By David Rieder.
Last season, as Mallory Comerford was blossoming into one of the best freestylers in the country at the NCAA championships, her Louisville team was on its way to finishing sixth, the highest mark in program history and the best finish of any ACC team at the meet.
So does that mean the Cardinals should be the team favorites at the women’s ACC championships, which begin Wednesday in Greensboro, N.C.? Absolutely not, says head coach Arthur Albiero.
“In my mind, clearly, Virginia and NC State are the favorites,” Albiero said. “Bottom line is we’re underdogs, big-time.”
If all you knew about Louisville was the team’s dual meet record from this season, you might believe him. The women swam six dual meets this season, against Notre Dame, Michigan, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana, and lost every single one of them.
Yes, some teams are just better suited to compete in championship-meet format, but Albiero would only look in the mirror when discussing his women’s performance in dual meets.
“I don’t think we had one meet this year where we had everybody healthy and firing at the same time,” he said. “It was a weird dynamic in a lot of ways. I don’t want to make any excuses—some of those meets, we just got beat.”
But this Louisville team, when ready to fire on all cylinders, is indeed a threat to capture a conference title and make a push for a top-five finish at the NCAA championships. Their star is Comerford, and her results from the past year are worth repeating: Co-NCAA champion in the 200 free, U.S. National champion in the 100 free, five-time gold medalist on relays at the FINA World Championships.
Comerford has no co-star, but this year’s Cardinals are “one of our deeper teams,” according to Albiero. Butterflyer Grace Oglesby, who was 15th in the 100 fly at last year’s NCAA championships, is the team’s only returning individual NCAA scorer aside from Comerford, but this year’s team is undoubtedly more balanced.
Among the pieces: Sprint depth with sophomores Casey Fanz and Lainey Visscher, IMer and long course National finalist Rachael Bradford-Feldman, a reliable backstroker in Alina Kendzior, a distance swimmer in Sophie Cattermole having a breakout junior season and even some breaststrokers.
Freshman Mariia Astashkina has been the best of that bunch, but as even Albiero will admit, she’s not Andrea Cottrell. And for a team that has been dependent on medley relay points during its rise to national prominence, losing a consistent presence in national championship finals hurts.
“The depth is there, but obviously Cottrell is Cottrell, right?” Albiero said. “We’re still making decisions, to be honest with you. There’s three different possibilities, and we’re trying to figure out however we can who’s going to give us the best chance.”
But Louisville is no stranger to weathering big losses. That program-high sixth place finish in 2017 came immediately after the departure of Kelsi Worrell, the team’s first-ever U.S. Olympian and a four-time individual NCAA champion.
Of course, it’s impossible to predict exactly who will end up where at the end of any conference or national championship meet (try as we may). Albiero knows he can’t control the Wolfpack, the Cavaliers or anyone else, and he admitted that his team is not pulling out all stops for the conference meet.
“We have five or six (women) we feel pretty good about making NCAAs already,” he said. “We’re treating those a little bit different, so there’s a lot of unknowns how those guys are going to handle it without being fully ready in this type of setting.”
Still, for all the buildup of the UVA-NC State rivalry—a rivalry which only amplified when Todd DeSorbo left NC State to become the head coach at Virginia—Louisville could easily spoil the party.
“Can we put that together when it counts? That’s the fun of it,” Albiero said. “If it was easy, it would be called something different, right, but it’s championship season, and that’s the fun part about it.”