It would be an understatement to say that Northwestern women’s swimming and diving has not had it easy these past few months. In addition to finishing 28th at the 2023 NCAA Championships, the team’s worst finish since 2016, the Wildcats were hit with loss after loss as their season concluded.
Just a week before NCAAs, Jasmine Nocentini, Northwestern’s best swimmer and one of the top sprinters in the nation, entered the transfer portal for her fifth year of eligibility — eventually opting to transfer to three-time defending national champion Virginia. Then, in the offseason, NCAA Championship qualifiers Jamie Brennan and Hannah Brunzell made their way to the Pac-12 (or should I say ACC?), transferring to Stanford and Cal respectively, while 2023 Second-Team All-American diver Jaye Patrick opted to use her fifth year at Purdue and NCAA qualifier Lola Mull entered the portal but didn’t end up on another team’s roster this season. Around the same time, it was announced that NCAA qualifier Ashley Strouse would medically redshirt the 2023-24 season. And as the cherry on top, 2024 recruit and recently-crowned World Junior Champion Kate Hurst flipped her commitment from Northwestern to Texas — had she stayed, she would have gone down as arguably one of the greatest incoming recruits that this team has ever had.
Even if transfers, redshirts or retirements aren’t factored in, Northwestern still loses big because of passing time — Miriam Guevara, the one swimmer on the team who scored individually at NCAAs last season, graduated.
And that’s not to mention that the ‘Cats are experiencing several coaching changes this season, which includes the departure of head coach Katie Robinson, who left her position after three seasons to become the associate head coach at Stanford. In place for her will be former Arizona State assistant Rachel Stratton-Mills.
However, despite the losses, Northwestern still has a promising future. The team has the No. 15 ranked recruiting class in the nation according to SwimSwam.com, and there are several swimmers on the roster who made tremendous strides last season and will look to continue their momentum. The first season of the Stratton-Mills era might be a rebuilding one, but it’s one to be positive about.
2022-23 Season Reflection
The first half of Northwestern’s 2022-23 season was all about Nocentini. She captured attention starting from the very first meet of the season with her prowess in both sprint freestyle and breaststroke — a rare form of versatility. At the Purdue Invitational in November 2022, Nocentini posted Big Ten-leading times in the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard breaststroke (at the end of the season, her times in both events still remained top three in the conference), and she also helped Northwestern hit NCAA Championship qualification times in several relays.
However, the Purdue Invite was the last the ‘Cats saw of Nocentini, as per SwimSwam, she came down with a shoulder injury and was ruled out for the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. Following her injury, the Wildcats dropped out of the top 25 in both SwimSwam and CSCAA’s power rankings after having been ranked top 20 for the majority of the season. Later when she entered the transfer portal, she was named by SwimSwam as the top-ranked transfer of the offseason.
Even though Nocentini was the most recognizable name on the NU’s roster last season, the team had many other success stories. It had six individual NCAA qualifiers (Brennan, Guavera, Strouse, Lola Mull, Jaye Patrick and Marie Hopkins), and Guavera and Patrick both earned All-American honors by placing top 16 in their events. Guevara, who was 12th in the 100 butterfly and 16th in the 200 butterfly, swam a time of 50.91 in the former event to break the Northwestern team record. Strouse, who underwent surgery after the 2021-22 season, was swimming personal-best times in her primary events for the first time since 2019.
Beyond those who qualified for NCAAs individually, the ‘Cats had many other swimmers who impressed. Sprinters Ally Larson, Lindsay Ervin and Audrey Yu were major contributors to Northwestern relays, with Ervin and Yu having been first-years. Although Brunzell didn’t qualify for NCAAs, she scored 48 points at Big Tens, which was the third-most on her team.
At the end of the season, the Wildcats’ performances culminated in a sixth-place finish at Big Tens and a 28th-place finish at NCAAs. By contrast, they finished fifth at Big Tens and 18th at NCAAs the year prior.
Key Additions/Athletes To Watch
Northwestern might be losing all of its individual NCAA swimming qualifiers from last season, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have championship-caliber talent on its squad. That’s because the Wildcats gain a massive fifth-year transfer to their roster this year — six-time NCAA All-American Ayla Spitz from California.
Spitz, a mid-distance freestyler who’s also good at backstroke, is the only swimmer on the ‘Cats’ roster who has ever put up individual NCAA points in her career (which happens by placing top 16 in an event). She was not at her best during NCAAs last season and didn’t score, but has finished as high as fifth individually back in 2021. Her best times in the 200 freestyle (1:44.10), 500 freestyle (4:38.05), and 200 backstroke (1:53.21) are team-leading times for Northwestern, and the former two times would both be worthy of scoring at 2023 NCAAs. In addition, her 500 free time also would have been fast enough to win Big Tens last year — which is significant, considering that the ‘Cats have only produced one Big Ten women’s swimming champion since 2008. Spitz also posted the fastest time on Cal’s fourth-place finishing 800 freestyle relay last season, which makes her a big boost for Northwestern’s version of that relay.
In other words, look for Spitz to be the star of the team this season. She’s only here for a year, but she will be the one to count on the most when it comes to putting points on the board.
Junior Justine Murdock also brings in NCAA Championship experience. She did not qualify individually for the meet last season, but her best time of 1:53.62 in the 200 backstroke set two seasons prior gave her a 2022 NCAAs berth. Her personal best sits less than a second away from what it took to score in the 200 back last season, so she’s not that far from being an individual contributor if she returns to top form. Murdock’s best times in the 50 and 100 back are very similar to Spitz’s, so these two will be competing to be Northwestern’s designated backstroke leg on both the 200 and 400 medley relays.
Another group worth mentioning is the Northwestern sprint freestyle group, which is headlined by sophomores Yu and Ervin. Ervin traveled to NCAAs last season as a relay-only swimmer, helping the Cats’ finish 16th in 200 and 400 freestyle relays. Yu was not at NCAAs, but her 21.87 50 freestyle relay split from the team’s meet against Purdue and Minnesota was the fastest 50 free split that anyone on the team not named Nocentini had produced.
With best times of 22.23 and 48.66 in the 50 and 100 free respectively, Ervin comes into this season as the fastest sprint freestyler on the roster — which is one of the most important roles in swimming, as sprinters have to contribute on several relays in addition to their individual swims. Her times also make her just a few tenths from individual NCAAs qualification.
Diver Markie Hopkins, who is returning for a fifth year, is also one to watch for. She’s quite literally the only returning qualifier on this team, which automatically makes her an important piece. Last year, she was just one place away from scoring by finishing 17th in the ten-meter diving event.
And what about the freshmen, who were ranked No. 15 as a class in the nation? Three names to look out for include Sydney Smith, Maggie Papnicholas, Audrey J-Cheng and May Peterson. Smith has a best time of 1:46.21 in the 200 free which is faster than any returning swimmer on the Cats’ roster, while Peterson’s 100 and 200 backstroke times (53.65/1:56.99) are similar to Murdock’s bests coming out of high school (54.36/1:56.48) — given Murdock’s improvement trajectory in Evanston, Peterson has a lot of potential. Papnicholas, who was named a “Best Of The Rest” recruit by SwimSwam, as well as J-Cheng, both have 100 and 200 breaststroke times faster than any returning swimmers on the team.
In the Wildcats’ first season under Stratton-Mills, expectations should be low. They’ve lost almost everything that has made their team good for the last few years, so their job this year is simply to make the most out of what they have and see improvement.
However, it’s important to reiterate that just because this team has lost a lot does not mean they are falling apart. They have a reliable star in Spitz who can make a national impact, a handful of other swimmers with NCAA qualification potential, as well as a promising freshman class. Will this group of swimmers help NU get ranked again? Maybe, maybe not, it’s too early to tell. Either way, they are worth looking forward to.
When it comes to Big Ten competition, the Wildcats will be fighting in the middle of the pack. They don’t have the depth or the star power to take down top-25 teams like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Indiana in championship meets, but they are considerably better than bottom-tier teams like Rutgers, Illinois, Iowa, Penn State and Nebraska. Expect them to be battling it out for fifth place at Big Tens with Minnesota, who beat them for fifth by 59 points last season.
At NCAAs, the best-case scenario I see for Northwestern would be a fringe top-25 finish. If Spitz can score double-digit points individually, other swimmers step up, and a few relays place top 16, that should be enough (last year, Texas A&M finished 25th with just 26 points). However, it’s also entirely possible that the Wildcats score zero NCAA points.
The Wildcats begin their season on October 13 in an away meet against Cincinnati.