.
"For Angelina, it's all about connecting the dots," Hughes said. "She's already picked up where she left off last year, which is helpful. We're excited to see her put it all together. Tzarina is looking a lot more consistent in practice and should have another good season as well."
Hughes is also excited about a group of incoming freshmen that carry accomplished resumes at the high school level and come in the form of recruits and walk-ons. Jessica Sun (York, Penn. / Red Lion Area Senior) heads up the class and plugs a massive hole for the Beavers at breaststroke. The women's team did not feature an individual breaststroker last year, and while the freestyle relays proved to be a strength of the team, Sun's presence should create a formidable medley relay team as well.
"Jessica is already such a hard worker," Hughes said. "Her being on a consistent strength program is going to do wonders and she gives us such flexibility. She can do the 200 fly, 400 IM, 200 breaststroke or 500 freestyle. Whatever we need her to do she will be successful at and in the events she really enjoys we expect her to make waves at the conference level."
Nora Koe (New Hyde Park, N.Y. / Herricks), Olivia Durrett (Charlotte, NC / Phillips Academy Andover) and Stella Wang (Greensboro, N.C. / North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics) will join Sun in the pool. Each bring with them a different set of accomplishments and set of skills that can add to a women's team that is abundant with talent throughout the roster. Koe brings with her the work ethic and positive attitude necessary to make it as a Division III swimmer. Durrett had sporadic experience swimming in high school but trained over the summer and has made a commitment to improving in the Beavers' system. Wang's presence in the sprint freestyle and backstroke events will allow Takahashi to take on the butterfly events that will allow her to be successful and for the entire to team to prosper.
A potential x-factor for the women's team might be a pair of high-upside additions to the diving team, even after Zofii Kaczmarek '17's departure. Returner Alix Espino (El Paso, Texas / El Paso) will be joined by Nerys Huffman (Broomfield, Colo. / Peak to Peak Charter School) and women's soccer players Krystin Brown (Lake Forest, Calif. / Trabuco Hills) and Mackenzie Wooten (Las Vegas, Nev. / Northwest Career and Technical Academy).
"Nerys was an accomplished gymnast who will try and translate those skills to the board," Hughes said. "She has been looking really good so far in practice. Krystin Brown will also be joining the team from women's soccer and she was a level-10 trampolinist and level-9 gymnast so the athleticism and body control is there. She just needs to translate it. It might take a couple of months but both are going to be really productive on the boards."
With improved numbers and upside littered across the board on both teams, the Beavers are seeking to improve their conference rank and continue to lay the foundation that will lead to success in future years. They should also benefit from having seen a modicum of success last season.
"Dangerous would be a good word to describe both teams," Hughes said. "This is a positive, committed group and we don't have any seniors on the women's team. It's going to be exciting to see some of our underclassmen become leaders and for us to be competitive in every meet."
Hughes and the Beavers open the season hosting the University of Redlands on Saturday, Nov. 11.