By Kevin Donnelly, Swimming World College Intern.
Every year heading into the NCAA Championships, we see countless swimmers come from lower seedings and have a breakout meet to place highly and score big points for their teams. The following is a list of the Top Five NCAA Division I swimmers most likely to have a breakout NCAA Championships this coming March.
For the purposes of this article, a “breakout” swimmer is a sophomore, junior, or senior on a Division I school that did not place in an A final at the 2017 NCAA Championships, but looks to be in position to do so in 2018. On with the list!
5. Zachary Poti, Arizona State
Sophomore Zachary Poti has been thriving this season under Coach Bob Bowman down at Arizona State. At the Art Adamson Invitational back in December, Poti swam a quick 45.43 in the 100 back, shattering his old lifetime best of 47.67 in the process. The time ranks Poti third overall in the NCAA this season and places him just hundredths from the NCAA A cut in the event, which is a mind-boggling achievement considering that Poti didn’t even qualify for NCAAs last season. Poti looks poised to be a big scorer for the Sun Devils come March.
4. Phoebe Hines, Hawaii
Sophomore Phoebe Hines, originally from Australia but now in her second season competing for the University of Hawaii, is setting herself up nicely for a big run at NCAAs this fall. Hines swam a fast time of 15:57.76 in the 1650 free at the Art Adamson Invitational, obliterating her best time from last season of 16:20. That swim placed her fifth overall in the NCAA so far this season, well under what it took to qualify for NCAAs last year. Although Hines didn’t make it to the Championships last year, she appears to have punched her ticket already and will likely score some valuable points for Hawaii at the meet.
3. Mark Nikolaev, Grand Canyon
Junior Mark Nikolaev, competing for Grand Canyon University, is set up well for a strong NCAA Championships through the midpoint of the season. Nikolaev swam a 100 back time of 44.99 for Grand Canyon at the Northwestern Invite back in November, which currently ranks him first in the NCAA. Nikolaev is the only man thus far to break the 45-second barrier in the 100 back this season. This is Grand Canyon’s first season as an NCAA Division I team, and Nikolaev looks to lead the team into the Championships with a high placing.
2. Robert Howard, Alabama
Junior Robert Howard, swimming for the Alabama Crimson Tide, has put together a strong junior campaign thus far and looks to be a major player come this March. Howard did not qualify individually for NCAAs last season, but has already punched his ticket to the meet with an NCAA A cut and top-ranked 100 free time of 41.99 at the Georgia Tech Invite. He also ranks third in the NCAA in the 50 free with a 19.11, just behind Olympians Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Held. The Crimson Tide has been stockpiling a strong sprint core, and Howard looks to lead the team to some strong placings in the sprint events in March.
1. Erika Brown, Tennessee
Erika Brown’s sophomore campaign for the Tennessee Volunteers has been far and beyond the definition of a “breakout season” to this point. Entering college as a freshman, Brown had recorded a respectable best time in the 100 fly of 55.94. But at the Tennessee Invite in December, Brown stunned all with an amazing time of 50.33 to lock in an NCAA A cut and the fastest time in the country this season. Brown only competed in the 100 fly once last season, by comparison. She also ranks third in the 50 free and fifth in the 100 free so far this season. It’s unbelievable what Brown has been able to do thus far this season, and she looks to continue that impressive season heading into NCAAs.