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Another Penn State Sprint Breakout: Freshman Jake Houck Drops From 20.7 to 19.2

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2021 BIG TEN MEN’S CHAMPIONSHIPS

Penn State had three men go 19.4 or better in the 50 free this morning, led by fast-rising freshman Jake Houckwho dropped a second and a half.

That speed explosion in this morning’s Big Ten Championships prelims highlights a sprint program that has been consistently finding diamonds in the rough and developing them over the past few years.

As of this morning, the rookie Houck sits second in the conference at 19.29. Senior Gabe Castano is fourth in 19.36, but is perhaps the favorite tonight. He was second at this meet last year, blasting a 19.06 in the final. And senior William Roberson sits 5th in 19.40 after tying his career-best in prelims this morning.

None of the three were blue-chip sprint recruits out of high school. In fact, none were faster than 20.7 as a high schooler. All three had massive freshman year drops at Penn State. And Houck’s trajectory is promising when you look at his two senior teammates, who had big freshman year drops, but also consistently continued to drop each season of college.

Here’s a look at the time progression for all three swimmers across their careers so far:

Gabe Castano Jake Houck
High School Best 20.87 (2017) 20.75 (2019) 20.97 (2017)
Freshman 19.75 (2018) 19.29* (2021) 20.34 (2018)
Sophomore 19.20 (2019) 19.52 (2019)
Junior 19.06 (2020) 19.40 (2020)
Senior 19.36* (2021) 19.40* (2021)

*Asterisks denote this year, where all three swimmers still have at least a few swims remaining.

Castano was a 20.8 swimmer out of high school, but blew up with a drop of more than a second as a freshman. He’s continued to rise, and last year entered NCAAs with the #5 overall seed. That meet was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic, but Castano was set for redemption from a disappointing 17th-place showing as a sophomore.

Roberson had his own big freshman year drop, cutting more than half a second from 20.9 to 20.3. But he had an even bigger sophomore year, taking eight tenths off his time to move into the 19-mids. Last year, he was heartbreakingly close to an NCAA bid, ultimately missing the invite line by .08 seconds after going 19.40 at Big Tens, then 19.42 at a last chance meet a week later. He tied that 19.40 best again this morning, and will probably need to go a tick faster tonight to secure a bid – though the women’s invite times got slower across the board this season, so a 19.40 may actually make the cut on the men’s side this year.

Then there’s Houck, a Pennsylvania high schooler who split time between fly (where he went 48.9 as a junior) and free (20.7/45.9 in December of his senior year). Houck might be a notable example of a broader trend we see coming out of the pandemic: senior year breakouts ultimately delayed a year amid the coronavirus shutdowns. Houck’s Donegal High School team was set to compete in Pennsylvania’s Class 2A state meet, but that meet was one of the first to be entirely canceled amid the pandemic. As such, Houck didn’t get a chance for some big senior year drops, and is now perhaps seeing two years worth of time drops hit all at once.

Relay Prognosis

Also of note, based on that trio’s speed: Penn State should be in line for an excellent 200 free relay on Friday night. With the Big Ten moving to a five-day format this year, all three swimmers could be perhaps even more rested for that relay – Castano and Houck will likely not have any individual events that day. (Roberson swam the 100 back last year and placed 24th, but could opt out this year to gear up for the relay).

Castano, Houck and Roberson are already the #2, #3, and #4 swimmers in Penn State history in the 50 free, behind only Shane Ryan (19.03 in 2017). The team set its 200 free relay school record last year in 1:17.04, with Castano and Roberson taking the first two legs. With even decent relay starts, a team of Houck, Castano, and Roberson should be set up extremely well to tackle that school record, which would currently put them no lower than 12th in the NCAA ranks for the season.