Key additions: #1 Simone Manuel, #2 Janet Hu, #5 Lindsey Engel, #8 Ally Howe, Alexandra Meyers, Heidi Poppe, Gracia Leydon-Mahoney (diving)
Key departures: Felicia Lee (49 individual points, 4 relays, combined 5 NCAA titles), Maya Dirado (57 individual points, 3 relays, combined 4 NCAA titles), Andie Taylor (3 individual points)
The rest of the article is lengthy, so we’ll keep this brief. Anchored by true freshman Lia Neal and seniors Maya Dirado and Felicia Lee, Stanford was arguably the most impressive swim team in Minneapolis last March. After coming up short at the Pac 12 Championships to rival California, the Cardinal combined for seven NCAA first place finishes, including wins in four of five relays, highlighted by an NCAA, American, and U.S. Open Record in the 400 medley. When the dust settled, Stanford surprisingly stood second in the overall standings, ahead of a very good Texas A&M team and a Cal group that most expected to contend with Georgia for a team title and do some record-smashing of their own.
Lee and Dirado gone
Stanford is bringing in the nation’s best recruiting class at the time they are needed most. Felicia Lee and Maya Dirado closed out their NCAA careers in storybook fashion last March, combining for 108 individual points and 9 NCAA first place trophies (note: they overlapped on two events). While Dirado has “been there before”, so to speak, Lee finally had the type of big meet swimming fans expected from the highly-touted North Baltimore native. After some tough timing with a torn labrum/rotator cuff limited her effectiveness her sophomore (swimming injured) and junior (coming off surgery with limited training) seasons, Lee delivered a lights-out performance in Minneapolis. Her great individual swims, including a win in the 100 fly, combined with some very quick relay splits (21.2 50 free, 50.8 100 fly) helped earn her the Honda Award, given to top female collegiate athlete in their respective sport.
Dirado was again fantastic at NCAA’s, winning the 200 and 400 IM’s, and finishing 2nd in the 200 fly behind Olympian/multi-time NCAA champion Cammile Adams of Texas A&M. Like Lee, Dirado saved some of her best efforts for relays, holding ground in the 400 medley and 400 freestyle relays (both Cardinal victories), and turning in the third-fastest 200 free in the field in the 800 free relay.
In summary, Stanford graduated two of the country’s most valuable college swimmers in what was already not a very deep team. Luckily, a pretty good freshman class just walked in the door…
99.99% of the time, a team that graduates a double individual event winner (Dirado) and one of the three most important swimmers in the NCAA (Lee) should be worse off the following year. For the second year in a row, however (you could argue Georgia was better last season, despite losing Allison Schmitt and Megan Romano), we have a situation that falls in line with that 0.01% scenario.
Coaches Greg Meehan and Tracy Duchac pulled in a recruiting class for the ages, with four of the top ten swimmers in the country, including 100 freestyle American record holder (Simone Manuel), a sub-22 second 50 freestyler who is also a great backstroke and butterfly (Janet Hu), a 22.2 50 freestyler (Lindsey Engel), and a 51-second 100 backstroker (Ally Howe). Throw in sub-1:00 breaststroker Heidi Poppe, and you have a 400 medley relay that clocks in under 3:28.5:
Poppe: 59.35 (0.5 seconds under top flat start time)
Yeesh. Their freshman 200 yard freestyle relay might be even more impressive:
Howe: 22.31 (0.5 seconds under top flat start time)
Both relays would have been good for third at NCAA’s last season.
Individually, Manuel is already the NCAA favorite to win the 100 free, and would have finished second in the 50 and top 8 in the 200. Following up on the best summer of her career, she has looked better than ever this fall, splitting 21.7 at the end of the 200 medley relay and clocking in at 4:48.50 in the 500 (a lifetime best by 8 seconds) in the same meet against Oregon State. Hu and Howe haven’t looked quite as polished so far, but given their styles (heavy on the underwater work), they should see bigger relative drops come February and March.
The remaining pieces of the class (the previously-mentioned Engel and Poppe, along with Alexandra Meyers, a 49/1:46 in the 100/200 freestyles) are impressive on their own, with many of them being immediate difference-makers on relays on just about any other team, particularly Engel. In addition to her superb sprint freestyle abilities, Engel is also an excellent butterflyer and backstroker, providing Stanford with additional depth in two areas in which they were looking thin coming into this season.
Best sprint freestyle group… ever?
^This isn’t an exaggeration. With the addition of Manuel, Hu, and Engel, Stanford entered the 2014-2015 season with five sprinters at 22.2 or faster (four of them under 22.0), and another (Katie Olsen) who split 21.7 a year ago. That doesn’t include Ally Howe (22.8/49.6 in what many consider her “off events”) or Nicole Stafford (23.3 50 fly and 1:44.2 200 free splits at NCAA’s last March, definitely capable of a 22-low split). Together, this group is on track to take down three (200 free, 400 free, and 400 medley) NCAA/U.S. Open relay records, and has a decent shot at the 200 medley if Howe or Hu can do a decent Felicia Lee backstroke impression, as well. With a slew of sprinters at his disposal, Greg Meehan can swap out swimmers across all four short relays between prelims and finals, saving his top guns from undertaking additional preliminary relay swims.
The individual picture is just as scary in the sprints; if Hu and Manuel were freshmen last season, the Cardinal would have put four swimmers in the top 12 in the 50 free, and three in the top 8 in the 100. Returning All-American/NCAA champion dynamic sprint duo Lia Neal and Maddy Schaefer are coming off summers where they both qualified for international teams. Neal was the runner-up in the 100 a year ago, while Schaefer grabbed top eight spots in both sprint freestyles. Together, Schaefer-Hu-Neal-Manuel is a sub-1:26 200 free relay waiting to happen.
The other pieces…
The sprint freestyles podiums should be loaded with Cardinal swimmers in March. Although Stanford definitely doesn’t carry the same depth across the board, they do have some other names that should be around at NCAA’s:
- After two seasons that were a bit below expectations coming out of high school (granted, her freshman year was hampered by shoulder surgery recovery), Katie Olsen broke out in a big way last March, recording top 5 finishes in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes at NCAA’s. Her 200 was remarkably impressive, cracking the 2:06 barrier, tying with former NCAA/American record holder Breeja Larson for second. She was also a clutch relay performer as well, keeping Stanford in the mix on the medleys, and anchoring the 200 free relay in 21.75 to hold off a hard-charging Cal squad.
- Fellow NCAA-scoring breaststroker Sarah Haase, 10th in the 100 last season and 14th in 2012, is also back for her junior season.
- NCAA individual qualifiers Julia Anderson and Mackenzie Stein return, as well. Anderson is Stanford’s top returning mid-distance swimmer, and also led off the Cardinal 3rd place 800 freestyle relay last season.
- Nicole Stafford came up big last year as a true freshman, swimming on three relays at NCAA’s for Stanford, including key legs on the winning 200 medley and second-place 800 free relays.
Stanford will get some strong support from returning NCAA scorer Alex Clay (14th, 1-meter) and near-Olympian Kassidy Cook, who has missed a majority of the last two years of competition due to injury. Prior to that, Cook was considered to be an integral part of the future of American diving, earning eight Junior National titles and finishing in the top five more than half a dozen times at senior-level national/trial meets before college. If she can rebound under the direction of new coach Patrick Jeffrey, she could play a huge role for Stanford.
Outlook: Loaded sprints, but question marks remain
Despite all of the positivity above, the picture isn’t 100% rosy for the Cardinal; this is a team that is (currently) flawed and thin in a number of areas, as demonstrated in their loss to Texas last week. For starters, following the losses of Dirado and NCAA scorer Andie Taylor, Stanford has major holes in the 200 and 400 IM, 500 freestyle, and 200 butterfly, in addition to their previously-existing question marks in the 200 backstroke and 1650. The numbers below says it all:
Combined returning NCAA points (200 & 400 IM, 500 & 1650 free, 200 fly, 200 back):
Note: Stanford also isn’t returning any points in the 100 fly or 100 back, but Hu and Howe combined should bring in a good amount of points there.
The Auburn men won a string of titles in the previous decade without any distance swimmers, but they had enough horses in the 200’s of stroke to make up difference. At this point, even with B-finalist 200 backstroker Annemarie Thayer and top 25 200 flyer Mackenzie Stein, Stanford is hurting in 6 of 13 individual swim events where Georgia and Cal return a combined 248 points. The diving boost helps, but if they don’t close these gaps, the Cardinal will likely come up short of a title in March; there are only so many sprint points that can be scored. With Ella Eastin, Katie Ledecky (no deferral assumed), and company arriving next fall, however, 2015-2016 is looking Cardinal red.