The top national championship contenders of Cal Olympic Sports this semester

These are the programs most likely to add to Cal's 97 team national titles this semester

We are about a month into the staggered start of the Cal non-revenue sports, especially with the rescheduled Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games still officially “on” for the summer. It is so far so good for the members of the Cal Golden Bears with no games/matches/meets have been canceled due to COVID. There have also been no public announcements of any Cal teams having to go into quarantine due to exposure to the virus in 2021. Fingers crossed that it stays this way.

An NCAA announcement last week updated their current plans to hold the national championships for non-basketball sports this winter/spring in Division I.

The Division I Council Coordination Committee approved contingency plans for the 2020-21 NCAA Division I winter and spring championships (other than basketball), as well as National Collegiate Championships conducted during the 2021 spring semester. The plans will be implemented only if conditions are such that winter and spring championships could not be conducted or completed at full capacity.

In team sports, the bracket sizes will remain unchanged, if more than 50% of all automatic-qualifying conferences are participating in the sport.

If participation for automatic-qualifying conferences falls to 50% or lower, the bracket sizes for those sports will be adjusted to 75% capacity. All automatic qualifiers will be accommodated, and the balance of the field will be designated for at-large selections.

Essentially, the postseason bracket sizes will be unchanged barring a significant (50% plus) drop in participation. From the Cal point-of-views, their postseason prospects shouldn’t really be changed in any NCAA sports, even if the cancelations of the Ivy League seasons do impact many of these sports (particularly women’s rowing with the men being governed by the independent IRA) more than the Power-5 dominated football/basketball. Nonetheless, this is a reminder that a lot of the current winter and spring 2021 plans are still fluid.

All home Cal events have been fan-less so far. This is almost certain to last for the duration of the season. Cutout opportunities at $50 a pop are available for a variety of sports from water polo (with possibly just a few home matches for the women), field hockey, baseball, softball, swimming, lacrosse, etc. as the teams attempt to cover some of their operating cost in this tough economy.

Support the Cal Bears in that way if you can! You could, by proxy, cheer on the Cal Bears both during competitions and practices.

With so many teams active, I will attempt to do a quick rundown of several teams each week. This week, I will start with the ones most likely to win their National Championships. Could Cal get the 98th, 99th, even 100th team national titles in school history this year?

National Championship Contenders

Cal Rugby

We finally have some Cal Rugby news. The team returned to training in mid-January and should be fit for matches come mid-March although none has been scheduled yet.

As I have speculated before, Cal Rugby is in a difficult position as many of its rivals are likely not playing because of their club team status. It is also difficult to see Cal traveling up to Vancouver to play the University of British Columbia (or have them visit Berkeley) this year. The Rugby powerhouses like Life (in Georgia), Lindenwood (in Missouri), and Arkansas State are active, but they are a long way away.

I think a Rugby 7s weekend tournament involving the four schools (and a few more) is still quite likely at some time this spring. I am less certain about a real Rugby 15s season, outside of possible exhibition matches against semi-pro teams. Goff Rugby Report does claim that they hear a rumor of a Pac Rugby season which would mean that Arizona (their website indicates that they are planning to play), UCLA (only a club sport, so I don’t know), and/or Utah (also not an official Utah Athletics program) might be planning to play. Some kind of abbreviated 8 to 12 team postseason tournament sanctioned by D1A Rugby is certainly plausible.

One final note, Cal Rugby’s Witter Field will be hosting Cal Men’s Soccer this spring (but not the Cal women who will remain at Edwards Stadium). If/when Edwards Stadium is taken by the University from Cal Athletics, soccer might attempt to share Witter Field with rugby.

Cal Men’s Water Polo

In case you missed it, read what I wrote about the newly crowned No.1 Cal Men’s Water Polo team. Their strong start has forced me to promote them to this tier from the next one.

Cal Women’s Swimming (and Diving)

Women’s Swimming is the other currently top-ranked Cal program. The Golden Bears had strong meets in wins over USC and UCLA while breaking plenty of pool records. The Bears will have one final tune-up meet against Stanford this Saturday before the Pac-12 Championship in two weeks (Feb 24-27) and the NCAA Championship on March 17-20 in Greensboro, NC (the same site as 2015 when the Bears, led by Missy Franklin, last won a team NCAA championship).

The pool records may be a bit misleading since times are always better on an Olympic year and this was an atypically late home meet (sometimes, the Bears have their last home meet in the fall) where the swimmers are closer to their peak NCAA national championships in March and Olympic Trials in June forms. The swim times have also been steadily going down (once you take out the swimsuit assisted years that are now listed separately in the International swimming record books) as athletes continue to get better and better.

Isabel Ivey (free/fly/IM) led the way for the Golden Bears. The 19-year-old junior (she enrolled early in the spring semester two years ago to give the Bears a much-needed lift to continue their ongoing top-3 team finish streak at the NCAA) set 6 pool records and earned the much deserved Pac-12 Swimmer of the Week honor. With all winter student-athletes already granted a free year of eligibility, I do hope that Cal has Ivey for two more years beyond this one as the Florida native could also be the next Calympian great.

The likely NCAA championship contender Stanford may still be missing their Canadian superstar Taylor Ruck. Ruck opting to sit out the season last year gave me the dream of a Cal natty (before the pandemic took that chance away). She had been training in Canada while taking online courses rather than returning to Palo Alto this past fall. We shall see if Ruck is around with this weekend being the first scored meet for Stanford this season. I would guess that she is sitting another season out.

Of course, my biggest reason to be optimistic about Cal last year was the presence of Calympian sprinter Abbey Weitzeil as the X-factors for 4 out of 5 relays, but she has since graduated. While Cal always reloads on talent, not having that edge in the double-pointed relay events at the NCAA does add some uncertainties for this March.

Impact freshwomen on the team include Isabelle Stadden (the latest great Cal backstroker) and Emily Gantriis (already the 11th best 100y Free time in the country). Bears also have a great breaststroke in junior Ema Rajic, British Olympic hopeful Alicia Wilson (pool record in 200y IM gave her the distinction of being the only person to best Ivey out of 12 events), Dutch Calympian freestylist Robin Neumann, and Sophomore sprinters Eloise Riley and Ayla Spitz.

The lack of scoring meets across the country has made it tough to see just where Cal would stack up against the rest of the country. Virginia is the 2nd ranked team in the CSCAA poll that also doesn’t aim to measure the NCAA national championship meet but a regular dual meet. Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee are next with the idled Stanford sitting at No.9. While the top-ranked Cal Bears do not have any locks to win an individual or relay national championship this season, there is certainly enough quality depth for the Cal Bears to compete for the team national championship in what should be another wide open year.

Cal Men’ Swimming (and Diving)

The Golden Bears were denied the chance by the pandemic to repeat as NCAA National Champions after accomplishing that feat as Pac-12 champions last year. With a strong, experienced, and deep team back, Cal Men’s Swimming is, for the second straight year, my favorites as the Cal Athletics program most likely to win a team national championship.

The Bears dominated their lone dual-meet over USC. Barring a last-minute meet against Stanford, the Bears will next race in the Pac-12 Championships at the end of the month.

Since winter sports student-athletes were NOT granted an extra year of eligibility for the pandemic shortened season last year, Cal did lose a few key swimmers to graduation, particularly sprinters Pawel Sendyk and Michael Jensen as well as Singapore Calympian Zheng Wen Quah.

Replacing Sendyk/Jensen as the new Cal sprint anchor (and allowing Ryan Hoffer to swim the fly leg of the medley relay) during the USC meet was Swedish freshman Bjorn Seeliger. Fellow freshmen Destin Lasco (free/IM/back) and Dare Rose (free/fly) should also be good enough to qualify for the NCAA championships (by achieving certain time cutoffs at the Pac-12 Championships). Another impact newcomer for the Bears is Zach Yeadon, a transfer from Notre Dame. Yeadon out-touched Sean Grieshop in 500y Free to win that event.

These new guys will join the fantastic senior group of Ryan Hoffer (sprint/fly), Daniel Carr (back), Bryce Mefford (back), Sean Grieshop (IM/distance), and Trenton Julian (free/fly) as well as redshirt junior Spanish Olympian Hugo Gonzalez and junior Reece Whitley (breast/IM). Barring some of them deciding to turn pro after qualifying for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, I got to think that head coach Dave Durden would love to use the extra eligibilities that these guys have for next year as well.

If you care about the polls, Texas does hold a tiny edge on Cal for the top spot currently. The entire collegiate men’s swimming world knows that the national title will again be decided between Texas and Cal, with Texas typically having the edge due to those 50+ extra points from diving. Since that 2019 meet where Texas had 3 divers who all scored on multiple diving events, two of those guys have graduated. It is however a good bet that Texas’s diving newcomers are probably quite good to still score some of those graduated points.

With both schools having lost some big-time talent to graduation since the exciting 2019 national championships won by the Bears, I still like this experienced Cal team to win the program’s 7th national title this March.

Cal Men’s Rowing and Cal Women’s Rowing

There have been basically zero updates on the two rowing sports. It is not clear how much of the very international Cal men’s top boat (Varsity 8+) is back to train in Berkeley. Also not clear is any potential IRA plan to hold a championship with two-time defending champs Yale likely not participating because the Ivy League has canceled all sports this school year. Before Yale started to use more International athletes in the past decade under former Cal head coach Steve Gladstone, the IRA championships have been dominated by Cal and Washington. Women’s Rowing has been associated with the NCAA since 1996 which has led to the sport being taken seriously by schools beyond just Cal, Washington, and the Ivy Leagues; Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, and the Directors’ Cup focused Stanford have built strong programs since. Because these championships don’t take place until late May/early June, we might not hear any conclusive plans for another month or more.

With Stanford men’s rowing being cut next year, it would be a shame but quite plausible for that Big Row rivalry to have already ended by that Cal win all the way back in 2019. It was a historic rivalry that dates back to as early as 1907.

Before I stop, here is a piece of quick related news that I had missed from late last year on a potential 2022 Winter Calympian.

Cal women’s swimming alum Colleen Fotsch was named to the USA Bobsled team. Fotsch, who started her collegiate career at Notre Dame before transferring to Cal, was a member of the Cal team that won the NCAA titles in 2011 and 2012. She became a Cross Fit athlete after her Olympic swimming dreams have ended, but through social media got recruited to train for Bobsled. Her making the National Team this winter is a good harbinger of her making the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

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Check back next week for my takes on the numerous Cal darkhorse NCAA championship contenders this semester. No.7 Cal Women’s Water Polo would have already played their first match this weekend. I will also write about the early performances for No.15 (preseason No.8) Cal Women’s Gymnastics and No.9 Cal Men’s Gymnastics. Also in this group are preseason No.9 Cal Beach Volleyball (no announced schedule yet), No.19 Cal Women’s Tennis, the currently unranked Cal Men’s Tennis, and the very young Cal Men’s Golf (can any of the talented freshmen be the next Collin Morikawa/Max Homa/Michael Kim?).